A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
How many times have you read a script where an argument, set in a living room, turns physical, and ultimately, the protagonist physically pushes back? The other guy falls; accidentally slamming their head on the corner of a coffee table and dies. Yawn.
Cliché: It’s what’s killing your scripts.
I’ve read tens of thousands of scripts over the course of my career as an executive, a contest judge, a consultant and a producer. I think we could all agree that I’ve been around the block a time or two.* I’ve seen this trope play out so many times, that the moment I read:
INT. LIVING ROOM
in a scene where two characters are in conflict, I find myself simply waiting for the moment when head meets coffee table. Crunch.
Now our hero’s got a dead body problem. Conflict escalated. Not our protagonist’s fault that the other guy is dead, conveniently keeping their hands clean. Same trope plays out in every fight set on a rooftop. The bad guy is gonna go over the edge and fatally splat, but it’s not through the direct actions of the hero, a lá Batman and the Joker. Bad guy gone; hero still rootable.
Every time you write a scene or craft a sequence where we, your reader, your audience, know what will happen next, leaving us waiting for it to unfold as we predict, and it then plays out exactly as we anticipate, your story edges closer to buying the farm.
Cliché kills tension, flattens suspense, and spoils surprise, tossing some of the most powerful tools you have as a storyteller out the window.
Why? Because the predictable, the overly familiar, the hackneyed, literally turns off our brains. Your goal as a storyteller should be turn on our brains.
Cliché: Been There, Done That
Admittedly, there is a writing dilemma here. But understanding and embracing that conundrum is actually the key to success.
The double-edged sword is that you need to know what the audience wants, what we have been conditioned to expect, what satisfies us in the genre. We want the good guy to triumph, the guy to get the girl, the serial killer to nearly outwit the detective. That’s why we picked your genre. Fall short of those outcomes and we will be mightily disappointed. Flip them and we will be furious.
The solution is to know the expectation and then spin it. Give us what we want, but in a fresh way.
The surest method to finding the fresh over the familiar is for the trope to play out in a way that is unique to your story. Only your hero would ever defeat the bad guy by turning their own minions against them, win the girl in this distinctive setting that turns unexpectedly romantic, or smartly intuit your cunning serial killer’s next move and trick them into tripping themselves up and getting caught.
Even Rotten Tomatoes, aggregator of film and TV critics’ opinions, uses “Fresh” to describe projects with a majority of positive reviews. Obviously, “fresh” conveys that which is superior. RT has become so influential, that Hollywood cringes when they come out on the “Rotten” end of the Tomatometer.
Make it your own. It should spring from all that is distinctive to your story.
Otherwise, it’s deja vu all over again.
Cliché: Sharp As A Tack
We don’t want to be able to figure out the mystery before the hero does. This is one of my top pet peeves.
We like smart heroes. Advancing plot through cliché makes your characters seem dumb. Worse still – you don’t seem that sharp. Nevertheless, when the pieces do fall into place, it should all make sense. That’s striking a balance between keeping the mystery engaging, while dropping the perfect amount of subtle, clever hints along the way so that the big reveal surprises us, but still works within the logic of your world and your characters.
Your audience is smart. Your audience is well versed in the world of story. Your audiences’ brains are operating at a million miles an hour. You have to be a slick enough storyteller, perfectly in control of the tale, directing our attention just where you want it to be, manipulating us like a skilled magician, and then delighting us with the surprise in the end. We don’t enjoy the red herring who sticks out like a sore thumb – Attention! Not the real bad guy! Here to distract you! – and we won’t respect you as a writer when that’s what you offer up.
Not being a step ahead of the hero makes my heart skip a beat. We love being on the edge of our seats. We love anticipation. We love surprise. Because that’s how our brains are wired. Brains are basically a fine-tuned survival mechanism inside our skulls that are constantly sussing out everything happening around us and processing it to figure out what might happen next. Could that be a wild beast rustling those bushes?
This is how your ancestors managed to avoid getting eaten alive, so someday you could exist. This is what brains were designed for. And just because you have relatively few encounters with man-eating beasts, it doesn’t mean your brain has stopped looking at the world this way. Your brain can’t stop anticipating what might happen next.
Cliché: Have Your Cake And Eat It Too
To make your reader happy and satisfy your audience, know your genre inside out.
That old saying, “Know the rules before you break them,” surely has some merit to it. Otherwise, how did it get to be a well-worn adage?
I insist that my Big Ideas Seminar students find at least three prototype films before leaping in to structure their stories. The Big Ideas Outline Template incorporates all the major gurus, but never lets you ignore that dang header as your outline expands – your prototype film choices staring you in the face at the top of every single page. I encourage my consulting clients to read everything in their genre they can get their hands on. Scripts for their all time favorite films which drew them to the genre, the films considered genre-defining, the award-winners, recent sales, and everything written by their favorite writer – for starters.
If you want to survive, master the convention and avoid the cliché.
Here’s a little neuroscience explanation of why Twists are one of Essential Elements of Story – they are the ultimate brain turn on.
Neuroscience is the storyteller’s friend.
Learn simple brain tricks to help you overcome writers’ stumbling blocks – from distraction to decision-making – to boost your creative output and be a happier writer here.
*Normally, I avoid clichés in my writing, but the ones here are in italics and the headers, just to underscore how yawn-inducing they are.
P.S. Speaking of the power of the brain to be influenced by what it sees, I’m betting that just looking at the photos of yawning – even when it’s not people who are yawning – made you yawn. Because the photos just lit up part of your brain. That’s why yawing is considered “contagious.”
Dump cliché and harness that power to light up brains to your advantage.
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