Defining a relationship with that one special line

A woman in my screenwriting class has a script about a fairly famous historical romance, and has struggled a bit. There are several interesting scenes between the two main characters, but as we read through what seemed like the defining scene between the pair, something was missing.

I noodled on it a bit, and told her I thought what was missing was a Defining Line.

I’d never looked at it this way before now, but I think in the movies with really memorable romantic relationships have this. Not just a scene that defines the pair’s feelings for each other, but a specific, taut line withing that scene – like the point of the pin – where it is all laid bare.

Some examples.  In Jerry Maguire you have Jerry’s famous line of “You complete me.”  In As Good As It Gets, it is when Melvin says “You make me want to be a better man.”  In Casablanca it is Rick saying “We’ll always have Paris.” In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s when Leia says she loves Han, and he replies “I know.”

In each case the line perfectly defines their relationship, and the line becomes memorable exactly because it is so perfect. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, but if you have a romantic climax in your movie, search out that line. Polish the scene until it comes out.

It’s too powerful to pass up, and may just make your good scene unforgettable.

About Jeff Moriarty

A dabbler in many arts, from Ignite Phoenix to Improv, and from Information Security to Screenwriting. Jeff loves creating new things, and tries his hand at many forms of writing from screenplays to prose. He pontificates on his personal blog, and helps authors get their works online.


  1. You really got that right. I hadn’t realized it before you wrote it, but that is exactly what you get in the great movies, that one line. I love your list. BTW, do you realize that in Return of the Jedi, Han and Leia have the same lines, only reversed?

    For me, a great movie of any kind comes down to one bit of dialog, that one exchange that reveals the heart of the movie. In the examples you gave above, my favorite scene is not the one that contains these lines. You have given me something new to think about the next time I rewatch a great relationship movie.

    I want to point out something I see in your examples. Did you realize that each of these defining lines you give are all stated by men? Now, I’m wondering if the sex of the viewer has any impact on what we might consider that one line, or if it is a cultural thing that we give men those lines (and what does it say about our socialization process).

    After I’ve thought about this and rewatched a few movies, I’ll get back to you. (Queuing up When Harry Met Sally for tonight…)

  2. Charlene – I hadn’t intended for all the examples to be men, but that’s an interesting point. I thought about When Harry Met Sally as an example but if there is a Defining Line in there I couldn’t think of what it was. If you find it (or can think of any others) please post it!

  3. You nailed it with what you said. Every great movie has great lines. I can think of so many movies where we just know the movie because of one line that was said. Not all of them are romantic lines either but just something about how it is said is what draws you in and keeps you involved.

    Also, realize the actors themselves help bring your words to life and that what might work for Billy Crystal won’t necessarily work for Robert DeNiro.

    I love watching movies, but have had movies draw me in only disappoint me because they didn’t keep me focused and there was nothing memorable after I’ve seen it.

  4. Thanks, Crys! There are some memorable lines that don’t tie into the movie, they’re just “cool”, but the best of the single lines are those that really tie in with the story. Of course, those are also the toughest to write. 😛

  5. That’s weird. I was just thinking about movie lines and how the good movies have a defining line. I’m not talking about the easily, and sometimes over, quoted ones, but a line that could stand for the whole movie.

    Everybody quotes the first two rules of Fight Club but for me the essential line is Tyler Durden saying, “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”

    Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

    The Unforgiven: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everthing he’s ever had and everthing he’s ever gonna have.”

  6. Hi,

    had to comment on my first visit. 🙂

    I just watched a making of -documentary on the Star Wars saga, and before watching I didn’t know that the exchange “I love you” – “I know” was ad libbed.

    They’d apparently tried it a whole bunch of ways, and it didn’t seem to suit the relationship or the characters. The director then told Harrison ford to say what Han Solo would say and not worry about it. That’s what came out. Awesome.