The Art of Words: Quotability
Amongst several other projects, I am punching up a comedy screenplay. I have two agendas:
1. Make it funny.
2. Make it quotable.
Quotability is an underappreciated, and too often ignored, component in most screenplays. I believe quotable characters should be a top priority for all scripts, to help the stories achieve their main goal - successful "afterlife". The fact is, many movies wouldn't even have an afterlife if it weren't for their quotable lines.
Every film catagory has its "titans" who define the genre. And more often than not, those titans have some measure of recognizable quotability. Let's look at some examples. I bet you know which movies they're from:
1. "May the force be with you."
2. "I'll be back."
3. "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
4. "You talkin' to me?"
5. "We're not in Kansas, anymore."
7. "Here's lookin' at you, kid."
8. "I coulda been a contender."
9. "I'll make them an offer they can't refuse."
10. "You can't handle the truth!"
11. "She's my sister. She's my daughter."
12. "Go ahead. Make my day."
13. "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."
14. "How am I funny?"
15. "Life is like a box of chocolates."
16. "There's no crying in baseball."
17. "Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'."
18. "Show me the money."
19. "I see dead people."
20. "Heeeere's Johnny!"
21. "Every man dies. Not every man truly lives."
22. "Why so serious?"
23. "Say 'hello' to my little friend!"
24. "Yo, Adrianne!"
25. "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."
These quotes have helped each movie etch a permenant place in film history. True that most of the films are classics, or highly respected, and would probably endure without being quotable. But there's no denying that the power of quotability has given the films an even greater presence in the public conscious. This is a position well known to the Bond films. What would that series be without our hero stating "Bond. James Bond" in each film? It wouldn't be the same experience for the audience. And that is (or should be) the ultimate goal for every cinematic endeavor: letting the audience feel they have a special relationship with the material.
Film quotes answer key:
1. Star Wars
2. The Terminator
4. Taxi Driver
5. The Wizard Of Oz
6. Citizen Kane
8. On The Waterfront
9. The Godfather
10. A Few Good Men
11. China Town
12. Sudden Impact
15. Forrest Gump
16. A League Of Their Own
17. The Shawshank Redemption
18. Jerry Maguire
19. The Sixth Sense
20. The Shining
22. The Dark Knight
25. Gone With the Wind
Your Story's Quest For Eternal Life
Social media has provided a powerful arena for filmmakers to attract and maintain their audience. Every studio has a Facebook page, a Twitter presence, a LinkedIn profile, and so on. Studios and production companies understand the power of these environments; that social networks are perfect platforms for films and TV shows to live on long after they've left theaters, or been sent on to syndication glory.
Story is always the primary element in any script. Character is the next primary, and quotability is a definite character attribute. But making quotable characters isn't as easy as it sounds. If the "quotable" line is too cheesy or doesn't quite reflect the situation your character(s) is in, then it will fall flat (unless that's the intent, for comedic effect). This can be the pitfall for catchphrases, as well. If it doesn't relate, the audience won't equate. The key is to make the phrase relevent and (if possible) universal, so fans can use the phrase freely in whatever environment they're in (I've heard "We need a bigger boat" used in more social situations than I can count). Quotable lines used by fans, either on social media or other avenues, means more exposure for the source material - your story.
When Robert De Niro's character Travis Bickle famously uttered "You talkin' to me?" in Taxi Driver, the speech wasn't in the original script. He made it up while rehersing the scene. And since Mr. De Niro just happens to be brilliant, he created a movie moment that will live forever. In fact, when Taxi Driver was first released it wasn't a hit. But when people started quoting the famous speech, more people went to see the movie to understand the context. That's the power of quotability: raising the public's curiosity and drawing in more audience. There have been many films where a famous line was made up on the spot, like Bogart's "Here's looking at you, kid" from Casablanca. That creativity is part of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, and is necessary for any film to succeed. But if you get your story ahead of the curve with strong characters and good quotability, your chances for cinematic eternity improve greatly.
What Is A Story's "Afterlife"?
Simply put, the "afterlife" of a story is why we write in the first place. It's that what we write has meaning and carries forward to future generations in the form of habitual re-viewing by a rabid fan base, celebrational re-releases, dvd's, books on our work, the public quoting our words ad nauseam, our story and characters having a constant presence on social media, and tilling the fertile land of merchandising and licensing.
Everyone hopes for an "afterlife" for their work, but we don't always know there will be one. When George Lucas finally made Star Wars (after being turned down by Universal, among others), 20th Century Fox wasn't completely sold on how well the film would do. It wasn't titled Episode IV, yet. It was a one-and-done project. Fox looked at the film as an expensive (for the time) kids movie with cool effects. In fact, Fox handed over the merchdising rights to Mr.Lucas as a sign of just how much faith they actually had in the property. It's safe to say that after five (soon to be six +) sequels and $4.5 billion in gross later, the "afterlife" of a certain industry-changing space saga worked out incredibly well for Mr. Lucas. His belief in his work, his unwavering vision, and his sheperding of all aspects of his story (including quotability) has culminated in a success few have dared to dream of.
We all have the opportunity to be game changers. But not everyone holds such lofty goals. Sometimes we just want to tell a nice story we can be proud of. It's an ambition every writer should have, regardless of scope and scale of our effort.
We don't always know what's quotable. That's the wild card. But I believe that it's better to take a shot at bolstering the longevity of the material, than playing it safe. This is a lesson we can learn from good comedy films.
A perfect example is from the early movie masters of quotability, the Marx Brothers. Take a look at Duck Soup. Almost the entire movie is quotable. Same goes for Animal Crackers, which contains the famous "One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I'll never know". There are other films such as the Hope and Crosby "Road" movies, Some Like It Hot, The Odd Couple, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Caddyshack, Airplane, the Naked Gun series, The Princess Bride, Austin Powers, There's Something About Mary, Anchorman, and many more. They're all great comedies, and all very quotable.
So take a chance and try to put some quotable lines in your script. If a line doesn't work, take it out. Simple. But if you know what your script is about, the quotability should be inherent. You just have to dig a little deeper, and find the magic.
These are just my opinions. Do with them what you will.
I hope this post has been helpful. Best of luck.
A few quotes:
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves - William Shakespeare
If it's not on the page, it's not on the screen - Robert Evans
Story is the key to everything on screen - Richard Zanuck
Self-trust is the first secret to success - Ralph Waldo Emerson
The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing - Walt Disney
It's not about one big opening weekend. It's about building a career that you can be proud of - George Clooney
The most incredible thing about my career is that I had one - Preston Sturges
Writer's Guild Of America - www.wga.org - register your script!
Screenplay.com - www.screenplay.com - Movie Magic Screenwriter 6
The Writer's Store - www.writersstore.com - writing software, books, seminars, etc.
WordPlay - www.wordplayer.com - website of writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio
Zoetrope - www.zoetrope.com - Francis Ford Coppola's company website
Film Independent - www.filmindependent.org - for independent filmmakers/writers
JoBlo's Movie Scripts - http://www.joblo.com/moviescripts.php - film scripts
Simply Scripts - www.simplyscripts.com - library of produced and unproduced scripts
The Script Mentor - www.thescriptmentor.com - script mentoring and coverage