Great Scene: “When Harry Met Sally”

An excellent example of how to handle exposition in a scene.

The movie: When Harry Met Sally, the terrific 1989 romantic comedy written by the late great Nora Ephron.

The scene: It’s pretty self-explanatory. Here’s a transcription of some of the key dialogue, but you should watch the entire scene to see how beautifully constructed it is.

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Harry: Right now everything is great, everyone is happy, everyone is in love and that is wonderful. But you gotta know that sooner or later you’re gonna be screaming at each other about who’s gonna get this dish. This eight dollar dish will cost you a thousand dollars in phone calls to the legal firm of That’s Mine, This Is Yours.
Sally: Harry.
Harry: Please, Jess, Marie. Do me a favor, for your own good, put your name in your books right now before they get mixed up and you won’t know whose is whose. ’Coz someday, believe it or not, you’ll go 15 rounds over who’s gonna get this coffee table. This stupid wagon wheel ROY ROGERS GARAGE SALE COFFEE TABLE!
Jess: I thought you liked it!
Harry: I WAS BEING NICE!

Harry stalks away and leaves. Sally turns to the others.

Sally: He just bumped into Helen.

And the scene from the movie:

This is a perfect example not only of exposition through conflict, but also a BOB (Bit of Business). The BOB is the coffee table. That’s the device around which the entire scene is framed. And what Harry’s character does in citing it, books, and an “eight dollar plate” highlights the value of another narrative device: Talismans. All of those physical objects are symbolically meaningful in that they represent for Harry — in the moment — the hurt and anger he feels about his failed marriage.

It’s a classic scene by such an incredible writer Nora Ephron, using conflict, revelation, and humor to transform a talking heads exposition scene into something entertaining.

Who loves When Harry Met Sally? Who misses Nora Ephron?

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