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I'm referring to quotes like, "Go ahead and make my day," or "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth."

I've read that actors like them, because they are more likely to win prizes, and that they are good for box office sales.

What is the conventional wisdom regarding the assertion in the last paragraph? And is there an "objective" (scientific) way to determine how memorable a line is likely to be, or is this determined "after the fact," somewhat at random?

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The motivation for a quotable line typically has a variety of origins, such as the following:

  1. A thoughtful line that the screenwriter created, or a line by the original author that carried over into the screenplay.
  2. An improvised line that the director or actor used at the time of shooting, perhaps under a tight shooting schedule that precluded "fixing" the line.
  3. A planted line, usually by the producers, where they were seeking to introduce a phrase into the popular culture (there's a Futurama episode where the producers openly admitted their attempt to do this).
  4. An actor's catch phrase that is introduced into the screenplay by the actor's personal scriptwriter, as part of the actor's contract. In this case, the catch phrase is part of the actor's personal marketing.

Considering the various ways in which a quote can originate, they can be said to vary from intentional attempts to introduce some manner of poignancy to a scene, to being utterly unintentional. Of course, unless the actor is completely candid, they might not be willing to admit that their quote, having entered the popular mainstream, was completely unintentional.

However, as far as determining in advance the popularity of a quote, like anything in business, it is a crap shoot. One can attempt to play to their audience, but one cannot be certain that what they say, and how they say it, will resonate.

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I can't imagine there being a 'scientific' method of determining a memorable line. I would have thought it is much more of a marketing thing.

Equally it is about the writing, I'm sure a large percentage of quotable lines in films where thought to be good lines by the writers (and equally sure that a similar number of lines the writers thought were great were completely ignored by everyone else)

I'd say it is very much an after the fact situation, depending on a lot of things. From the quality of the line, to who says it, how they deliver it, and how it is marketed

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Back in the day, all the sitcoms had these:

Sandford & Son : When Fred got into trouble he would clutch his heart and say,

"I'm coming Elizabeth. This is the big one." (indicating a heart attack)

Chico and the Man: Chico, any time a person looked good or the situation was right,

"Loooooookinnggggg Gooooddd!!!"

Good Times: Any time something would go his way, Jimmy JJ would slap his hands and say,

"Kid dyn-oh-mite!"

Differ't Strokes : Little boy (Arnold) any time something would be going odd, would say,

"Whatchoo talkin' 'bout Willis?"

Very few shows use these now. Probably an indication of how effective they are now. I think maybe these catch-phrases have burned out.

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If there was an objective way to determine how memorable a line is going to be, presumably all writers would run every line in their books through this formula to be sure they had some memorable lines. And writers would study the tinker with lines they are hoping to make memorable to optimize the formula.

If there was a computer program you could run that would tell you the quality of a piece of writing in some truly objective sense ... I'm not sure if that would be good or bad, but if it existed presumably the general quality of writing would be much better.

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  • I think you're partly right, insofar as a computer program could detect "better" or "worse" writing, insofar as it complies (or doesn't) with pre-determined rules. Then the issues and debates are: 1) do following these rules actually make writing better and 2) do people (subjectively) want to be held to these rules even if they are "objectively" good.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 8 '15 at 13:35
  • Oh, a computer program could certainly measure compliance with a set of mechanical rules, like counting the number of adjectives per sentence or how often passive voice is used. The question is whether someone could come up with a set of rules of that sort that would really measure "good writing". For example, MS Word will calculate the "grade level" of a document using average word length and number of words per sentence, and I routinely find these ratings to be highly debatable. Using a lot of big words is a FACTOR in making writing difficult to understand, but it's far from the whole story.
    – Jay
    Sep 8 '15 at 13:46

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