You, (yes, I mean you), think in terms of clichés. You create wholly cliché concepts; you fill your scripts with clichés and you take a huge beating in coverage because of your clichés. Don’t you know? Specs filled with clichés do not sell; cliché pitches do not interest producers; cliché writers do not get assignments or careers.
“Thanks, jerk,” you say, “but how can you help me?”
By admitting that I do it, too. I can’t help it. When I begin writing, everything that falls out of my head is well-trodden drivel. But I get beyond it, as all writers must. This may come as no surprise, but I have a method for doing so which I will share with you.
But, first, what is a cliché? Dictionary.com defines “cliché” as:
A trite or overused expression or idea.
The dictionary loaded into MS Word defines “cliché” as:
A phrase or word that has lost its original effectiveness or power from overuse.
My old yellowed 1988 Random House College Dictionary defines it as:
A trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of form, musical expression, etc.
We could look up “hackneyed” and “trite”, but I think you get the idea. Any element of your story that is so overused that it has lost its effectiveness must go. And here’s why they are in all our writing. Because we study film, watch film, love film. Our heads are filled with what’s already been done. When we go to write about baseball, the first thing that comes into our heads is not baseball, but everything we’ve ever seen in film about baseball. The more we’ve seen it, the quicker it pops into our heads. We are programmed to spit out clichés. (Okay, I’ll admit that a very few of you are wired differently, but it’s one out of a thousand – so don’t count yourself out yet.)
Here’s my program for fighting clichés:
1. I read good literature – lots of it from diverse areas. It broadens my references, takes me out of the same old ways of seeing things.
2. I research my subjects from sources other than fiction. Personal interviews and observation are always the best. Next to that, I read interviews, technical manuals, whatever source material gets me as close to the real subject matter as possible – not close to what’s already been told in stories, but close to the real thing. What I’m searching for is what is real and authentic about the subject, the things I did not expect to find, the things that really move me. “Write what I know” doesn’t mean write only about my own life. It means, get to know my subject for real, not just from what I’ve seen on television. Do my homework.
3. Make notes in life. When I see something real and interesting, jot it down. I build a library of real experiences to draw from. I rarely actually use any of them, but it trains me to view the world in original ways.
4. When I write, I reject the first thought that comes into my head about everything in my story. Nine times out of ten, it is a cliché. I may eventually decide it was the right thought and come back to it, but in the meantime, I try hard to find something more concrete, more authentic, fresher, and more unique.
5. I do constant cliché checks as I move forward. Sometimes, I need to share an idea. Others close to me often spot clichés with ease. Not that they could do better – but it is easier to see someone else’s use of clichés than it is to see your own.
6. I care about this issue a lot. My burning desire to be original and genuinely creative (eventually) carries me beyond the clichés.
Last word. I am not suggesting that anyone write in a vacuum without reference to what has been written or filmed before. On the contrary. I always ask myself, what am I adding to the body of film on this subject. If there is not some profound difference, addition, or new perspective, then I know my work is doomed before I even get started. Why? Because it will be cliché.