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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The C Word

Cliché. It's an ugly word, isn't it? Clee-shay. The fact that it's a French word adds to the shame of it. You can practically see that Gallic, upturned chin and averted gaze. Cliché. Touché. Ouch.

If I read a script that is cliché-ridden, I try to think of a more polite way to say it - can you dig deeper into the gum-chewing waitress and, um, maybe her name isn't Doris and she's got something other than a Southern accent? Most of my Script Department readers are more blunt, god bless their hard little hearts. That's what clients pay for; the unvarnished truth. But hearing that your script is riddled with cliché is just such a blow, it makes me cringe.

But here's the good news - it's not that hard to dig your way out of. Writing a clichéd situation or character is the easy way out, right? All you have to do is dig deeper, push yourself some, and really find that writer's soul you have to go over and above the easy stereotype to write in a more unique way.

Here's the thing - truly, every story has been told. But not every character has been written. Sometimes the sheer infinite potential for characters is overwhelming and it's easier to just hit the archetypal high notes. But there's a fine line between writing a TYPE and writing a cliché. The litmus test is sort of like that old saw about pornography; you know it when you see it. When I read a cliché, I literally cringe. And I think - how could the writer not know this?

Truth be told, I think writers do know when they've done it. I'm basing that on the roughly one million hours I've spent on the phone with clients, as we review and brainstorm notes they received. I always get a hangdog silence when the cliché comes up. Yeah, yeah. Caught me. But then we brainstorm together and rifle around in the character's back story, etc., until we find ways to bust out of that cliché.

Sometimes a cliché is a great jumping off point for subverting expectations and turning a corner with your character. Why, just the other day, I was working with a writer who had a clichéd situation between the two romantic leads of his action-adventure. Until we swapped the gender roles - then suddenly it was fresh. Ha! Cliché as your friend!

Can you tell if clichés are messing up your script? Well, it's always hard to get that distance from your own material. And there are writers who argue that they did it on purpose. Truth be told, of course, particularly in comedy, a kind of cliché can work - except, again, gaining distance from the cringe factor of cliché, what you might be striving for is a type.

Websters online defines a cliché as:


  1. A trite or overused expression or idea: "Even while the phrase was degenerating to clich� in ordinary public use . . . scholars were giving it increasing attention" (Anthony Brandt).
  2. A person or character whose behavior is predictable or superficial: "There is a young explorer . . . who turns out not to be quite the cliche expected" (John Crowley).

French, past participle of clicher, to stereotype (imitative of the sound made when the matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a stereotype plate)

cliche , bromide , commonplace , platitude , truism

These nouns denote an expression or idea that has lost its originality or force through overuse: a short story weakened by cliches; the old bromide that we are what we eat; uttered the commonplace "welcome aboard"; a eulogy full of platitudes; a once-original thought that has become a truism.

Not much positive in the definition, is there? So avoid cliché like the plague, Wavers, but if you've found yourself slumming in cliché-land, use it as an opportunity for your evolution as a writer. Dig deeper, try harder, rifle through the back story or through your own experiences.

Each human being and therefore character embodies an infinite number of possibilities. If it came easy to you - be warned, you might have written a cliché. And you'll know. Down deep, you'll be aware that you took the lazy way out. And be on the lookout for euphemistic cliché-speak: I liked it but some of the characters seemed kind of.....(polite silence).

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annabel said...

I enjoyed reading this post. I find this to be such a tricky area. To use a cliche is bad, but there are stereotypes because there is a certain amount of truth in them (frequently). How do you be honest and pull out the truth while leaving the cliche behind?

R.A. Porter said...

On your Mac it's quite easy. Just press the ALT key and 'e' key at the same time and release. Then, press the 'e' again.

ALT+e, e


R.A. Porter said...

Oh, since it's the web, you can also type in é


JPS said...

Et, en français, un cliché is a negative of a photograph, leaving us with all kinds of implications, n'est-ce pas?

Julie Gray said...

Chocolate cupcake for R.A.!

Anonymous said...

Why is cliché a cliché? Because it works each time. The trick is to use it without calling attention to it. Does that make sense?

Julie Gray said...

Gotta disagree with ya, anonymous. A cliché doesn't work at all. Anytime.

DougJ said...

So in my romantic comedy spec, instead of the heroine drowning her sorrows after the breakup in a tub of ice cream (with matching over sized spoon, natch), she should drown her sorrows in rack of bbq spare ribs?

Or maybe I should just have a scene with her sitting on the couch, expressly NOT eating.

I'm so confused.

Julie Gray said...

How 'bout she goes to the firing range, Doug? Or anything not involving eating :)

And Annabel - pulling out the truth and leaving the cliché behind is what it's all about, right?

Anonymous said...

Julie, I think you misunderstood my statement. I meant a cliché became a cliché because it worked. That was why we used it over and over and over... before it became... um cliché. So basically it does it job to achieve whatever you want to convey, effectively. You just have to use it inconspicuously.

Anonymous said...

When the movie Pulp Fiction made the rounds -- the producers and readers who got fired all said it was full of cliches?

It's always a good idea to let the director/or main investor decide what part of the script is a cliche?

Everything is a cliche.

Cinema is big cliche.

I read all the scripts that come out Every one of them is a cliche.

Just my opinion.


PJ McIlvaine said...

I just read a spec that sold for big moolah and not one character was a cliche. Problem was, not one character was believable, nor anything they did. So what does that tell us?

Laura Reyna said...

Agree with Anonymous. Cliches (I can't do the accent thing) became cliches because they work. You just have to pick and choose your cliches with care. Some are just too too, y'know? Others you can get away with.

Take something like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Absolutely riddled with cliches and stock char's, yet some people think it's genius.

3:10 TO YUMA: small rancher being threatened & pressured to sell... haven't we seen that a gazillion times before?

If the story overall is interesting & exciting & executed with care, you can get away with cliches here and there. I don't think audiences mind them as much as we think they do.