This is part of The Blogging Gauntlet of May 2016, where I try to write 500 words every day. See the May 1st post for full details.

What makes a quote memorable? What makes it tick?

I don’t have a good answer for this. And furthermore, I suspect I never will. It’s one of the key troubles of life. We can recognize quality, we can have highly refined tastes, and at the same time have no idea why we have those tastes. Articulating those likes and desires is much harder than having them in first place.

The sliding scale is a fantasy. There’s no simple answers.


In a way, it’s like NP-Complete problems. If we’re given an explanation, we’ll understand it, but it’s incredibly difficult to find that explanation in the first place. Guess that’s why critics get to keep their jobs.

We read and hear many things. Somehow, our brains decide which input is truly memorable, and worth keeping verbatim, while the rest gets relegated to vague feelings. The strangest part to me is that for the most part, people agree on what quotes are important. Legendary movies are usually quoted in the same way.

Here’s looking at you, kid.


Yes, quality is subjective, but quality isn’t entirely subjective. If someone tried to hold up Plan 9 From Outer Space as a masterpiece of science fiction instead of a masterpiece of unintended comedy, we’d laugh them out of the room.

Future events such as these will affect you in the future.

(Plan 9 From Outer Space)

There must be some core functionality, that recognizes some idea as important, and it has to be almost the same from person to person. In the brain, we can’t be that different. Can we?

Harry was finding himself very disturbed by how reproducible human thoughts were when you reset people back to the same initial conditions and exposed them to the same stimuli.

(Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality)

So what does it? What makes a quote memorable?

I want to know, because if you understand how this works, it’s a improvement on everything I can think of. It makes your writing more interesting. It makes your speeches more persuasive. Technical explanations from research papers stick better.

I am an anti-illusionist. I trick your brain into seeing what was there all along.

(Vi Hart)

Understanding this seems key to all forms of communication, and communication underlies essentially every interaction in the world. Shouldn’t I be training that meta-skill?

She was such a potent telepath that even if I could come up with a plan, she would rip it from my mind before I could get close enough to her to implement it.

We were racing apotheosis. And we were losing.

(Fallout Equestria)

I bet this is the sales pitch people use when trying to sell the books they’ve written on persuasion. It has to work, right? I mean, it seems self-evident. Of course, what isn’t self-evident is that they’re the best person for explaining persuasion.

Where does that leave me? It is an unfortunate truth that there isn’t enough time to understand everything, or even understand most things. Eventually, you have to choose what’s worth learning and what isn’t. Or perhaps more accurately, you don’t choose. Instead, we naturally gravitate toward our interests and circle them endlessly, never quite passing the event horizon into true clarity.

“I understand why you want, and need, the universe to be simple, to be ‘just so’. But it simply isn’t. Stop thinking you know what ‘quantum’ means. Magic isn’t a miraculous healing field, it doesn’t bind living creatures to one another. Crack a book open, one that isn’t aiming to pander. The answers are complicated. We will find every explanation eventually. As for me, I will uncover the truth on my own terms. The proper way. Or, more likely, I will not.


Like I said, I still don’t have any answers. The closest idea I can think of is hopelessly general, but probably still correct.

  1. Breathe in.
  2. Breathe out.
  3. Get a rough idea of what you need to do.
  4. Walk there, one step at a time.

It’s fluffy, I know. But I’ve heard a variation on this idea from several sources, so it can’t be all junk. I suppose that’s what I’ll do, and at some point, if I get there, I can write my own feel-good story, and pretend to be someone who understood what he was doing all along.

This final quote doesn’t quite fit. But, after re-reading it, I liked it too much. It’s memorable to me.

“I want to calm the storm, but the war is in your eyes.
How can I shield you from the horror and the lies?

When all that once held meaning is shattered, ruined, bleeding
And the whispers in the darkness tell me we won’t survive?”

“All things will end in time, this coming storm won’t linger
Why should we live as if there’s nothing more?

So hold me ‘neath the thunderclouds, my heart held in your hooves,
Our love will keep the monsters from our door.”

“For I know tomorrow will be a better day.
Yes, I believe tomorrow can be a better day…”

(Fallout Equestria)