Written by Justine Owens, script reader and social media manager for Shore Scripts
So, this is my list of the 10 “world’s worst” clichés in screenwriting. For me, screenwriting suffers from clichés when the characters lack depth or situations lack originality. Embarking on storylines with these problems can lead you into treacherous waters when it comes to engaging your script reader! So let’s take a look at the spec script pile:
1) American High School – The Principal’s Office
This has to be my number one all-time cliché! The stuffy principal, never bright enough to deserve his or her position of power, tries to dominate our youthful protagonist. Without a strong tie in to the story arc, this is just a stock scene that endlessly recurs in American High School flicks. Unless you have something really new to add, avoid this Rites of Passage cliché at all times.
EXCEPTION: Judd Apatow nails it in THIS IS 40 by turning the tables and putting the parents in the hot seat. MORE: A Look In The Spec Pile: Top 6 Submissions In 2014 Shore Scripts Screenwriting Competition
2) Oddball Loner with a dream gets in trouble with the local mob
Why does everyone want to have an ice-cream van? When competition time comes around, you can bet you’ll get to read at least one script where our early 20s protagonist, from the wrong side of the tracks, aspires to slightly quirky future. Unfortunately, they suffer the inevitable run-in with the local hoodlums. This is a cliché that only the very best of character development can hope to pull off. You have been warned!
EXCEPTION: Sally Wainwright in the BBC’s HAPPY VALLEY makes the ice cream a truly menacing presence on the estate.
3) The Supernatural Teenager
There are tons of movies in which the ancient mystery of female puberty can only be understood through the allegory of supernatural possession. While it makes me smile, (I’m a female by the way), it really is a bit old hat now.
EXCEPTION: Unless you have got a new CARRIE in your pocket, I’d avoid this cliché like the plague.
4) Pensioner with a hidden past beats the system
What will these crazy crinklies get up to next? If they are not ripping off the local bank or corporation, then they are falling in love at 95 years-old. Wherever you look, there are old folks bucking the system, but how realistic is that? It takes a very rare character voice to convince me this particular senior is going to live on screen, and moreover, that they will convincing pull off what they are tasked to do.
EXCEPTION: COCOON (1985) by Tom Benedek still beats all comers.
5) An American Abroad
Now we all know that it is a common cliché in Europe to describe Americans as insular. However, this cliché is more insidious than you think. In recent times, this cliché has made its presence felt in the well-intentioned military movie. These are the combat flicks where the enemy is as confusing and opaque as it is terrifying ill-equipped (All I’m saying is it might be nice to see another nationalities’ point of view through their own eyes once in a while!).
EXCEPTION: Brian Helgeland pulled of a triumph in GREEN ZONE, where you really root for the character played by Matt Damon all the way through.
6) The Crazy Scientist
Frankenstein! Need I say more!
EXCEPTION: Steven Zaillian’s AWAKENINGS inverted the whole “it’s alive” business and cemented Robin Williams’ career in movie history.
7) Poor Boy Loves Rich Girl
This set up is probably the most common cliché of the fairy-tale, the imbalance of love’s sweet dream and unrequited love. Frequently this setup is combined with the protagonist being an orphan. He really has nothing. Until that is, he finds a bag of beans, or kills a dragon, or … well, you get my point, this story cliché is far from original.
EXCEPTION: Karen McCullah & Kirsten Smith make Shakespearian romance an absolute delight in 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU.
8) Daughter Seeking Father
She’s smart and her father was a great man, but now, to honour his legacy she is going to take a step into danger. Bah! It never really works out like this. There is always a slightly older, more experienced male who is on hand to rescue the day, and very likely seduce her in the process.
EXCEPTION: It will take a lot to beat one of my favourite scenes in movie history, where Karen Allen wins the drinking competition in Lawrence Kasdan’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
9) The Merc
Here we have the fearsomely quiet, slightly aging hunk with special combat skills. The art here is in writing a character we believe in, and most importantly, engenders empathy. Unless your character really lives on the page, don’t invent another pale stereotypical copy.
EXCEPTION: If writers want to lift the Merc to the next level, they are going to have to do it better than Luc Besson in TAKEN.
10) The Obscure Biopic
The problem with the obscure biopic is that it can often be corrupted into a kind of moral intentioned and message-heavy screenplay. The writer is passionate about the protagonist’s worth, and spends their efforts on dull exposition of the nuances of period and place, sacrificing DRAMA for FACTS. Don’t ever do this! No matter how much you revere your real world inspiration, the story still has to live on the page.
EXCEPTION: Joel Oliansky put Jazz back on the map with his wonderful biopic, BIRD. MORE: A Look In The Spec Pile: 5 Winning Screenplays (@ShoreScripts Screenwriting Competition 2015)
Well screenwriters, that wraps up my 10 Killer Clichés. I know it is tough finding originality, but if you take heed, and avoid the clichés listed above, you are well on your way to writing a damn good original story. Good luck!