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May 17, 2012 at 12:34 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

The 6 Keys to an Unforgettable Movie Quote

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This Author

Hello and welcome back to Id and Ego – the psychology blog for psychology nerds like me.

This week: memorable movie lines.

You probably don’t know this about me, but besides my interest in psychology, I’m a real movie lover. I started young. At age 3 I already had excellent movie taste and was OBSESSED with E.T. and The Wizard of Oz. I had my own ruby red slippers and a plush E.T. In fact, I was so impressed with these movies, I’m told that during this stage, while out at restaurant with my parents, I decided to give everyone a performance and stood on top of the table to sing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” at the top of my lungs. (Though just WHY my parents allowed that, I’m not sure.)

Later, in my starry-eyed middle school years, it was Gone With The Wind which I must have seen well over 50 times. I can quote entire scenes from  it. It was the movie that really engendered a love of old movies in me. Where the goal of most new movies is to closely emulate reality, old movies were more like theater – bigger than life. I love the eloquence of the writing in old films. I’ve explained this to a few people – in old movies, everyone knows just exactly what to say.

NOW, my taste is really pretty diverse. Besides horror movies and action films which I don’t really get into, I like a little of it all, with most of my favorite films falling into the experimental or drama department. I really enjoy movies that make me think. I’m the sort of person that is completely consumed by a film. I cry, laugh out loud, hide my face in embarrassment, even shout at the TV.   

SO. Given all this, knowing my appetite for movies and psychology, you can imagine how excited I was to run across a study on the science of memorable movie lines!  Apparently, there's is a psychological basis to the magic of lines like

“E.T. phone home.”

“Toto, I’ve  got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

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

(Respectfully, # 15, #4 and #1 in AFI’s top 100 movie quotes list.)

After analyzing 1000 popular movie scripts and a database of their memorable quotes, researchers were ready to figure out just what made these lines stick out for us. They compared those unforgetable quotes, with non-memorable quotes from the same movie, character and scene and of roughly the same length and began looking for differences. They found 6 literary components that separate them.Great quotes include:

#1. Unusual Word Choices.

Though as you’ll see below, much of what makes a great quote is its generality, great quotes do need to step above the ordinary somehow.  Many great quotes use unusual words or use common words in an unusual way. Also, according their research, great quotes use words that contain more syllables and fewer “coordinating conjunctions” (for, and, nor, but,or, yet and so).

Good: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Not-So-Good: “Cheers to your beautiful face, Ilsa.”

#2. Simple Sentence Structure.

Though creative word use helps a line stick with us, it’s easier for us to remember a quote if it has a simple sentence structure like we are used to.

Good: "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Not-So-Good: “Life was, as Mama always said, like a box of chocolates. What you’re gonna get, you never know.”

#3.  Short Length.

Only the most dedicated fans will remember long monolouges in a movie. If you want a quote to be remembered, you’ve got to make it easy on people and keep it short. In fact, if you look at AFI’s top 100 movies quotes, between 3 and 5 words seems to be sweet spot.

Good: “There’s no place like home.”

Not-So-Good: “I’ve met a lot of great friends here, don’t get me wrong. And, I mean if I hadn’t been here, I probably wouldn’t have gotten these super fancy ruby slippers. YOU saw my house.  Auntie Em does what she can with it, but, you know... money’s tight.  Still… there’s no place like home!”

#4. No “him”s, or “her”s.

Another difference between a so-so quote and a quote you won’t forget is your ability to apply it in your own life in. Quotes can be applied more readily when there are no gender specifications being made in them. ( About 60% of memorable quotes meet this criteria.)

Good: “Show me the money!”

Not-So-Good: “Show me the money, Sir!”

#5. Present Tense.

Past tense is another barrier to a quote’s ability to be used in conversation. We don’t often speak in the past tense.

Good: “Soylent Green is people!”

Not-So-Good: “Soylent Green was people!”

#6. More Front of the Mouth Sounds.

Up until now, most of a good quote’s factors have been related to how easily they can be applied to other situations and also, how easy they are to remember.  However, the final difference researchers found between memorable and non-memorable is a little more difficult to explain.   

Great quotes use more “labial” and front of the mouth sounds including:

  • “m” “p” and “b”(labial sounds – made by pressing our lips together)
  • “f” and “v” (labio-dental sounds – made by touching our top teeth to our bottom lip)  as well as
  • “t”, “d” and “n” (dental sounds – made by touching the tip of our tongue to our top front teeth)

But how come?

My first instinct was  that those sounds have a different psychological impact than other sounds, that they were more pleasing to us for some reason. However, while they very well may be, I couldn’t find a darn thing on the subject. Instead, I  found a lot of information on how we make different sounds and what labial sounds are without any mention of how we feel when we  hear them. Then I stumbled across an article on vocalization training for Autistic children. The site warned that if your child wasn’t able to make labial sounds like “m”, “p”, “b”,“f” and “v” by age 6, the teaching process was going to be significantly more difficult – and then it hit me – “ma ma”, “ba ba” - those are our first sounds!

“Children start with the easiest sounds, like “p,” “b,” and “m,” according to Diane Paul, PhD, director of speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. You’ll hear a lot of “puh puh puhs” or “buh buh buhs” at first. With more practice, babies add groups of sounds, like “tah tah, ba ba, bee bee.” These are the precursor to talking, so “muh muh” may become “mama” and “ba ba” may become “bottle.” – “The Sounds of Infancy: Decoding Baby Talk”

So the last condition of a great quote has to do with how easily they roll off our tongues. Labial and front of the mouth sounds are the ones we have most practice with.

Good: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Not-So-Good:Without reserve, Scarlette, I refuse caring.”  (MAN was that last “Not-So-Good” version of a quote hard to come up with! You know, I don’t think there is a “pet name” that doesn’t use front of the mouth sounds?! :p )

“So I thought I'd work my mojo, right? To counter their mojo. We got cross-mojo-nations, and their heads started exploding.” – Austin Powers

austin powers

Do you have a favorite movie quote? 


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