Screenwriting 101: Avoiding the Cliché

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By Brock Cooper (doddleNEWS)

How many times have you heard, or even said, “Originality is dead in Hollywood?” Movies have borrowed from many of the same central themes since the silent days, but the problem isn’t so much that as the proliferation of dialogue and story clichés. You can have a buddy cop movie, but they don’t have to be wisecracking opposites. Today’s movies are so filled with cliches that many audiences have come to expect it and that’s a disservice to them.

The good news is that you can learn to avoid these cliches if you learn to recognize them.

How Clichés Came About?

At one point, all clichés were fresh new ideas that were a hit. They were pieces of dialog that made the audience laugh or cry. It was a situation that was riveting, dramatic or funny and became an instant classic. It was a plot that was unheard of and everyone loved. Writers saw it, liked it, and imitated it. This happened in one movie after another until people came to expect it, and the cliché was born. How many times can a maid fall in love with her employer and live happily ever after?

How many times have you seen the villain doing a monologue to the hero and telling him the plan or a girl falling down in a horror movie so the slow moving killer can get her? These are classic clichés. They’re also a crutch for exposition and plot. Clichés are an easy and often lazy way to move a story along. If you ever need an easy way to know what a cliché is, then watch a parody. They use cliches simply to make fun of them.

Verbal Clichés

These are the easiest clichés to avoid. They’re phrases or dialog that have been used over and over again, often in the same situation. For example, it’s perfectly OK to have someone say, “I’ll be back,” as they are leaving, but not if your action hero character is saying it in a low voice to the person he or she is protecting. (Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to utter “I’ll be back,” or a variation of it, in almost all his movies after the first Terminator, including the sequels.)  There are tons of these kind of phrases out there: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “We’ve been expecting you,” and on, and on, and on.

Another type of cliché is a piece of dialogue for a situation that isn’t needed, but people do it anyway. For example, your main characters looks in the rearview mirror and see a car following them, and someone says, “I think we’ve got company.” Thanks, I didn’t think the audience had figured that out yet. Avoiding these common clichés is simple: Recognize and don’t use them. Instead, choose a different piece of dialogue or think of a phrase that someone would actually say in that situation.

Story and Plot Clichés

Go back to a script you recently wrote, preferably a first draft, and take a good look at it. Odds are you’ve got some clichés in it. You didn’t mean to. It’s just that we’ve seen them in so many movies that you almost instinctively put it in. Clichés are a lot like resume templates. The framework is there and all you have to do is plug in your information. The problem with templates is they’re all the same, and it’s much harder to get a job when your resume looks just like everyone else’s. There are a few ways to keep them out of your script.

  • Realism – One of the best ways to avoid these types of clichés is to think how would people act or be like in reality. Do partners really provide funny quips in the middle of a fire fight? Can a dude with a wi-fi connection and a laptop download top secret files after hacking into the CIA… in less than a minute? No, they don’t, so don’t do it.
  • Do the opposite – Turn a cliché on its ear and the audience will love you. Sometimes the best way to stop a cliché is to simply go the opposite way. If you’re thinking of a story where the main character is a tough as nails super-cop who works alone, but has to partner with a rookie, Hollywood star, yada yada., do the opposite. Write about a cop that always relies on his partner, but has to go it alone after his partner goes on maternity leave.
  • Use Your Imagination – Clichés are a writer’s way to easily create a character or situation that they want. It’ a no-brainer. You don’t have to think too hard on what’s going to happen or how people are going to react because is has all done before. By going from your imagination, you’re creating situations and characters anew. If you start veering into a cliché, then stop yourself and do some brainstorming.

At their very heart, clichés are simply good ideas that have been overused. By breaking away from then, you’re giving the audience something fresh and who knows, your out of the box thinking may one day end up as a cliché.

About doddle 16509 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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