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'Is It Dead?' Keep Your Script Alive by Avoiding These Screenwriting Clichés

clichesLet me be the first to say that clichés aren’t inherently bad. They play an important role in filmmaking and screenwriting as a sort of shorthand expression that is easier to convey than the larger, more complex idea it represents. However, clichés can also be a crutch; I’m sure all of us are guilty of leaning too heavily on a tried and true tired and trite line of dialog or action. This infographic presented by the New York International Latino Film Festival highlights several movie clichés that you might want to avoid, or get really, really good at selling to your audience to keep your story from arriving DOA in the hands of a reader.


Again, using clichés in your storytelling isn’t necessarily a bad thing — director Omar Naim once told me and some fellow student filmmakers that, “Saying ‘I love you’ is cliché, but the quickest way to say ‘I love you’ is by saying ‘I love you.” In a previous post, we talked about using bad writing as a placeholder for the good writing that’ll follow it. Clichés are often in or are these placeholders, at least for me. As I build the structure of my story, it’s often held up by weak storytelling devices, like predictable action, character cut-outs, and unrealistic dialog.

We’ve all seen the clichés in the infographic below, and continue to see them in movies today (no bad 80s action flick flashbacks necessary). I’m sure in its heyday, the clichéd phrase “Is he dead,” was met with the audience replying, “Oh jeez – is he dead? I don’t know. Better take a closer look.” Nowadays, the audience (me) will just be screaming at the screen, “Of course he’s not dead, you idiot! No! Why are you checking? He’s just gonna — see! Now you’re dead, you fool!”

It’s an entertaining take on an issue that screenwriters might actually want to check themselves on, because although it might be helpful for quickly fleshing out an idea, using too many clichés might be the thing keeping your screenplay out of the hands of a script reader.

Writing Cliches

How do you avoid using clichés in your writing? What’s your favorite movie cliché? (Mine is the “good guy leaving the bad guy cuffed, but unattended, only to return to find he has *gasp* escaped” cliché.)

[via Cheezburger]

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  • Santa Clause on 12.29.13 @ 8:11PM

    You forgot…”Get to the Choppa”

  • The makers of the “Airplane!”, of course, have learned how to make fun of cliches, both verbal and visual.
    [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBuAfIjsFVk ]

  • Anthony Marino on 12.29.13 @ 8:41PM

    “follow that car”

  • Meduka Meguca on 12.29.13 @ 10:08PM

    Or in Rambo’s case, none of the bullets hit him lol

  • thadon calico on 12.29.13 @ 11:09PM

    The revolver shit got me dying and laughing out loud

  • I think my favorite is when, after the bad guy has done everything in his power to kill the hero, he’s finally, knocked unconscious but, the hero fails to put a couple of rounds thru his head, walks away, whereafter, the bad guy… well… you know. Seems to happen a lot when the hero is female.

  • VinceGortho on 12.30.13 @ 2:16AM

    When someone in a horror movie sees the stocking creature or supernatural entity, while separated from the group. He gets scared, rejoins his friends and is asked “what happened,?”
    He responds… “it was nothing, lets just keep moving.”

    When the protagonist knocks the bad guy unconscious and decides to keep running instead of taking the time to bashing his skull in.

    All time hated line… “What the hell was that!?”

  • Some clichés are an instant indicator of the quality of the film. If some character has two ticket for the Knicks, you should at that moment turn off the tv ang get on with your life. Great post Renee!

  • Watching movies is cliche.

  • Projectiles constantly missing ruins the sense of danger in films. It’s very tough to write good action scenes without lowering the sense of danger, just to make the action last longer.

    • Daniel Mimura on 01.3.14 @ 3:18AM

      Absolute worst example lately: a giant dragon with 4 big claws, a very long tail, a mouth that could swallow *at least* 2-3 half sized people whole in one bite, a big belly that could easily squash people as it continually stepped past…not to mention that it BREATHES FIRE…yet somehow for 45 minutes straight or so, the smog monster doesn’t so much as scratch the hobbit and any of the dwarves once…even by accident.

      It was rediculous and there was absolutely no tension in it…it was so much like quicksilver…completely ephemeral and weightless, like pixie dust or something. It was so lame.

  • You forgot “let’s get out of here.”

  • They forgot “Let’s get outta here!” which seems to be in every American action movie ever made.

    If you’re a fan of Blake Snyder, it’s all part of “The same only different”. Analysis can lead to paralysis.

    No fines are imposed. Bad writing makes money every day.

  • We wonder aloud when the partner of the protagonist in an action adventure movie is going to be killed and sometimes even take bets.

  • When someone shows a photograph of her wife and kids…Man, you know that poor bastard is gonna die soon

  • When main character has one week left before retirement from the police or military, and he had previously made some mistake that got people killed/injured/fired etc. Something he can now redeem and prove everybody wrong. Blech.

  • Excellent. Except you forgot the number one. “Let’s do this.” I may do a short wherein I see how many times characters can say it.

    • Someone made a “highlight” clip from the Batman flop directed by Joel Schumacher. Ahnold, playing Mr. Freeze, must have uttered that word a dozen times. “Freeze. Freeze. Freeze”. All he needed to add was, “with your hands up in the air”. But that’d be a 1970′s TV police drama cliche. As was Angie Dickinson and her tight polyester slacks.

  • “I’m getting too old for this sh*t” is a well-worn anti-favorite of mine.

  • Try “Walk with me”, as two characters leave a group setting to have a private conversation.
    Its said often in TV shows and films – have yet to hear it once in real life.
    I realized this when I put it in one of my early films. I wrote it, and we shot it, and then in the edit I’m thinking: why the hell did we do that?
    Now I notice it often in good films/TV and bad films/TV.
    @Sam above is also right – my experience is that “bad’ writing often makes MORE money than “good” writing. Let’s say 10% of all TV/films are exceptionally written. That leaves 90% that isn’t. I know which pile of money I’d prefer to take home.

    • I have “walk with me” in one of my episodes. lol. But I have heard it in real life — the military

  • Marcus Johnson on 01.1.14 @ 6:14PM

    They say a storms coming… I’d say it’s already here. The only movie that uses that line that I liked is ‘take shelter’. And ‘the machinist’ because it was pretty jokey :)

  • How can we indicate that this person has technical skills and qualifications? I know, we’ll give him or her some very obvious spectacles to wear. And make them under 25. And make them socially a bit awkward with flawed fashion sense, and introverted in the way they talk and interact, except in areas where they have expert knowledge in which case they’re allowed to be smug and derisive.

    Or is my critique of the lazy portrayal of “geeks”, itself a cliche? I usually avoid cliches like the plague.

  • Andrew Trigg on 01.2.14 @ 9:12PM

    I like the cliche where the hero has just made an impassioned speech to a highly hostile audience. He/she finishes the speech and is met by only silence and stony faces. All appears to be lost. But wait! One person rises and starts clapping. One by one, other people join in and the applause soon crescendos to a joyous outburst of support for our hero’s brilliant, winning idea. The day is saved!

  • Dandytrooper on 01.3.14 @ 2:12AM

    The significant other always walks in during the most awkward looking yet innocent moment between the protagonist and ex and it always leads to them being kicked out of the house for a week or nearly cancelling the wedding

  • How about one of the duo asking the other after s/he has fallen from a helicopter, run over by a train, dropped over a mountainside, raped by a dinosaur and almost swallowed by an earthquake – “Are you all right?”?

  • I can’t stand the line where the hero (or even the bad guy) has a gun against their head and they say “You want to kill me – go on…Do it! DO IT!”. It’s even better when that person has pushed the gun to their own forehead as a ‘clever reverse psychology trick’. Ooh, well done. It makes me actually angry in the face when I hear that line.

    I think every single ever episode of ’24′ had Kiefer yelling “Do it!” to some crazed idiot or other. But do they do it? Of course they don’t. Would have saved several days of my life if they had.

  • Daniel Danzer on 01.4.14 @ 7:33AM

    - Hero and his girl (or his team) fleeing from a) assassins, b) CIA, c) the whole US Army.
    Hero (to his girl, and/or team): “RUN!”

    - Modification: some soldiers or rebels in a hard battle, shooting and shooting, until somebody yells: “SHOOT!”

    - Oh, and in an action-packed movie with heroes are all of the time running, hiding, shooting, whatever, he NEVER ever has to
    a) care about money for his expenses or (at least) for his living
    b) eat something
    c) use the toilet

    I love films, where these things are not excluded. When heroes are hungry, weak, and running out of money. Still, the toilet thing almost never occurs. Handcuffed together, hero and heroine are fleeing for days without having any problems with that.

  • I’m unfortunately guilty of using the following:

    “This is going to sound crazy but…”

    Variations would be “This is crazy!” and “Are you crazy?”

    Don’t do it, kids….

  • Reminded me of these ads for IndieLisboa, which also play with the clichés and lack of fresh ideas: http://adsoftheworld.com/taxonomy/brand/indielisboa

  • A bit abstract, but I have to mention the most overused cliche in film for all time, although more than likely not found in scripts, but attributed to actors who aren’t solidly connected to the script:

    “Uh…”

    “I, uh, just wanted to say, ‘hello’.”
    “Will, uh, you marry me?”
    “You, uh, lookin’ for me?”
    “Could I, uh, get a light?”
    “When, uh, was he killed?”

    Just count the “Uhs” in any movie, old or new.

    It’s so abused that I include on my Title page: “The use of the utterance ‘uh’ when not specifically indicated in the script is strictly prohibited, and may result in termination of the offending actor.”

  • Great post. The cliché that pisses me off (apart from the ones already mentioned) is a little bit tricky to explain but it’s rampant. Here’s an example in very broad strokes:

    Character A (important) is doing something. Character B (underling) is, on no account, to bother character A. But, oh no!, character B has noticed the big, scary thing coming this way.

    B: Sir..
    A: Not now! I told you!
    B: But sir..
    A: I said NOT NOW! Don’t make me say it again.
    Character B remains meekly silent as the big, scary thing arrives.
    et cetera, et yawnsome cetera

    I’ve described it like a Scooby Doo cartoon but, as I said, that’s it in the broadest strokes. I’ve seen this clich back and forth too many times (twice is too many) across many genres and it’s so annoying. If I was character B, I would MAKE myself heard at that point. It’s unbearably lazy.

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  • I was wondering if you could add a word count, or aculatly enable people to copy and paste the script somewhere else to find out the word count. I’m writing a screenplay for my Film Studies coursework and it has a word limit but I can’t find out how near I am (I’ve tried copy and pasting but you can only paste within the app and not on another).

  • Thanks for this excellent and informative article. A friend has been posting your stuff on her Face Book page (where I started reading it) and so far, every article has been helpful. I loved your cliche graphs.They were great and I understood them instantly.

  • A brilliant article. When movies actually play things realistically (see Dirty Harry’s “6 shots or 5?” and Watchmen’s “35 minutes ago”) it often makes for a much more interesting story.

    My favourite movie trope is the “hero survives massive falls or other serious injuries that should kill him outright, with little more than a limp at most.”

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