We’ve all seen them in screenplays. We’ve certainly seen them make their way onto the silver screen. From time to time, we’ve even forgiven them. Perhaps we’ve even grown, desensitized, to them. Or have we? I, for one, am holding a grudge. I, for one, refuse to give up. I’m talking of course about the cliches which pervade our screenplays! I have a theory – nay, a dream that we can do better with our storytelling. We can be original. Here are some common cliches and the techniques to avoid them in your scriptwriting! Join the revolution!
First, let’s define a story shortcut – the trope. What is a trope? Tropes, like in literature, are reoccurring circumstances, devices, or archetypes. In filmic terms the trope is something audiences are culturally familiar with, as they’ve reoccurred through multiple media/tv/film projects. Therefore, less writing is needed to establish circumstances before audiences catch on to what is happening/what the stakes are.
Take, for instance, the famed “Batman in my basement” trope. The name comes from an episode from the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series episode titled “I’ve Got Batman in my Basement.” The plot goes something like this: protagonist, wounded, is forced to take shelter with/rely on an amateur for help, ultimately bringing the amateur into the protagonist’s world. This trope can be more complex, but that’s the quick and dirty. Where else have we seen this trope used? How about ET? Ironman 3? Daredevil Season 1 (intro character-fave Claire)? I might be a bit of a nerd. Hear me roar.
You get the gist. There are tropes tied to genres, tropes tied to characters, tropes tied to plots, and tropes tied to tropes. Tropes can be a great way to help get creative juices flowing for a writing project and help the audience get to a space in understanding and emotion when you have limited screen time. Want to learn more about tropes? Check out the definitive guide on TV Tropes!
So where is the line between trope and cliche? Glad you, too, were concerned. If tropes are poorly executed, they can come off as cliche. While tropes are fantastic to use, you must put your own spin on them, breathe your own life into them, and make them unique and make sense within your story’s world.
Another way they can become cliche is if during, say, pilot season, a trope reoccurs too often across the tv/film universe. You’ll more frequently see this in procedurals as they trend-watch. It’s fun to look for and see them rippling across each series during the same week. Have I wrecked your world yet?
The biggest offenders are probably genre cliches. Crime and medical tropes that are poorly researched, for instance, are used so often that audiences start to believe that hospitals or police actually work that way (unless they have real-life experience). How do you break the cliches? By actually doing research. Also, horror movies. Push the genre to its limits, like Get Out (2017) and A Quiet Place (2018) did. Don’t focus on the woman in heels whose stiletto gets caught in a grate, or have everything occur in a creepy basement (however budget-friendly that may be). Good storytelling is out there. Don’t even get me started on noir cliches. If you want to avoid cliches in the genre in which you’re writing, it might be worth a google. Some of the best ways to avoid cliches is to find them, face them, and then invert them.
To truly avoid cliches, you have to breathe your life into the world of your script. I’ve seen the below interaction far too often across the film/tv world:
”Are we clear?” (Or some variant)
If I see that interaction one more time, I might scream. You’ve been warned. That line belonged to A Few Good Men (1992) and Aaron Sorkin’s mad writing skill. Stop stealing it! Just staaawwwwp! There are dozens of ways to re-write the above so that it makes sense within your story, still conveys the attitude, and does not plagiarize classics. It’s ok, I’ve seen the above used on notable tv shows and films (not cool, but fine if used in purposeful homage). Just be better than the big leagues. Join the revolution for better storytelling.
Hopefully this post got your creativity flowing! I wish you well in your script-writing/reading adventures! Until next time, cheers, and happy filmmaking!