Avoiding Cliches

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  • Avoiding Cliches

    A post on another forum had me thinking about this and how easy it is to fall into the trap of cliches. Even when you think you are on your guard, cliche gun drawn, ready to zap out any evidence of unoriginality. They still find a way to creep in, and you think, how'd I let that one sneak by.

    I thought about it for a long time, cliches can be found in almost in any form, events, characters, props, locations, ect. But how and why is it these things became cliche? The only thing I could come up with is because that is what the audience expects. Our minds our conditioned so that when we think of one thing or another we automatically get this vision in our heads of what that thing is.

    Take a small town car repair shop for instance. Automatically we see a messy one or two car shop, a rusty old car jacked up with the hood popped open, a mechanic in lightblue overalls with grease head to toe, sliding under the car with a wrench in his hand.

    Cliche? Is it possible to show something so identifiable in any other way? What if this is exactly how the writer wants to portray it?

    My problem right now is showing a desert in a new and original way. A desert is a desert. Lots of sand, lots of sun, a few dunes, not much else. How do you make something like that original?

    What about an event like a car chase. Cars flying down the road, speeding through traffic lights, avoiding collisions, pedestrians, what have you. The leading car usually comes to a barrier, the driver keeps going, chancing a life and death situation. We think for sure they are going to crash and burn, but lo and behold they barely make it, zipping off to freedom.

    Cliche? Is it possible to show it any other way? How do you show an exciting car chase without the usual obstacles? Sure you can kick it up a bit, instead of a trash truck blocking the road, you could have a school bus. But down to the bare bones it's still going to have the same obstacles.

    How about characters? It's easy to pinpoint wether or not a character is cliche based on the description, a hefty ten year old bully, an emotionless mobster, a geeky wiz kid, a snobbish woman with more money than Bill Gates, ect. ect. Easy cliches.
    But what about the complexities of a character, a character's actions, behaviors, emotions, needs, arc. Obviously a bully would act like a bully, his behaviors would be that of a bully, he would be angry and spiteful, probably brought on by the need of attention and respect, eventually discovering that he no longer needs to be a bully, that the rewards of kindness and love are much greater.

    Cliche? A bully is a bully right? Would it make sense to make a bully kind and caring?

    In my script I have two brothers. The younger is the main character. He is a dreamer, hotheaded and irrational. The older more realistic, the protector, always looking out for his little brother. Someone brought it up that it seemed a bit cliche and I agree, it does. But given the story and the circumstances of the story, it wouldn't make sense to put it any other way. The younger brother is faced with a decision to act upon an oppurtunity the older brother would find completely outrageous. But in order to protect his younger sibling he's forced to go along with it. As a younger brother, the main character's need is to be free of his older brother's protective sheild and to stand on his own two feet. His character arc comes when he makes a quick decision to save his brother and the woman he loves by putting himself at risk.

    The point is, if he wasn't a dreamer, they wouldn't be in the situation, the story would have no place to go. If he wasn't hotheaded his brother would have no reason to bail him out. If his brother had no reason to bail him out, he wouldn't have the drive at the end to save the people he loves. If he wasn't irratonal, he wouldn't make that quick choice to put his own life at risk.

    So then I ask...is it cliche? Is there a line between what is clearly cliche versus what is needed to make a story work?

    What sparked this was a whole other discussion about "showing and not telling". We were discussing how you would show someone's emotions just getting over a death of a loved one, which whom the character was very close. I mentioned a few things including showing the character looking at photos with her and the loved one. The other person stated this was cliche, been done into the ground. I agree, but again, photos are a useful prop, their easy to use, a quick way of showing the audience the grieving process in which the character is going through. It's been used over and over again because it's normal behavior for someone who is grieving. It's what we're conditioned to do when we lose a loved one, we look through pictures, try to relive the memories.

    Cliche? Or just a clear and normal way to portray such an emotion?

    In the end I believe that some cliches are needed. That not all cliches are bad. You can argue that it's the lack of imagination that allows us to fall into their trap, but maybe, just maybe, it's exactly what the doctor ordered.

    Steph
    "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." --T.S. Eliot

  • #2
    Re: Avoiding Cliches

    There are distinctions in your question. I'll take the first question. The easiest way in avoiding cliches is understanding what a cliche is and what authenticity is.

    Creating authentic situations often requires the setting to be familiar, but what separates the cliche from being viewed as such and part of an organic story, is the plot and what the characters are saying to serve the story.

    Writers should be able to create an authentic world with recognizable situations that is either funny, thrilling or dramatic without making the 'plot' tired and rehashed.

    Theme. Focus on the theme so that the cliche, which is a fact of life, we are all alike in so many ways, becomes authentic as the world comes to life, instead of a cariacture of what that world is supposed to represent.

    I think the biggest failure with writer's is they pigeonhole themselves into cliches because their characters never truly represent the story.

    Write what you know is the first and most important building blocks to avoiding writing cliches whether that is developed through life experience or research or both.

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    • #3
      Re: Avoiding Cliches

      The easiest way to avoid cliches is never to go with your first idea. That first idea is usually the cliche.

      Since you have to come up with hundreds of ideas when you're telling a story, it's easy to get lazy and go with your first choice. And sometimes your first choice IS the best. But you have to learn to discipline yourself.

      This isn't foolproof, but it'll go a long way to solving the problem.

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      • #4
        Re: Avoiding Cliches

        Clichés are the back bone of every successful story.
        Fortune favors the bold - Virgil

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        • #5
          Re: Avoiding Cliches

          Let's take one of the most over used cliches in the film medium. The one last job plotline. One last job for the cop. One last job for the Mobster. One last job for the theif. This cliche works because it immediately sets the story up.

          But what makes the story authentic as opposed to cliche is what the characters risk? Will he be jeopardizing his marriage? Will he be jeopardizing his family? His dream house. His dream bar. His dream life.

          Let's look at one particular movie with cliche after cliche, Falling Down. A cop on his last day at work has one more case that he can't walk away from while his dependent and forgotten wife calls and calls --

          -- while a man who has lost his job, enstranged from his wife finds himself amidst the grid lock of life, caught in traffic -- becomes a road rage maniac looking to go to his daughters birthday party while crossing into the bad part of town where he discovers a bag full of guns being used by the local gang.

          The movie touched all the bases of stereotypes of the pocket protector nerd against the inner city crime. Against big business, the fast food chains, with the yes generation of youth that have no skills.

          The movie was one cliche after another. But oddly it worked. It worked because we can identify with a man who has lost everything, sick of being stuck, and pushed around by society and what it has become, it took this stereotypical Nerd to a new level of understanding.... essentially a fish out of water so that his reactions became something all new to himself which is easily passed to the audience.

          When the character explores new avenues into his person the story will almost always add texture to the plot.

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          • #6
            Re: Avoiding Cliches

            Writers should be able to create an authentic world with recognizable situations that is either funny, thrilling or dramatic without making the 'plot' tired and rehashed.

            Theme. Focus on the theme so that the cliche, which is a fact of life, we are all alike in so many ways, becomes authentic as the world comes to life, instead of a cariacture of what that world is supposed to represent.
            Exactly what I was trying to get at. Sometimes authenticity requires you to be cliche. Given you have an original theme and plot, the cliches are sometimes needed to create a realistic world, one in which the audience can identify with.

            The easiest way to avoid cliches is never to go with your first idea. That first idea is usually the cliche.
            I agree. Many times cliches are brought on by are first thought. That goes back to what I was saying about our minds being conditioned to automatically think this or that when we think of a certain place or thing.

            This also holds true with dialogue. Usually the first thing that comes to mind is directly on the nose.

            These kind of cliches are easily avoided. As writers we have to recondition ourselves to think outside the box. But what about the cliches that are harder to avoid, like the car chase, the photos, the gutt of the character, things that have a natural order?

            Is it acceptable to use such cliches when the reality of the situation requires to do so?

            Steph
            "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." --T.S. Eliot

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            • #7
              Re: Avoiding Cliches

              All chiche's became cliche because they once worked.

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              • #8

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                • #9
                  Re: Avoiding Cliches

                  I think understanding and depth are a good remedy for getting around using a cliche. A desert is not necessarily just sand and sun and dunes. It depends on the character and nature of the desert. Maybe you've got tumbleweeds or salt flats or a weapons depot. I've been in my share of small town mechanic's shops. Some are like you've described, but some are run by guys who are neat and orderly and working hard to make a living, and maybe they've got their pet project in the back they can work on when they're not busy with customers, or perhaps their wife has a playpen in the waiting area, where she is the receptionist. Personally, I put away photos of my mom and didn't look at them for more than a year after she died. Grief is individual. Maybe the bully is actually kind and caring to some people or at certain times (reference domestic abuse). In some cases, a cliche can be a quick set-up, but try reaching for a deeper understanding of the subject if you want to avoid using one.

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                  • #10
                    Re: Avoiding Cliches

                    I just wrote the most cliche-riddled thing ever, but I'm remembering a creative writing teacher once assigned us to write a cliche. On purpose. A cliched scene, and then have the cliched characters say everything you've ever heard someone say in a movie or book. Then it's out of your system and you'll write something better next time.

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                    • #11
                      Re: Avoiding Cliches

                      I am writing an NYPD detective thriller and a couple of people have told me my characters are too cliche, while others have liked them.

                      One person commented that 85% of all scripts they have read are cop scripts(one last job etc.) I would think this is because cops are best placed to confront or investigate conflict?

                      My characters are a product of my story. Their flaws and traits are best served to tackle the conflict that arises both internally and externally.

                      Clichés are the back bone of every successful story.
                      Can you please elaboate on this Deus?
                      I wanna tell you about the time I almost died....

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                      • #12
                        Re: Avoiding Cliches

                        Check this thread out:


                        http://scriptsales.com/boards/showthread.php?t=13107


                        Fortune favors the bold - Virgil

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                        • #13
                          Re: Avoiding Cliches

                          Avoiding cliches is a cliche.

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                          • #14
                            Re: Avoiding Cliches

                            Thanks for the link Deus. Your explanations are always clear and right on the nose. Your post on the link pinpoints exactly what I was getting at, only you said it much better.

                            Steph
                            "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." --T.S. Eliot

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                            • #15
                              Re: Avoiding Cliches

                              I saved your post, Steph. I thought it was well said and to the point.


                              Fortune favors the bold - Virgil

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