A Tenth Anniversary Re-Post: April, 2010
Occasionally one does see a new movie cliché in formation. Given the impact of Kick-Ass, we may now be in for a decade of "pre-teen curses like a sailor before kicking a villain's butt" moments. And I can remember, long, long ago (i.e. before The Matrix) when action sequences didn't always have those "characters hang in mid-air while dodging extreme slow-motion bullet trajectories" bits in them.
Yet once they're created, some clichés never die. Does it matter that generally, people (discounting hipsters and DJs) don't own turntables and play records in 2010? Not to movie trailer-makers, who continue to use that hoary "sound of the needle scratching across vinyl" as their standard comedic "someone just screwed up a good time" device. The ubiquity of say, "Cover me - I'm going in!" or "We've got company!" as uber-clichés of dialogue is evidently timeless (take a look at this great compilation video to see the latter line in all its eternal glory).
Movie clichés abound - in genre, dialogue, character; here's a recent cliché exposé, and an entire site that has encyclopedia-ized them. Nonetheless, I'm incredulous when I see a cliché in a new spec script, implying that the writer must be wit-free (e.g. in rom-coms, one dead climactic routine still appears with bewildering regularity). Here's a short list, compiled with the help of my fellow story analysts at Uni, of clichés found in contemporary studio submissions, despite for-the-love-of-God, Monsieur! evidence that by now, they should be long gone.
The Fired & Cheated-On Setup
Apparently it's never enough for a protagonist to be fired from her/his job as the catalyst for a story. No, they have to come home from being fired and find their lover in bed with another woman or man (with both would be nice for a change, but that would suggest a modicum of originality).
The First-Time Stoner Set Piece
Yes, some states in our union are flirting with legalizing marijuana, but that's no excuse: Why do so many spec screenwriters think that the "unlikely straight person eats pot brownies by accident" routine is something new (or beloved) under the comedic sun?The Unbearable Failure of Engines
Just as any protagonist who's beginning a new life by driving off in a car must inevitably suffer the car's backfiring, if a character is desperate to escape peril and jumps into a car, you can bet your Fire the Writer bumper sticker that the engine will not start at first, whatever the auto's make, year or model.
Worst Screenplay Opening in the World
Used to be "Protagonist wakes up in the morning," but Screenwriting For Dummies must've put the kibbosh on that one. How-To books have not succeeded, however, in exterminating The camera soars over the city/town/countryside... The shot inevitably ends up landing on our protagonist's yard/window/hairpiece, and despite this being as tired a camera direction as the arcane We pull back to reveal..., it still begins spec scripts on a weekly basis.
The Obligatory Ethnic/Gender Stereotype Support
Since My Best Friend's Wedding, the heroine's buddy must be gay. This has given way to The Gay Huddle (i.e. group of gay confidants gather round the heroine's phone/computer with her, see He's Just Not That Into You). All black women - invariably friends of white heroines - must add "Girl!" at the end of declarative sentences (just as all gay men still gesture/say "Snap!"), and the most popular other ethnic character is The Feisty Hispanic or Black Female Detective (e.g. Date Night).
The Eating After-Hours Rule
When's the last time you ate your Chinese food out of the cartons, perhaps with chopsticks? No matter: Anyone staying late at the office/precinct/home kitchen counter is required to do so, despite the common sense "Chinese food is for sharing" rule known to the civilized Western world for decades (See: Single women always eat ice cream out of cartons, in your typical zombie rom-com).
Most Unimaginative Music Cue
There's nothing cheaper than invoking a "Soul Classic" for a montage of good times, yet this too still crops up with numbing regularity. Awhile ago, James Brown (e.g. I Feel Good) was the go-to soul music cue, but Early '70s fare (usually Sly) and a little later (We Are Family) have become the brain-dead norm.
The Big Video/Digital Reveal
The evidence is on tape (or on DVD, zip-drive, 8mm, et al), which means that at the eleventh hour, our hero or heroine will slip the incriminating footage onto a screen - the bigger the better - in front of the rest of the cast and/or public, and - well, you know the rest, right?The #1 Most Over-Used Image
No competition here, and no exaggeration: This phrase turns up in about one out of every three spec scripts I read. Not sure who got it started (and I'd like to know, just so I can deck 'em) but Like a deer in headlights is the hands-down most ubiquitous clichéd screenwriting simile in existence.
Finally, in terms of Definitive Screenwriting Fail, there's one physical comedy routine that makes any reader's mind go Tilt!when it shows up on the page:
The Chain-Reaction Scream
We do know who started it: blame Melissa Mathison and Mr. Spielberg for the moment - fresh and funny in 1982, groan-inducing now - when young Drew Barrymore saw E.T. and screamed and E.T. screamed in reaction, and she screamed again, and... "one screams, the other screams" has been with us for 18 years. So you oughta have your screenwriting license revoked if you're still using it (Runner-up: The Dog Cocking Its Head Like "Huh?" Reaction).
Living the RomCom will be curious to hear of any more recent screenwriting abuses that you'd like to add to the current canon. Meanwhile, take it from a guy who sits on one of the first lines of resistance in Spec-Land: As you're about to type a phrase, a riff, or a scene on your screen, if you even think you've seen it on another screen before? Think, "Is that all you've got?" and "It's a trap!" and... Don't even go there.