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Monday, January 5, 2015

Corny Quotes vs. Wise Quotes

Today's topic comes from my friend Michael. He says:

I like it when books have wise quotes that can apply to life in general. We all know them. Gandalf and Dumbledore have plenty. Have any of you put such quotes in your books? How has it turned out? I could imagine it turning out kind of obvious or corny if not done correctly?

I actually have thought a little about this topic. But I thought about it some more when I saw Michael's post, specifically about how quotes can become corny. I haven't come to a completely sound conclusion about how to write wise quotes the right way, but here are my thoughts so far.

1) I think things can come across cheesy when they are working the same way melodrama works. Melodrama happens when characters are overreacting to something.

Event < Emotional Reaction

Looked at you funny < Temper tantrum = Melodrama

When the wise quote is over the top for an event, it's like the writer is trying to make something bigger than it is. If you are going for comedy, then that might work

Harry can't decide which candy to buy < Dumbledore: It is our choices, Harry, not our abilities, that show what we truly are.

If the event is just a little more serious, I think it can make the quote cheesy. Imagine this one portrayed totally serious:

Basketball player is about to play against rival team < Coach (puts hand on shoulder): Dark and difficult times lie ahead, but you can make it through if you hold onto the light.

Gag me.

Both Gandalf and Dumbeldore were living in a world where epic things and dire situations happened or were on the fringe of happening. Often their advice was equal to or simpler than what was happening.

Like in Half-blood Prince, when Harry is scared of the bodies in the lake in the cave. That situation is freaky to pretty much anyone. > Dumbledore: “It’s the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.”

So the context of the quote can go a long way.

But this isn't the only factor either.

(Past post on melodrama)

2) Sentimental writing often comes from the writer trying to force the reader to feel something. (Past Sentimental writing post.) It goes with number one, with melodrama. It's like you are trying too hard to sound wise with your quote. You're making a big deal trying to make the reader really get the significance of it, instead of letting it speak for itself.

There is this song called "The Christmas Shoes" or something like that. Every time it played this holiday season, I felt like the writer and singer were trying to milk my emotions out of me. They were trying too hard to make the song emotional. It probably would have had a stronger effect on me, if they'd backed off a bit.

3) Which brings me to this point. Don't dress up with quote. Imagine if Dumbledore said, "It is our choices, our choices, Harry, both big and small, the choices we make everyday, the choices of how we are going to behave, the choice of what we are going to do each day, what kind of person we are going to be--not our abilities, not what we can do or are able to do--that determine what we absolutely, truly, without a doubt will be." It's too much. Again, let the quote speak for itself.

4) You could probably avoid some cheesiness by not using too many cheesy words in one quote. And any abstract words you do use, like love, courage, faith, believe--please make sure they are actually attached to an idea or something!

Sometimes I see things where characters are just like, "Love, faith, courage, believe in yourself," and I'm just like, "Okay, what about those things? You're just using sentimental filler words!"

Or sometimes those concepts aren't fully developed in the story, which is what I had a problem with in the Polar Express movie. I felt like the writers tried to make character arcs for several characters, and they kind of did, but I felt like they were under-developed in some cases. So all the abstract words in the trailer just felt like filler words or buzzwords to me. That's just my experience and opinion with it. I hope you had a different one.

Yes, but what about it?

5) Some wise quotes and ideas get rehashed so many times, they become cliches. That might make them cheesy. Not sure. But either way, it's still a no-no in my book. Like if I have to hear a rendition of "With great power comes great responsibility" one more time, I might hit my head against the wall. After I vomit. It was great the first time, but now I'm so sick of it.

"Wait!" Some of you might be saying. "But those are wise quotes and ideas, because they are true and withstand the test of time!" Okay, you're right, but you can present those ideas in ways that aren't annoying (I won't want to hit my head against the wall) and that aren't cliche. After all, some people say that everything has already been said, and when it comes to writing, what matters is how you say it, or that the audience needs to hear that message again.

Okay, we can work with that.

If you are using a concept that has been used countless times (say "believing in yourself"), you might not need a wise quote about it. Just show us the process in the story. We are so familiar with the adage that we don't need to hear it again. We will pick up on it anyway.

But you can still get away with a quote about "believing in yourself" if you say it in a new way, or better yet, bring a new idea or perspective to it to make it fresh again. Remember this one that I'm sick of? "With great power comes great responsibility." Here's a quote from Dumbledore that deals with power and responsibility, but in a different way:

“Those who have leadership thrust upon them, take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”

Not his best worded quote, but look, in the first half. He is kind of saying, "With great power comes great responsibility," AND there is also another concept he's talking about, that those who don't seek power are those who wear it best.

If you brings something fresh or new to the phrase you are using, it won't feel as cheesy or cliche. Say the truth in a new way, or add something new to it.

I really do like Spider-man though

6) I'm not exactly sure how to fit this one into quotes yet (sorry), but I'm sure it relates. I've been learning a lot about the power of subtext lately. What's not said, and how to imply that. Often you can keep a scene or situation from getting cheesy by implying the cheesy stuff instead of saying it out directly. Watch this scene from The Office and see how the writers made a goodbye scene powerful through what's not said, through subtext, so they avoid cheesiness altogether.

You could try doing something similar, by saying the quote indirectly.

7) I think cheesiness can come around when everything is perfect. Everything fits too well. If that happens to you, put something in the scene that keeps it from being too perfect and contrived. Or put something in it that doesn't fit exactly. It can help balance out the cheesiness. Joss Whedon deals with cheesiness this way. His characters will say something that is on the verge of being cheesy, but then he undercuts it. Sometimes he undercuts it by saying straight out that it's cheesy. Like this:

"Tory, you just need to believe in yourself," Melanie said. She paused. "Okay, that was really corny."

I don't particularly like this tactic, but it works.

And those are my thoughts. Hopefully some of them help!


  1. Great post!
    I love wise quotes always!
    Love this quote so much:“Those who have leadership thrust upon them, take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”

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