Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #38: Clichés

As the saying goes, good writers should avoid clichés like the plague. But one of the easiest traps to fall into while writing a script is to go into a kind of auto-pilot mode where you just start writing things down that sound familiar. Any time you write down something that sounds familiar, that necessarily means that what you’ve written isn’t original. Since you want every part of your screenplay to sound unique, you will need to fight off the temptation to describe things in ways that you have heard before, which tend to come in the form of clichés.

Here are some examples of clichés that you never want to include in your screenplay:

1. Long, dramatic monologues delivered while staring out of a window.
2. A single tear rolling down someone’s cheek.
3. Scripts that begin by slowly panning around the protagonist’s bedroom.
4. The hero detonates a bomb, then walks away without looking back.
5. Montages of people trying on clothes.
6. Montages of a new couple going on fun dates together. Hell, just all montages.
7. A villain who confesses his criminal plans to the hero before killing him.
8. In a room full of people, one person starts clapping slowly.
9. A cop who is about to retire takes on one last case that should be no problem.
10. Your hero goes to a new country and is helped by a street-wise young boy.

I’m working on a script right now in which the protagonist defeats his antagonist by secretly using his cell phone to record the antagonist admitting his involvement in a criminal plot. I thought that was the perfect solution because this particular cell phone plays an integral role leading up to that point. Then I watched last week’s episode of “Lie To Me” where they did the exact same thing and I wanted to stab myself in the eye for succumbing to such an overdone plot device. Now I have to come up with an original way to defeat my antagonist, but that effort will definitely be worthwhile when the people who read my script see that I took the time to give them something that they haven’t seen before. I promise it will be worth your effort as well.

If you have a favorite movie cliché, I’d love to hear about it so please write it in the comment box below. Thanks!


  1. I will avoid any movie that has an unsuspecting young miss walking slowly towards the staircase leading to the second story. I've heard people in the audience yell in unison, "Don't go upstairs."

    But, for me, there is a new one that has only recently appeared and ruins more and more films for me: the writer's insatiable need to incorporate texting, twittering, facebooking, and cell-phone technology.

    For young audiences who love fart jokes, the use of social media seems more and more essential. They want to be entertained. Nothing else must be accomplished. That's fine and well as big box office.

    I personally am in the Sean Penn camp that says, I don't see movies to be entertained. If I want to be entertained I'll get an 8-ball and a couple of hookers. I'm drawn to films that move me - touch my soul with an original and well told story - all accomplished without someone texting, twittering etcetera.

    Uhhhh... what was the question?

  2. I've learned a lot about you today, Leo. ;-) I agree that it's a bad idea to feature current technology too prominently in a script because what makes it look modern today will make it look dated in just a few years.

  3. Theres a funny music video about point 4 called "Cool guys dont look at explosions"

  4. the evergreen cliche of bomb exploding/door closing the micro second after hero gets out of the building

  5. This isn't necessarily the screenwriter's fault per se, but it still makes me nauseous:

    The ending where a character realizes what's really been going on, and they play back (basically) the entire movie in clips to show the audience the revelation.

    It was appreciated in The Sixth Sense(1999), but it was the nail in the coffin for The Illusionist(2006).

    If your script is smart and gripping, the audience will pay attention and there will be no need for this kind of recap. The hook may even make them want to watch it again to see what they missed.

    If the story is complicated and you feel a recap is absolutely necessary, don't make it 5 minutes long (for Christ's sake). Thirty seconds is plenty.

  6. Wow, I was just talking with my daughter about the difference between the endings of The Sixth Sense and The Illusionist. Weird!

    But you're right, when there's a surprise ending like that, a brief recap of the clues that the audience wouldn't have picked up on during the first viewing can be very satisfying. Key word being "brief."

  7. This isn't a cliché, exactly, but it drives me nuts when characters repeat a line of dialog for emphasis. This rarely happens in real life, or at least in my real life.

    I'm concerned about the ramifications of this decision.

    We all are, Henry. We all are.

    Actually, my name isn't short for Henry. It's short for Hankford.

    That's odd.

    Yes, it is, Wise Old Bill. Yes, it is.

  8. I know what you mean, Travis. I know what you mean.


  9. The couple kisses, and the people standing around explode into applause. I hate that.