A cliché is as good as you can make it new.
Reader Jeff Sexton, citing this good TED talk by Andrew Stanton, notes that when the Pixar team was making Toy Story, they had a secret list of animation clichés they were determined not to use, e.g. No “I want” moment, no happy village scenes (see around the 11:30 mark on the video). Jeff wondered if I had a similar list regarding romantic comedies, e.g. “No chase to the airport, no kooky friends,” and asks, “What about some of the other rom-com tropes, like ‘meet cute?’”
Well, sure, another leisurely round of shooting such fish in a barrel sounds like fun. But that’s a widespread sport, and I’ve already done a post where I threatened the lives of contemporary screenwriters who think that the run to the airport is a viable romantic comedy climax. No, being a true aficionado, I’m into the harder stuff. Like: What comes after the cliché?
Certain babies can’t be thrown out with the bathwater. The “meet cute” is a fundamental genre convention, as necessary to a rom-com story as say, the first killing that alerts a thriller’s audience to the fact that there is a killer on the loose. And a well-crafted, good meet cute (or cute meet) is actually one of the perennial joys of the form, as Scott Myers is currently demonstrating on his Go Into the Story site.
What separates the good and great romantic comedies from the mediocre and forgettable is a screenwriter being conscious and creative. Meaning: Conscious, as in, being actively aware of the various tropes and conventions in a given genre, and creative, as in doing something with them.
What, for example, is one of the hoariest clichés in horror movies? The big “boo!” moment when a monster pops out of some unexpected place. So what’s one of the best, most-loved-by-genre-fans moments in the original Alien? Obviously: the unforgettable horror of the baby Alien bursting out of hapless astronaut John Hurt’s stomach.
See what screenwriter Dan O’Bannon did there? He recognized a genre cliché, he apparently thought about it a good deal, and then he drove right into it – that is, in a brand new snappy vehicle of his own invention. In this case, you might say the “boo!” cliché is literally alive and kicking. Yes, the monster has popped out of an unexpected place (check), but on the level of imaginative, ingenious surprise… OMG.
This is why I so enjoyed the climax of the French rom-com Heartbreakers (currently being developed as a remake at Uni), which featured a romantic lead running away from an airport to reclaim his honey. It’s why I laughed out loud while reading a spec a few weeks ago wherein a guy raced to an airport, only to discover that the girl he sought was still back at her place, packing for a different flight.
The cliché is not the screenwriter’s problem. Finding a fresh way to deal with the cliché is.
In fact, don’t think about it as a problem, think about it as a challenge. And the screenwriter’s best friend, in such circumstances, is what I’d call “imaginative realism.”
In comedy, we are delighted by reversals – by truths expressed in a surprising way. So what’s the most honest but unexpected turnaround you can think up, when confronted with what’s generally a tired genre trope?
The go-to for me and for most writers I know is character.
In a BAFTA talk recently posted online by Anne Thompson, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna talks about how she revised a key scene in her Devil Wears Prada script by having a supporting character played by Stanley Tucci do the unexpected, in response to lead Anne Hathaway’s plea for sympathy and support. He surprises her, and us, by being not nice – even a little cruel. And thus a potentially clichéd, mawkish “there, there” beat is turned into a more realistic, and marvelously character-revealing moment (see the 8:00 mark on the clip).
You could see the same approach at work in this Louie season’s two episodes featuring Parker Posey. Louis C.K. and PP navigated a path landmine-loaded with predictability (Guy asks out girl he hardly knows, w/high jinks bound to ensue), but never once blew it – because of the character Posey played, who defied our expectations at every turn, keeping us guessing to the very last seconds of her segment. She turned out to be a cousin to the institutionalized ex played by Charlotte Rampling in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (homaged by Louis and Woody’s longtime editor Susan Morse in the closing credits), but you could never quite see this coming.
The old cliché about clichés is that they work because they contain undeniable kernels of truth. It’s your job to dig those kernels out in your own imaginatively realistic, and thus surprising way. And if you really cook ‘em up right, the result won’t be an audience’s exasperated sighs of boredom, but… popcorn.