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SCREENWRITING BEYOND CLICHÉS
Audiences have access to more entertainment than ever before. Gone are the days of perusing TV Guide waiting for your favorite movie to air.
Today, movies and TV shows are available on demand from a multitude of providers, including cable TV, iTunes, Netflix and a host of online services. They can be accessed from just about anywhere using TVs, computers, netpads, and even cell phones.
This has resulted in a truly knowledgeable and somewhat jaded generation of moviegoers and TV watchers. They may not know screenwriting jargon, but they are experts in their genres.
Not only are they aware of story conventions and character archetypes, but most have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of movies and TV shows that appeal to them. If you aspire to be a successful screenwriter or filmmaker, take heed!
Throughout history, storytelling has always been the supreme treat for audiences. A story can be told in different ways. In ancient days it was, of course, an oral tradition. This evolved into plays and books, and finally into the movies and TV shows that we favor today.
Before speech, people used pictograms to tell stories. They are still visible on the walls of prehistoric caves throughout the world. It's ironic how we've come full circle to once again favoring "pictures," albeit moving.
From Aristotle's theories dating back to 300 B.C. until today, the principles of good storytelling have pretty much stayed the same. In essence, a good story revolves around realistic characters, an intriguing plot, and plenty of conflict.
Story's have evolved into different audience favorites, called genres. The most popular genres today include Sci-Fi, horror, comedy, action adventure, and crime thrillers. Even straight dramas and documentaries can be considered genres of sorts.
Specific to each genre are certain storytelling conventions and character types. Fans of particular genres are comfortable with these conventions and characters, and expect them to present.
One of the secrets of writing a great script is to transcend audience expectation without breaking any of the genre's conventions.
This is more difficult than it sounds. It's a fine line to create an exciting new experience for your audience without stepping over the boundary into the uncomfortable or unfamiliar. Worst, yet, you don't want to bore them by treading old ground.
Avoid the temptation to write a script in a genre that you are unfamiliar with. Fans of the genre will sniff you out immediately!
If you have an unyielding desire to tell a story in an unfamiliar genre, you had better become an expert in it. Watch every classic of the genre you can get your hands on and read everything about it you can.
A cliché is a story convention or character type that is unoriginal. It is a simple concept, but complex in its dynamics.
All clichés start out as a good thing: a unique idea that excites or thrills audiences. Some even evolve into genre conventions or character archetypes. The problem arises with overexposure and/or audience growth.
For example, after somber cop movies like Bullitt and Serpico, it was refreshing to see cops lighten up in the 1970s. Wisecracking during a shootout. How cool was that? What courage. After several decades of this, however, the thought of one more cop making a wisecrack in the middle of a gunfight can elicit nothing more than a yawn.
Many clichés have their origins in the early days of movies. Contemporary audiences view these golden age films as dated or predictable. True, but back when these movies were made, they were fresh and appealing. The trick is to look at the films in the context of when they were made. It gives you perspective on the evolution of cinema.
Viewers have difficulty doing this and therefore frown on old movies. Hence, the demise of classic programming on TV. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find a B&W or pre 1970s film airing at all.
Traditionally, it took years for a fresh idea to develop into a cliché. For example, cross-cutting between the heroine in trouble and the hero on his way to rescue her worked pretty well from The Birth of Nation in 1915 to The Graduate in 1967. Now, it would be viewed as a cliché unless given a major overhaul or twist.
Because of the vast amount of product and ease of availability, audiences become jaded faster. A unique idea can become a cliché in a matter of months.
Consequently, it is more difficult to entertain today's audiences. A few decades ago, viewers would squirm at the sound of eerie music and a reasonably good monster appearing on screen. Today, it's not se easy to elicit the same reaction.
There are so many clichés in today's movies that it is difficult to keep track of them. Despite this, audiences recognize clichés immediately. Sometimes they can anticipate one because the set-up itself is a cliché.
Most of this happens on an unconscious level (audiences don't keep mental tabs unless the movie is really bad). Surprisingly, audiences have resigned themselves to accepting a reasonable peppering of clichés when watching a movie.
Often though, filmmakers overshoot their "quota." This is why so many movies die after their initial release, and why producers say there are so few good scripts despite record numbers of aspiring screenwriters.
A good strategy is to go 180 degrees against a cliché when you feel the need to write one. This has become very satisfying to audiences and even piques their curiosity about the unfolding story.
In Carrie (1976), the idea of having the "outsider" bullied at school was interesting. Today, every time the main character is a quirky or new-to-the-neighborhood teen, we expect this tired storyline.
In Twilight (2008), the cliché was trashed. In fact, Bella, the new kid, was embraced by her classmates. Not only was it a major relief for the audience not to have to trudge through old ground, it left additional screen time for the more interesting storylines to be developed.
Similarly, reluctant couples were fun in It Happened One Night (1934) to The Jewel of the Nile (1985), and beyond. Most viewers will agree, however, that this has become tiresome. When the combatants finally fall in love it's enough to make you barf.
You can usually see this storyline coming early in the film, but the movie Monsters (2010) was a pleasant surprise. Again, the filmmakers wrote 180 degrees against the cliché. No war of words. No mushy declarations. There was a love element, yes, but it was handled in a dignified way.
Evolution of Conflict
Conflict is what drives every movie and TV show. Without it, a story will drag aimlessly along with no point. Unfortunately, most clichés involve conflict. You can see this in the examples above:
- wisecracking cops during a gunfight
- crosscutting the heroine with hero on his way to rescue
- new kid bullied at high school
- reluctant couple falling in love
Would you put water in your car engine? Of course not. So why water down your story "engine" with clichés?
Every student screenwriter is taught that there are no new story ideas. This is true for plot points and characters, as well. However, it doesn't mean that you should do a straight rehash of the same old material over and over again.
There are several alternate approaches. Above, we mentioned writing 180 degrees against the cliché, even to the point of nixing the offending story beat altogether.
In addition, because today's audiences are so jaded, you must be very careful in choosing story beats, conflicts, and even character types. If it has a familiar ring to it, chances are it is a cliché. Trust your instincts and nix it. You must be ruthless in this regard. Your screenwriting career depends on it.
If you absolutely must use a well worn story beat or conflict because, say, it is a genre convention, you must put a unique spin on it. In fact, it must be more than unique, it must be intriguing. Something that "wows" the audience; something memorable.
Look, no one said screenwriting is easy. This is perhaps the main reason. Audiences are sophisticated on every level and you must work harder to please them.
The idea of avoiding clichés is nothing new and you've probably heard it before. Hopefully, this article has given you a different take on the concept. By understanding the history and lifecycle of clichés, you can better deal with your need to use them and discover suitable alternatives. -Lou LaVolpe
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