How to create memorable dialogue that becomes part of popular culture
A hallmark of a well-written script is a memorable line that could become part of popular culture.
Here are several examples:
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Gone with the Wind.
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The Godfather
“You had me at hello.” Jerry Maguire
“I’ll be back.” Terminator
So how can you create memorable lines in your scripts?
Hal Croasmun, president of ScreenwriterU, explained this and other tips in “21 Steps to a Professional Rewrite,” a screenwriting teleconference on June 8. For more information about ScreenwriterU classes, visit the website.
First, go to the five most emotional moments in your script where most memorable dialogue happens.
Go to very height of the emotion and look at the dialogue. In the movie, Jerry Maguire, Jerry finally had the business success he wanted, but he didn’t have his wife because of the divorce. He’d never told a woman he loved her. Now he’s coming back to talk to his wife and try to get her back. He comes in on her in the middle of a gathering of her sister and friends. He tells her that he had the biggest win of his business life, but it didn’t mean much without her to share it with. “I love you….”, he says. “You complete me.”
“Shut up,” his wife says. “Just shut up.”
That’s the height of the emotion. He has just completed his character arc and risked himself. He’s as vulnerable as can be, and at that moment his wife tells him to shut up.
Then: “You had me at hello. You had me at hello.”
This scene has several levels of subtext. She is telling him she loves him but without saying the words. Jerry had never been able to say, I love you, when a woman said those words to him. At that vulnerable point with a woman, he’d never been able to be vulnerable in return. Instead, he’d say, “Right back at you.”
Now he’s showing his vulnerability. At another level, if he, “had her at hello,” why did she make him go through the speech in front of her friends? She needed him to express his feelings publicly, including to her sister, so they knew she had something special in Jerry.
When you’re revising your script, look at your script’s emotional moments, see what the lines of dialogue are like, says Croasmun. Don’t be satisfied with a cliche line or line that dissipates the emotion of the moment. Elevate that line of dialogue. Come up with 40 to 50 ways to do it. And see what resonates and what has the potential to filter into the culture and create a good line for a trailer.
Don’t overdo this technique but see where you might use it in three to five places in your script. And if you’re a novelist, this technique can elevate the quality of your dialogue.
Croasmun teaches more techniques like this in his six-month ProSeries Professional Screenwriting Program. Visit ScreenwritingU for information about other classes.