Specs & The City: Movie Cliches and ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’

During a recent #scriptchat (check out the transcript if you’ve never joined in), the topic of the evening was movie clichés. The conversation was excellent and engaging as usual, and the topic stuck with me, so I decided to explore it a little further in this week’s column.

It’s commonly said (some might say it’s a cliché) that a writer’s worst enemy is the blank page – staring back at you with that smug blinking cursor; daring you to type something worth reading. I’d humbly submit that, as intimidating as that can be, in truth, it’s cliché that the blank page is a writer’s arch-nemesis.

Same...but different

Same…but different

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines cliché as: something that has become overly familiar or commonplace. As a screenwriter, we all know that’s basically a death sentence. Everyone in Hollywood wants “the same but different” from their specs (also a cliche perhaps, but true). You can format as well as you want or have great characterization and gripping dialogue, but if it doesn’t feel new to the reader, your script will get a “PASS.”

It’s that simple.

So, it’s our job as writers to not only recognize when we’re using a cliché, but to also find a way to make it new again; to change it just enough that it feels fresh. There are lots of techniques used by writers to accomplish this, but here are three of my favorites.

  • Make a change to the sex of your characters. Sometimes a shift in who is performing an action is enough to keep the action from being cliché. That’s one of the things that worked so well with a film like Bridesmaids. A lot of the jokes aren’t necessarily new, but seeing them played out by women rather than men is.  It puts the jokes in a new framework, and sometimes that’s enough.
  • Mess with the expectations of the scene. Stranger Than Fiction has a great example of this when Harold brings Ana a gift to show that he’s interested in her. We’ve seen a man give a woman flowers a million times in the movies, but in this instance Ana is a baker… so Harold brings her a box of assorted flours. It’s sweet and conveys the emotion of the scene with a nice twist on an overused cinematic moment.
  • Grab a notepad and start listing alternatives. Reach a scene in your story that feels cliché? Start listing off other ways the scene could play out. Take 15 minutes and just write. Don’t worry about how silly they are. I promise you’ll find gold.

I’d also like to take a moment to look at a movie that dealt really well with clichés in some ways, but failed in one particular moment…

Cliches and ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’

Not sure if this is Crazy or Stupid, but it sure was awkward.

Not sure if this is Crazy or Stupid, but it sure was awkward.

Dan Fogelman’s script for Crazy, Stupid, Love set Hollywood on fire; the film was in production one month after the script went to market. Read that again. So clearly, he did something right. What Fogelman did brilliantly was make a romantic comedy that didn’t feel bogged down by all the baggage of what “has to happen” in a modern rom-com. It took all the tropes, layered it with a healthy dash of realism and wit, and had the male character be the one desperate to win back their true love (playing with gender!). Stir it all together and voila: something new!

Now, I’m a big fan of the film (and Ryan Gossling’s dreamy abs), but there’s one scene that sticks out like a sore thumb for me. It’s the moment outside of the school right after Tracey has discovered that Cal had sex with their son’s school teacher.

Cal turns around to the crowd, only to be met…
By a SLAP ACROSS the face by Kate. She STORMS OFF.

                          CAL
           HE DESERVED AN `A’ ON THAT BOOK
            REPORT AND YOU KNOW IT!

THUNDER CRACKS in the sky. It begins to pour. Cal
stands there, soaked. He looks up at the sky.

                          CAL
           REALLY!!!???


Your welcome, ladies.

Your welcome, ladies.

Does it get more cliché than starting to rain at a dramatic moment when the character is at their lowest point? It’s my least favorite part of the film, and it stands out so strongly because the rest of the story manages to feel so fresh. It’s an oddly clumsy move for a film that gets so much else right. To the film’s credit, they realized they were working with a cliché. Unfortunately, they changed the “REALLY!!!???” line to “What a cliché.” This is a pet-peeve of mine, but punctuating a cliché by having a character say “What a cliché” doesn’t make it new.

It makes it two clichés.

So read through your script and be honest. Mark down every script that feels overly familiar and explore ways to change it up. I promise the extra work will pay off.

Until next time, keep practicing the lift from Dirty Dancing, and keep writing!

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