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By Anthony Faust · May 1, 2018
Good dialogue, to channel Winston Churchill, can be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It can be difficult to write. So with that observation, let’s demystify the art of good dialogue and use some classic movies to illustrate repetition, which can take plain dialogue and make it good.
Read this exchange from Rain Man (1988). It is a tense conversation that takes place at a will reading between Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise and John Mooney, played by Jack Murdock. Watch how often Charlie repeats himself as he grills Mooney after he finds out he has been cut out of his father’s estate.
MOONEY 'And I remember, too, the day you left home... so full of bitterness and grandiose ideas. So full of yourself. And being raised without a mother, the hardness of your heart is understandable as well. Your refusal to even pretend that you loved or respected me... all these I forgive. But your failure to write, to telephone, to reenter my life in any way has left me without a son. I wish you all I ever wanted for you. I wish you the best.'
‘l hereby bequeath to my son, Charles
Sanford Babbitt that certain Buick
convertible… the very car that, unfortunately,
brought our relationship to an end. Also,
outright title to my prizewinning hybrid rose
bushes. May they remind him of the value of
excellence… and the possibility of
perfection. As for my home and all other
property, real and personal… these shall be
placed in trust in accordance with the terms of
that certain instrument executed concurrently
What does that mean? That last part,
what does that mean?
It means that the estate, in excess of $3 million
after expenses and taxes, will go into a trust
fund for a beneficiary to be named in
Who? Who is that?
I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.
Who controls the money? You? You
control the money?
No, he’s called a trustee.
What is that? How does that work? How
does that work?
Forgive me, but there’s nothing more I
can say. I’m sorry, son. I can see
that you’re disappointed.
Disappointed? Why should I be disappointed?
I got rose bushes, didn’t l? I got a used
car, didn’t I? W-What’s his name –
What did you call him? The uh-
Right, right. Beneficiary. He got $3
million, but he didn’t get the
rose bushes. I got the rose bushes.
I definitely got the rose bushes.
I definitely got the rose bushes.
I mean, those are rose bushes.
There’s no need–
To what? To be upset? To be upset?
If there is a hell, sir, my
father’s in it and he is
looking up right now and he is
laughing his ass off. Sanford Babbitt.
You wanna be that guy’s son for
five minutes? Did you hear
that letter? Were you listening?
Charlie’s repetitive speech serves multiple purposes as the conversation evolves. First, after he learns that his father’s $3 million estate has been bequeathed to an unknown beneficiary, Charlie repeats himself to acquire information. Repetition in this context is akin to a person knocking on someone’s door multiple times. It alerts the resident of the presence of the person knocking on the door. With each repetitive knock, the urgency of that door being opened ratchets upward. Charlie needs to know who the beneficiary is and who controls the money. The urgency in him builds as he repeats his questions to Mooney.
After Mooney repeats to Charlie that he cannot divulge the identity of the beneficiary, Charlie’s motivation changes. He repeats himself sarcastically a way to bring attention to his frustration. This works since Mooney responds by saying Charlie’s name as a way to mollify him.
The scene ends with Charlie’s not learning the beneficiary’s name. This pushes his character to action in the subsequent scenes as he seeks to change his situation.
Another function of repetitive dialogue is when a character needs to make himself or herself heard. Read this dialogue from Liar Liar (1997). In it, Fletcher Reed, played by Jim Carrey, is begging his secretary Greta, played by Anne Haney, not to quit his law firm.
I’m on my knees in a nine hundred
Greta stops. She seems to consider.
Mr. Reed. A couple years ago a friend
of mine had a burglar on her roof.
A burglar. He fell through the kitchen
skylight, landed on a cutting board
on a butcher’s knife, cutting his leg.
The burglar sued my friend! He sued
my friend! And because of guys like
you he won. My friend had to pay the
burglar six thousand dollars. Is
Here, Greta is frustrated. She repeats the key points in her story (the presence of the burglar and the fact that the burglar sued her friend) to make herself heard. Fletcher is a lawyer and is known for using deception to win cases for his clients. Greta needs Fletcher to hear her story about an injustice so he’ll understand her frustration.
Let’s look at one final example from the film The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004). Sam Bicke, played by Sean Penn, has stolen tires from his brother Julius, played by Michael Wincott. Julius has taken the heat for Sam’s mistake and has gone to Sam’s apartment to confront him about it.
I have been to the police. Begging
forgiveness for a mistake that
was not a mistake. Because I
took responsibility, Samuel. Responsibility.
So that no one would go to jail. So
that this man, Bonny, your friend,
would not go to jail. And my family
caused this. So you must tell
me, Sam, please… which is the
What is your name? Hmm?
I-I-I had an idea. For a tire business.
Like you. I wanted to get a head
start until my loan came in, and my
loan was denied. Because they’re
racists. Nixon. All of them.
Like Zeffler. I didn’t get the money
because my partner is black. I was
gonna pay you back. I’m just trying
to keep my family together. And the
little guy can’t do it anymore. He just
can’t do it anymore. Because there’s
a cancer in the system. The whole
system has a cancer, and I’m being
punished because I resist. But somebody
has to resist! Just somebody has
to resist! You’re my brother!
You’re my brother!
As of this moment, Samuel, I wash my
hands of you. No more. That’s it.
Nothing. And if you steal from me
again, brother or no brother, I will
send you to jail.
In his passionate response to Julius, Sam repeats himself, not just to make himself heard, but to swing Julius around to his point of view. Sam wants Julius to feel his desperation and repeats the key points in his speech to assuage his guilt about stealing Julius’ tires. Julius’ response indicates that Sam has failed to influence him.
In conclusion, good dialogue is essential in a screenplay. The use of repetitive speech can be a valuable tool that screenwriters can keep in their toolbox to elevate the quality of the dialogue they write.