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SCRIPT SECRETS: Speech! Speech!

It seems like every character in a story wants to make a big speech and be the center of attention for a few minutes. But how do you write a speech? The secret to great speeches revealed!
Christopher Walken as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction. Photo Miramax. 

Christopher Walken as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction. Photo Miramax. 

It seems like every character in a story wants to make a big speech and be the center of attention for a few minutes... and in some screenplays they do. Instead of just having a normal conversation with the other characters they want to step up on stage, stand behind a podium, and pontificate about whatever is happening in the story and how it might relate to them. They want to be the star. The wise leader. The center of attention...

But the character is just the guy behind the counter at the Fast Food place where the protagonist has taken her date in a romantic comedy. Or the protagonist telling their date about their day, and like their date - the audience really doesn’t care. So, what we end up with is a big steaming pile of verbal exposition or pontification without reason. One of the things that I see in many screenplays by new writers, and mention in my Dialogue Blue Book, are those characters who end up with “accidental speeches”. What should be a conversation turns into a paragraph of uninterrupted talking... which is completely unrealistic. In real life people seldom let you finish a sentence before jumping in with their response, let alone recite a whole paragraph!

According to Webster's, dialogue is "a conversation between two or more persons". The root word of conversation is "converse" which means "contrary, opposite". So dialogue requires at least two people who have opposing viewpoints. If two people agree with each other, they have nothing to talk about. If one person is doing all of the talking, you've left the "di" out of dialogue and the "con" out of conversation. Dialogue should bounce back and forth between two (or more) characters. If one character talks for too long, it will lose its "bounce". So those long blocks of talking by one character aren’t actually dialogue, they are “accidental speeches” and you should add the “di” and the “con” and change them into verbal battles between two or more people.

But what if you really want to write a speech?

TO BURY CAESAR

Speeches can be great actor bait. On my HBO World Premiere Movie Steel Sharks (1997) I created two major supporting roles designed to attract stars, including a Navy Admiral onboard an Aircraft Carrier who is organizing a rescue operation. Because the character was sending people into battle knowing that some might not return, I decided to give the character a speech about the heavy responsibilities of this decision. My reason for the speech was to humanize a decisive character who didn’t really have room for many emotional moments in their decisions and to attract a name actor to the role. We ended up with Billy Dee Williams (Lando!) who told me that he’d been offered three screenplays and chose mine. Of course, he probably tells that to every writer who shows up on set, but I think having the speech in the screenplay helped. Actors love a good speech - they are the focus of the scene and get to show off their acting chops.

But being the focus of the scene puts pressure on the writer (that’s you and me) because the camera is only on the person making the speech. With dialogue the camera bounces back and forth between the people talking, but when one person is doing all of the talking the camera just sits there. No editing, and because the person is usually just standing there talking - no visual action. It’s a static shot. Even more pressure on the writer!

[SCRIPT SECRETS: Invisible Plants and Payoffs]

So if you can’t have your speech take place during a shoot-out or a car chase, you will need to make sure that every single word counts, and that the speech is riveting and verbally exciting. Though the scene might be your character making a speech off the top of their heads in the middle of a battle scene, you will need to take care to select each word with care. I’ve rounded up a bunch of speeches and analyzed them and discovered some of the hidden techniques in movie speeches... that trace back at least as far as Shakespeare and probably even farther. There are four main types of speeches, and even though each is used for a different reason in a story, they all share a few things in common...

They are poetry.

Even those pep talks by the coach before the big game.

Even those pep talks by the commander before the troops go into battle.

Even those threats made by gangsters or Steven Segal in action movies.

Even those confessions a character makes about their dark past.

Even those wedding toasts in romantic comedies.

They are all poetry.

Ages ago I wrote a science fiction screenplay and thought it would be fun to have the aliens get that pep talk speech before going into battle with our human heroes, so I grabbed the speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” to use as an example. “Once more into the breach...” And noticed that it was broken into stanzas. And noticed that the lines were metered, had a distinctive rhythm, and often a certain number of syllables per line. And repeated words and phrases... that’s one of the most important things in a speech! Repeated words and phrases. The repeated words connect the lines and add to the rhythm. They make it poetic. And even the long speeches in Shakespeare were much shorter than I thought they would be. Those speeches that go on for a couple of pages in your screenplay? The big famous balcony speech from “Romeo & Juliet” is 204 words. Simple words to maintain that rhythm. And that’s only half a single-spaced page. Some speeches in films are much shorter... so try for brevity You don’t want to put the troops to sleep before the big battle scene.

And since there’s a new version of that updated version of “Romeo & Juliet” directed by Steven Spielberg out now, you have a great example of repeated words courtesy of Stephen Sondheim. Of course, songs have metered verses and rhyming words and often repeated words... is there a single song in that show that doesn’t include the word “Tonight”?

FOUR TYPES OF SPEECHES

There are probably more than four, but when I analyzed over a couple of dozen speeches for this article, they all seemed to fall into four main categories. So let’s look at each of them, how they work, what are some great examples, and then do a breakdown of one of the examples. I would love to do breakdowns of all of the examples (or at least a bunch of them) but this article would end up becoming a book! So in the future, I will expand this article into a new chapter in the Dialogue Blue Book and add a bunch more examples.

1) TELLING A STORY

One of the main types of speeches is telling a story to another character or a small group of characters. These speeches are stories unto themselves, often illustrating a point or explaining something important about the character. As stories, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can decide if that’s a Three Act Structure or not - but they are *stories*. As stories, they need to be entertaining on their own, so they use tools like anticipation, reversals, twist endings or “punch lines”, irony, and everything else that you are also using in the larger story of your screenplay. I have said before that if you can’t tell a joke (which requires great storytelling skills) you might have problems writing a screenplay as well. So if a character tells a story or a long-form joke in your screenplay - *they* need to have those storytelling skills! Which means that you do. Can you keep us in suspense with the story? Build up the tension? Make the audience anticipate the tale going in one direction and then send it in another?

The king of this type of speech is probably The Gold Watch Story in Pulp Fiction. 522 words. There are 4 parts to it: Introduction, Set Up, Complications, Conclusion.

The Introduction begins with “Hello, little man.” and ends with “I'm talking to you, Butch.” 97 words explaining the unique relationship between Col. Koons and Major Coolidge (Butch’s father) in a Hanoi POW Camp in Vietnam. There’s a great line about how two men become very close in prison which is kind of a plot twist in those 97 words. This establishes who the two characters in the scene are, and their relationship.

The Set-Up begins with “I got something for you” and ends with “This time they called it World War Two” and runs 139 words. Butch’s great-grandfather bought the gold watch in a store in Tennessee and wore it every day in World War One, and put it in a coffee can when he came home because the war was over.”

Complications begin with “Your great-grandfather gave this watch to your granddad for good luck” and ends with “Delivering to your infant father, his dad’s gold watch.” and runs 143 words. Butch’s grandfather was a Marine and gave the watch to a pilot to deliver it to a grandson born while he was at war, because he knew that he would die on Wake Island during World War Two. With each of these sections of the story, the gold watch becomes not just a watch but a symbol of both Butch’s family and their lives of service to the country. His grandfather died in battle but wanted his father to have this watch. This isn’t just a watch, it’s Butch’s family.

The “rule of three” in comedy sets up the pattern, confirms the pattern, then breaks the pattern. So now that we understand the importance and value and reverence of this gold watch, the Conclusion begins with “This watch” and Colonel Koons holding up the watch, and ending with “I give this watch to you.” and runs 136 words. This is the punchline. Butch’s dad is captured during Vietnam, thinks the watch is the most important thing on earth, so he hides it in his butt for five years... five years of dysentery (yech!) And when he died, Colonel Koons took the watch from Butch’s father’s butt and put it in his own butt for two years. And now that he’s been rescued - here’s the watch!

See how that works as kind of a joke - set up and punchline. Each section of the story has a twist or weird detail that is humorous or entertaining. Tarantino is great at writing in cadence, creating poetry with rhythm and often repeated words, and here the gold watch is what the story is about, but it’s called the “war watch” and there are war and family references throughout. Christopher Walken has been on two sides of a Tarantino speech (True Romance) and he is an actor who knows how to use the cadence written in a speech to his advantage.

2) THE SPEECH TO THE TROOPS

The second type of speech is to rally the troops, be they on a battlefield or a sports field. These speeches build and build and build to a climax - with the “punchline” being the troops going onto the field to do battle (whether it’s war or sports). Again, it’s poetry. Battle-hardened soldiers or bruised athletes listening to their commander recite a little poem before they go off to battle. That’s what I noticed years ago when I studied the 272-word speech in “Henry V” and the 158-word speech by the President from Independence Day (which repeats the word “day” 5 times and even has this rhyme: “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!”) and the 64-word speech in Pacific Rim (which repeats the word “today” six times), plus the 304-word speech that Bill Murray gives to the team in Meatballs (lost count on the number of times he says “It just doesn’t matter”) which is a great anti-pep talk... and maybe something to consider when writing your speech? What if turn it upside down and do the opposite of what we expect?

Those were some that I analyzed for this article, but I decided to use the 88-word speech from season 2, episode 9 of Game Of Thrones, “Blackwater”. Every ninth episode of the series was a massive battle - one wall-to-wall action scene - and they often began with one of those rousing speeches to the troops. This one was different because it was from Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf prince, at a point when they are losing and the *least respected character* gives a speech to the troops.

“They say I’m half a man, but what does that make the lot of you? Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdoms. Don’t fight for honor. Don’t fight for glory. Don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. That’s your gate he’s ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape. Those are brave men knocking at our door... let’s go kill them.”

You might have noticed that most of the sentences contain 5 words (there are a couple with 7) which builds a rhythm to the speech, and that the first half of the speech repeats the word “don’t” 5 times and the last half repeats “your” 4 times... plus once early on for 5, and that “your” rhymes with “door” which is used later in the speech. There is a rhythm built into this speech that you might not have noticed when watching the episode because the story behind the speech is the most intelligent but least respected character in the battle taking command and needing desperately for his battered troops to go once more into the breach... and probably die. The speech is a *conflict* where words need to win over soldiers who are used to battles. This of the *emotions* involved in the speech, the *stakes* involved, the *character* side of the speech.

[SCRIPT SECRETS: Writing Epic Battle Scenes]

3) CONFESSIONAL

The third kind of speech is similar to the first type - telling a story - but this version is a story about the person speaking. A confession or a personal experience that connects to what is happing in the larger story being told in the screenplay. One of the problems with the confessional speech is that it has become a cliche over the years, so it is often used for humor now. Again, a story needs reversals and anticipation and suspense and a beginning and middle and ending. A Confession is different than the Story speech, in that we are going to learn the deep dark secrets of a character - and the speech will make them vulnerable to those they are confessing to. Though we want traces of emotions and stakes and character in that speech to the troops, a confessional speech is *all* those elements. It’s raw, it’s deeply personal, and it’s also poetry.

Cinema is full of big, juicy, confessional speeches which have led to Oscar nominations and wins like Piper Laurie in Carrie and her heartwarming speech about the events leading up to her daughter’s birth. Robert Shaw’s speech about why he won’t wear a life jacket in Jaws (a massive 435 words) is really the only personal information that we have about that character - and is about the most horrible night of his life. Though that is also telling a story like in Pulp Fiction, it’s about a man who shows no fear... who may actually be driven by that fear, so it’s a confession. I love Jack Nicholson’s speech in King Of Marvin Gardens about how he and his brother murdered their grandfather when they were children - similar to Quint in Jaws, he’s a character who guards his emotions. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer proved that she wasn’t just a pretty face with her shocking story about a vacation on the beach which includes homosexuality and cannibalism.

Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws. Photo Universal Pictures.

Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws. Photo Universal Pictures.

On the comedy side, nothing beats Phoebe Cates explaining why she doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore in Gremlins. It’s 193 words of escalating horror, mostly in 5 syllables: “Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside.” The rhythm again. And Steve Martin in The Jerk, talking about what he doesn’t need and does need in life. 211 words with “I don’t need” and “All I need” repeated throughout, along with a list of items. What all of these confessional speeches have in common is that they are taking us inside the character - showing us their vulnerability and regrets and fears. We laugh at Martin’s list of things he needs or doesn’t need (“I don’t need my dog”) but this is all about heartbreak and loneliness and disappointment. He is a man who has lived what we always thought was the American Dream... and found it unsatisfying. He had everything a person could ever want - but what he *needs* and *doesn’t need* he is still trying to figure out. So even in a comedy confessional speech, we are still digging into character.

Breaking Away is one of my favorite films, it won Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and has a handful of great speeches. The father’s speech about being a stone cutter and building this town only to be brushed aside once it’s been built is the one that gets all of the attention (and rightly so), but the little 151-word speech by Dennis Quaid’s character comes a very close second and echoes the themes in the father’s speech - and the film.

“You know, I used to think I was a really great quarterback in high school. Still think so, too. Can't even bring myself to light a cigarette 'cause I keep thinkin' I gotta stay in shape. You know what really gets me, though? I mean, here I am, I gotta live in this stinkin' town, and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hot-shot kid, new star of the college team. Every year, it's gonna be a new one. Every year it's never gonna be me. I'm just gonna be Mike. Twenty-year-old Mike. Thirty-year-old Mike. Old, mean old man Mike. These college kids out here - they're never gonna get old or out of shape 'cause new ones come along every year. And they're gonna keep calling us 'Cutters'. To them, it's just a dirty word. To me, it's just somethin' else I never got a chance to be.”

Though “gotta” and “gonna” are repeated words - what the character is forced to deal with and what their hopes and dreams (soon to wither and die) are. “Every year” and his name “Mike” as time slips past him in the last half of the speech repeat to form a rhythm building to that climax: “Just something else I never got a chance to be.” No matter what kind of speech, you always want a strong ending. You want a final sentence that people will quote, so just like with the ending of your screenplay - take the time to make sure the ending of your speech is memorable.

[SCRIPT SECRETS: The Importance of Clear Objectives]

4) THREATENING

If this type of speech seems strange to you, you probably haven’t seen enough Steven Seagal films... though that other great Tarantino speech involving Christopher Walken in True Romance falls into this category. Though there have probably been threatening speeches about all of the terrible things that will be done to a character since the beginning of cinema, Seagal lifted his versions from the movie Billy Jack who took 114 words to get from how hard he tries to control his violent temper (“I try” repeated throughout) before he gets to “I just go BERSERK!” at the end... and then beats up a dozen armed men with his bare hands. These speeches are usually about control, and usually spoken calmly just before a storm of violence. They also tend to focus on the practical instead of the emotional. Seagal’s speeches often have him explaining to a whole bunch of bad guys exactly how he is going to hurt them - who gets kicked in the face and who gets their arm broken in seven places. The calmer and more mechanical the descriptions, the more chilling the speech.

Villains tend to get speeches like this in action movies when they have captured the hero... I’ve joked that the final fight scene in an action flick can be a bit chatty at times because there’s a touch of denouement in them. The loose ends are being wrapped up and the often thematic issues are being argued... between those punches and kicks and arms broken in seven places.

The Godfather opens with a great speech about America that leads to a threat in disguise - that future favor that must be done in exchange for the favor being asked. If I do this for you, you *must* do this for me... and it will probably be something violent that you will not want to do. So don’t think of a Threat Speech as only something that you might find in an action script - they can be in dramas and comedies and every other genre where there is conflict. But I chose an example that has become iconic and has been parodied probably a million times by now...

“I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

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99 words from the screenplay to Taken that are instantly recognizable even if you never saw the film! And the phrase “particular set of skills” is famous on its own. This one escalates the threat by shortening the length of the sentences. It begins with 6-word sentences, cuts sentence length to 5 words, and then ends with a pair with 4 words. We get a rhythm that increases in tempo. Repeated words and phrases: “I don’t know” and “I don’t” we get a total of 3 times in the beginning, then “skills” three times in the middle, and then “I will” five times in the end. Of course, all of those are part of the mechanical element of the threat. He doesn’t know who they are, but he has a very particular set of skills that will allow him to find them, and he will find them... and he will kill them. Step by step. Matter of fact. Not emotional, even though his daughter has been taken. He is a methodical person and this is what will happen to them. They can not stop it. That’s what makes this speech memorable - the determination of the character. The rest of the film demonstrates that determination.

The great thing about a well-written speech is that in addition to being “actor bait” it can also become a part of pop culture and quoted by people around the world and used in memes and parody films. Even if it’s in a Steven Seagal movie. The key is to remember that speeches are some weird form of poetry. Rhythm and meter and rhymes and word repetition are the keys. Since we have a new version of Macbeth in cinemas as I write this, what line comes after “By the pricking of my thumbs”?

What is your favorite speech in a movie? 


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