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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Not quite a cliché...

So I'm in the midst of working on my next article for scr(i)pt magazine. I am addressing clichés, or elements which approach the realm of cliché.

Since I've read so many hundreds of scripts over the years (and anyone who has done the same will probably tell you the same thing), I've seen my share of overly familiar or repetitive material. I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say they're clichés, per se. Though over at The Thinking Writer, there is this recent entry that does refer to them as such, and also offers some great techniques to help avoid writing such clichés. Let me explain a bit more what I mean.

Certainly, we're all familiar with clichés in language. In speech a cliché is an overused phrase that has lost its resonance through overuse. For example, the phrase "caught with his hand in the cookie jar." At first, this phrase evokes images of not merely being caught in the act of committing a crime, but extends the emotional depth by reminding us of a childhood act. We can almost imagine the red creeping into the cheeks of the child who is caught with his hand in that jar. But by now, that phrase has been used so many times that it no longer evokes that emotional message unless we really think about it. We hear the words "caught with his hand in the cookie jar" and our minds immediately translate that to "caught in the midst of committing a crime." It becomes mere shorthand (which, I suppose is what language really is in its essence anyway, right?).

I've found that there are also other elements beyond dialogue that also have lost some resonance through overuse. I hesitate to call them clichés specifically, since I feel that they (or at least some of them) may not yet have reached that point, but they remain too familiar to feel fresh. A couple of brief examples:

  • someone looking at a photograph as a means of us gaining insight into their past
  • newspaper headlines/clippings, used to similar effect
  • a kid whose parents died in a car crash (doesn't it seem like every orphan in movies lost their parents this way?)
  • a character who doesn't speak the entire film, until spouting something brilliant or important at the end (and no, I don't just refer to Silent Bob here, but also to kids who clearly are able to speak, biologically speaking, but for some inexplicable reason just won't)
  • a computer whiz who is able to hack into any computer system (often at a school) in just a few seconds or minutes (of course this also stretches the believability point as well as bordering on cliché)

I think you get the idea. Basically, even if these things aren't full-on clichés, we've definitely seen them before, often many times. And my belief is:
If you've seen it before, you can find a more original way to say or do it.
This doesn't mean that you can't find an original twist on an old cliché or familiar element. In fact, to do so can sometimes be even more invigorating, giving the audience something unexpected, by setting them up to believe they'll see a cliché, and then surprising them with a different twist on it. Perhaps something like, "You've really done your homework on this. Clearly you were a terrible student."

Still, even though a good director might be able to bring some special power to a moment such as "John looks at a wedding photo of himself and breaks down crying," there is likely a much stronger way to deliver the message that John's wife either died or left him. I bet the first time a jilted lover walked outside into a rainstorm it held a lot more emotional depth than it does now. So find another way to deliver the same point! Alternatively, use the guy looking at the picture and crying to deliver a completely unexpected point. Maybe he's crying because he had more hair then than he does now. I don't know, but you can come up with your own. This breathes new life into the overused storytelling device the way the "terrible student" line twisted the verbal cliché.

So, what are some of your favorite examples of overused elements -- plot twists, character types, storytelling devices? Post them in the comments! Thanks.


Anonymous Devin Singleton said...

I know this post is super old but I would like to be the first to comment.
One I've noticed in horror movies is

- One character is in front of a mirror and they turn to look behind them. When they turn back to the mirror the killer, or whatever is reflected in the mirror.

I'm a screenwriter. I've written one feature length and I'm only 18. I'm proud of this accomplishment but not proud of the finished product. I've set it aside to start a new project and I will return to it when I've improved my craft.

5:10 AM  

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