Before I was a writer, I was a showman. In high school, I competed in a whole bunch of Forensics categories, but I excelled the most in Dramatic Interpretation, a category rife with the type of drama you can ramp up in less than 10 minutes: abortion, murder, incest, racism, and sometimes a lurid stew of two or three of those.
Many of these monologues were awful, mine included. The drama feels unearned and you know your heartstrings are being manipulated. But what that taught me was the chill of the dramatic phrase. I’ve been primed to notice them everywhere. Disgruntled adolescent exclamations are especially good, since they're carefully crafted to get a rise out of someone. Just now getting a coffee, I heard someone say, “Fine, I’ll pretend I didn’t say anything.” Youch.
Besides her voice, know why Adele's songs are so great? They're all one-two punches of gut-wrenching phrases. From Someone Like You: "Don't forget me, I begged, I'll remember, you said / Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead." Owie!
And remember that playground "Chills" game? The one that goes, “Crack an egg on your head, let the yolk drip down... stab a knife in your back, let the blood drip down...squeeze lemons in your eyes, let the pus drip down...” That whole routine is 100% money shot.
Of course, as you’d quickly discover after a day of high school students screaming about their anorexia or absent fathers or whatever low-hanging dramatic fruit, you cannot write a whole book of chiller lines. Black Swan, for instance, is all tension and no release. The fun of the spectacular leap is the dance in between.
But there's a way to do an artful sprinkling of killer lines. Here are some of my favorites from my own book.
"Ever since we got here, I feel like I'm always letting you down," he murmured into the back of my head.
"Do you think my heart is some bottomless well?"
I was determined to bear the pain -- that poisonous "we," that world-ending "us."
Because what did he know about me now. I wasn’t a good woman at all.
If you give a listen to my 4-minute recording below, you’ll get a context for two of these lines and my rusty Dramatic Interpretation skills. I was once a state champ, so please stay for the whole thing. It gets juicy. Zoinks!