Creating Memorable Dialogue

It's the end of the second act. Your Hero's so close to getting the girl, defeating the baddy, and becoming an all-around superstar. And in just the right moment, he pulls his weapon, turns to the villain and says…

What, exactly?

This is exactly the moment you want to come up with some piece of memorable dialogue. Some line that people will be quoting for years to come.

"You've gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?"

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

"I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody!"

"You talkin' to me?"

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like… victory."

You know what I'm talking about. Simply reading these lines gives you happiness. Hearing them changes your life. A great line is magic to a film. It can take a good movie and push it to the heights of film history. But how the hell do you write them?

 

“The horror… The horror…”

The final line of Apocalypse Now, and easily one of the best and most memorable lines in cinema. After we’ve spent over two hours watching Captain Willard sail up the Nung River to find Colonel Kurtz, the Colonel, mortally wounded whispers to the air, “The horror… The horror…”

On the screen, the line has such an effect that we can fade to black for a fantastic film experience. It holds a lot of weight, both to Kurtz, and to us, the audience. The way Brando delivers, it drags us back through the last two hours, and reminds us of scenes: a young boy getting shot while his mother tells him she loves him; a group of farmers murdered for trying to save a puppy; and a crazy war criminal asking his murderer to visit and explain his death to his son. To Kurtz, we see his last vision, his relationship with war– his horror.

Kurtz

I’ve seen horrors. Horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do now know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face. And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.

By the time we actually get to the line– that quotable, precious line– it holds weight, but it doesn’t have to work. There's so much that's already working in that moment. A severed head of a water buffalo. A flickering lantern in the corner of the screen. The half-shadowed face of the dying Brando. And our memories, the story now told in full. As Apocalypse Now fades to black and ends without credits, we’re able to piece together the entire film in those four words.

 

HELLO! My name is Inigo Montoya.

Just like Brando's whispers, would these words be the same without Mandy Pantinkin’s fantastic portrayal of the young avenger?

Inigo Montoya. A swordsman who’s been hunting down his father’s murderer since the age of 11. Now, wherever he goes, whoever he meets, he asks a question:

Inigo

I do not mean to pry, but you don’t by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?

He’s nice. He’s lovable. He’s funny:

Inigo

Because I know something you don’t know.

Dread Pirate Roberts

And what is that?

Inigo

I am not left handed.

So when the lines come out of his mouth, crisp, in that cute little fairy tale Spaniard accent, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya,” they encapsulate just about everything we love about this film. It’s witty banter. It’s charm.

But not only does it pull together the tone of the film, it actually does a lot of work. These lines–

Inigo

Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

–show us the hatred and untainted vision and goal of Montoya. It is his one true goal in life: to kill his father’s murderer. It's an honorable goal. It's fitting. And it's from one incredibly likable character. So when it comes time to meet his actual person, Count Rugen, we root for him.

Inigo

Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. (Pause.) HELLO! My NAME is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Of course, it helps that he repeats it to Rugen five times before he actually does kill him– a fact that makes the killing that much more satisfying.

When you're sitting there at your computer trying to come up with a great line, stop. Think. Stop trying to write a great, memorable, exciting line, and just write. Write the line that your character would say at that particular moment.

"I coulda been a contender" is in the middle of a lengthy monologue. "Do I feel lucky" is at the end of three smartass sentences. "I see dead people" is really underwhelming in the middle of all that Courier. And "The horror" on paper looks simply like two words stuck at the bottom of a page. Read the script too fast and you miss them entirely.

A good line is an amalgamation of a lot of talents, decisions, and visions. What makes "My name is Inigo Montoya" memorable is the character himself. What makes "The horror" memorable is it's actor, it's placement in the film, and the two hours that come before it. You can't create "memorable" dialogue on your own. Instead, you can create smart dialogue. "Memorable" is in the eye of the audience.

As we repeat these lines over and over again, we don’t just say them. We say them as they’re said. We whisper “The horror…” We don our best New Yorker accent with “You talkin to me?” And our inner Spaniard blasts forth, our arms come up parrying our invisible sword, as we say “HELLO! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Patrick Kirkland

Author Patrick Kirkland

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