I recently received a set of comments about my ongoing script by a scriptwriter friend who took the time to read and think about the project (and to whom I will be forever grateful). I got a lot of insights and suggestions, and an alarm bell about an inconsistent character, but I will not be talking about those. This post is about clichés. My friend detected three of them in my script. Here are the situations he flagged:
1) A character dials a number on the phone. Hello? – we hear from the other side. No answer. Then: Mathilde, is that you?
2) A character secretly takes and collects pictures of three characters she is fascinated about.
3) A group of characters makes a mess, disturbing the neighbors at night. The neighbors knock on their door. One of them is wearing a robe.
He is right. Let’s take number one. We have seen it before. It is a way to introduce a fuzzy past, a problem that has been kept under the rug and that shall be addressed later. In The idiots (Lars von Trier) the woman who joins the group of anarchists/fools does exactly that. It is an easy set-up. It signals to the audience that there is something sketchy about X that will be revealed at some point.
Number two. Taking and collecting pictures. Easy way of showing that someone is interested in something.
Number three. Man with robe. Nobody wears robes these days.
We must carefully watch out for this kind of trap. When we are writing a story, immersed in that struggle of visualizing a situation, building it up, conveying meaning, a cliché may inadvertently be allowed in. We may not notice it as writers, but the audience will not fail to roll their eyes, like I did the other day when I saw some character played by Clint Eastwood talk to his dead wife while drinking a beer next to her tomb (bad, bad movie they served on that flight).
According to Robert McKee in his classic Story, “the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing only: the writer doesn’t know the world of his story”. It is a question of depth; when we cannot dig deep enough in our resources, we come up with shallow images that fell from screens and pages and litter our ground. We are not creating, which is the same as telling the truth; we are being lazy, going for the quick-fix, which is cheating.
McKee recommends research – through memory, imagination and fact – to avoid resorting to the media conventions that we consume by the thousands. It’s crucial. And once the writing is done, do ask a friend to spot these bugs. Don’t let an old slice of pizza find its way into your fresh, crispy meal.