My father used to spout reams of poetry. I was constantly amazed at the amount of literature he had memorized that he could pull out whenever he wanted to. I don’t have a good memory for words. I have a hard time remembering people’s names. I hated reading nonfiction as a child because there were no pictures. I remember images. I remember faces. I learn better when I can see it demonstrated. So when some dialogue or a descriptive phrase sticks in my head then it has to be pretty amazing for me to be able to remember it years later. One of my all time favorite lines is in Con Air. In case you’ve never seen it, a bunch of convicts take control of the plane transferring them to a new supermax prison. Nicholas Cage plays a convict who has been paroled and is only on board until he reaches the prison where he will be officially released. (We won’t go into why he couldn’t be released directly from the prison where he had been serving his sentence.) The movie sounds a bit cheesy but it’s actually pretty good. There’s the standard amount of blood and guts—it is an action movie, after all—but it also has some great dialogue. My favorite line happens after the convicts take over the plane and they are dancing to Sweet Home Alabama. Steve Buscemi plays a serial killer (think Hannibal Lecter) and he says to Cage, “Define irony. A bunch of idiots on a plane dancing to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash.” It’s the perfect combination of absurdity and a good definition.
Another favorite line comes from Spy High. Quick summary—it’s high school for kids with superpowers. The line happens at the end of the movie. Will Stronghold, the main character, summarizes his first year at Spy High: “My best friend became my girl friend, my girl friend became my arch enemy, and my arch enemy became my best friend. But hey, that’s high school.” Sometimes I wonder if the writer came up with that line first and then crafted the whole story around it.
Finally, I’ll mention the last Harry Potter book/movie. Harry confronts Voldemort in their final showdown: “I know something you don’t know, Tom Riddle.” The reason I love this line is because it works on several levels. The first and obvious meaning is that Harry knows he is the true master of the Elder Wand, and that the wand will not obey Voldemort in their final duel. The other, less obvious meaning, is that Harry also knows the value and meaning of love. Ultimately it is this knowledge that saves Harry, not his mastery of the Elder Wand. Because Harry loves and is loved by other people, he has the courage to make the ultimate sacrifice and let Voldemort kill him. And by making that sacrifice, Voldemort kills that part of himself that was the horcrux living in Harry. That action frees Harry. When Nevil kills the serpent, the final horcrux, Voldemort is now mortal. If Harry had never made the initial sacrifice, Voldemort could not have been defeated.
When you can combine words and make them play on several levels, that’s the kind of line that will stick in people’s heads and hearts.