“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
There are passages we encounter in fiction—passages that leave an indelible mark on us and elevate a story from enjoyable to unforgettable. Yet many novelists build up their stories to the very climax where sword in hand their hero stands at the precipice and declares in the face of certain death that . . . you know, I can’t remember now. Probably because what they said simply wasn’t memorable. So let’s look at how a few simple techniques can elevate those grand moments from functional to unforgettable.
Step 1: Identify the Emotional Imperative
What we think of as “big moments” in our stories hinge on emotional imperatives; the need to make the audience feel something deeper and more powerfully than they have elsewhere in the book. We might need them to laugh or cry or stand up and cheer. Clarifying that emotional imperative is the first step to being able to fulfil it.
For example, just before the climax of a story we often have a moment where the hero needs to rally others to their cause. This might be in the form of sending an army charging into battle but it could just as easily be convincing everyone at the office to work together on a Christmas party. What matters is that this scene needs to propel both the characters and the audience into the challenge ahead. Unfortunately, far too often what we get is a protagonist who shouts a few slogans and suddenly everyone else happily steps into the abyss as if their own lives were irrelevant save for how they benefit the hero. Instead of settling for the merely tolerable, begin by looking at how great rhetoricians of the past fulfilled the emotional imperative your scene calls for.
Step 2: Find Inspiration in Classic Speeches
If the challenge is to write a scene that gets the blood moving in both our characters and our readers, have a glimpse at the way Shakespeare sets up the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech in the classic historical play, Henry V:
WESTMORLAND: O that we now had here But one ten thousand of those men in England That do no work to-day!
Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that comes up ahead of the big conflict in so many stories? Someone says, “We’re outnumbered and out-gunned!” Typically the hero then says something pithy and runs into battle. But Shakespeare’s King Henry takes us on an entirely different journey:
KING. What's he that wishes so? My cousin, Westmorland? No, my fair cousin; If we are mark'd to die, we are enough To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
King Henry turns the entire premise on its head, arguing that he’d rather have fewer troops. In fact, he goes even further and promises safe passage to any of his troops who want to abandon him!
Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host, That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse; We would not die in that man's company That fears his fellowship to die with us.
All of which comes to those classic lines that have brought countless audiences to their feet:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
What’s especially brilliant about the Saint Crispin’s day speech is the way it makes you believe the heroes may die at the end. Think how hard that is to accomplish in today’s fiction, where so many readers expect—nay, demand—victory for the “good guys” yet become bored if they know they’ll get their wish. What Shakespeare does here is turn the prospect of defeat and death into its own kind of happy ending; Henry isn’t promising the troops victory—he’s arguing that there’s no better death than that which is faced together, and if today is that day, he’s glad to die in their company. The speech is so effective that it’s actually a surprise when Henry’s troops win the battle.
Step 3: Add Your Own Twist
Now of course you might be thinking that this all sounds a bit too antiquated for your novel, but that’s the best part: classic speeches can serve as inspiration for your own fresh twist on the subject matter.
In my second novel, Knight’s Shadow, I needed a moment to bring the climax of the book into focus—to get the reader to feel as if my heroes might actually lose the battle. Rather than exalt their glorious demise, I wanted to use Shakespeare’s technique to turn it around on the villains and show how their victory would really be a defeat. Below is an early draft of the speech I wanted Falcio to deliver to the army of masked knights who come to kill the future queen before she can take the throne.
Look at yourselves: a thousand men on horseback, Clothed in armour and shielded by the lies you’ve told yourselves, Come to commit a murder in the name of honour. I say again, look at yourselves! You wear helmets to hide your faces, You wear black tabards to hide your masters’ houses, You offer no names nor ranks, So that when this black, bloody work is done, No one will remember that you were here. If that is your wish, then I say: be forgotten. For there will be stories told of this day, Tales of anonymous men in black garb who came to slaughter an innocent girl. There will be stories told about those who died fighting them. Those who stood up to them. Those names will be remembered. For a hundred years and more, Men and women will speak of what happened at Aramor. So I say, have your way, and let the world forget your names. But they will remember ours. Your children and grandchildren will grow up hearing those tales, Of the day men in armour and black tabards came, A-thousand-strong against four Greatcoats, one unarmed woman, and a little girl. Our names will be repeated, over and over, while yours are forgotten. And on your deathbed, as you wait for death’s shadow to fall across your face, Your last, stuttered, fumbling words will be our names.
If that seems long, I should point out that the full speech is actually even longer as I wanted each of the characters standing beside Falcio to come forward and give their names along with the repetition of, ‘I was at Aramor!’ But for my story, both the buildup and those final declarations were necessary to heighten the drama of the climactic battle. Of course, writing the speech is only the beginning...
Step 4: Thread the Speech Into Your Scene
You might be wondering how you’re supposed to fit a giant block of monologue like this onto the page without it feeling like the action stopped so that your character could walk to the front of the stage and talk at the audience. When writing a novel, you’ll thread the lines of the speech within pieces of action rather than stacking them all together so that you get paragraphs like these:
I forced myself to walk as normally as I could towards the Knights assembled at the other end of the field. I took a deep breath, trying not to show how much that hurt with half my ribs broken, and projected my hoarse voice, hoping I could make it loud enough to be heard. ‘Look at you: a thousand men on horseback, clothed in armour and shielded by the lies you’ve told yourselves. You think you’ve come here to change the world, but all you’re here to do is commit murder.’
I could see some of them bristling at the word murder. Their nervousness was making their horses uneasy, but the commanders quickly restored order. I didn’t give them time to enjoy it. ‘I said, look at yourselves! You wear black tabards to hide your origins. You wear helmets to hide your faces. You give no names so that when this black, bloody work is done no one will remember who you were and what you did here.’
In a novel, the writer is taking on the role of the actor as well, conveying through text those things a stage or film actor might portray in their movements. This allows you to build the anticipation and then deliver the emotional punch of a great speech into your story without losing the naturalistic rhythms of your prose. Getting this right lends your impending climax not only tremendous suspense but also a sense of genuine meaning that will carry the reader through to the finale.
A Speech for Every Fictional Occasion
There are dozens of other big moments in a novel where an understanding of speech-writing can enhance your fiction. Take, for example, the time-honored villain’s speech, in which your antagonist attempts to persuade your hero to turn back. They can do this with mundane threats: “Stay out of my way or I’ll make your life miserable and your death even worse!” Or they might try the oft-attempted-yet-never-successful bribe: “Walk away and I’ll make you a rich man.” But even if we pretend our character takes these offers seriously, the reader never does. We never believe that the hero we’ve been following all this time is going to just walk away and let the villain ruin people’s lives. So what if, instead of the tired clichés of threats and bribes, we allow the villain to re-shape the moral debate? To offer the hero—and the audience—a different view of the world?
One of the best and most persuasive antagonist’s monologues of all time comes in the film Wall Street when unscrupulous financier Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) delivers his fantastic retort against altruism in the form of a speech that argues:
Greed—for lack of a better word—is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed—you mark my words— will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Notice how, with just a few words, Gecko reframes the entire debate, turning the idea of greed from something despicable to the very essence of human accomplishment and patriotism. Your antagonist could do that, too. Instead of simply reminding us how evil they are, your villain could take us to the very brink of agreeing with them, forcing your hero to show us a deeper truth that overcomes those arguments.
Of course, we’ve barely begun to explore all the different kinds of speeches that can transform the turning points of your story into riveting moments the reader will carry with them long after they’ve put the book down. Want to make the reader feel the terrible loss when a character dies or a building falls? Read Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which not only lauds the dead but speaks to that which the people of Athens must hang onto at all costs. Writing a courtroom scene in which the prosecutor must convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt? Look at examples of what Aristotle called “forensic” or “judicial” rhetoric to see how best to establish facts and judgments for the jury.
Aristotle gave us two other forms of persuasive speech: epideictic or demonstrative rhetoric for making proclamations about the present, and the awkwardly-named symbouleutikon (the art of rhetoric is full of similarly inventive terms) or deliberative speech for debating the future. But you needn’t even travel into the distant past to find inspiration. Watch Aaron Sorkin’s incredible speech delivered by Jeff Daniels in the opening scene of The Newsroom to see how multiple rhetorical techniques can be combined to create moments in a story that not only captivate the reader but make them question their assumptions about the world.
After studying just a few speeches you’ll soon find yourself picking up rhythms and rhetorical techniques that will become a natural part of your style, giving readers not only big emotional moments but the sense that your books deserve a special spot on their shelves.