May 23

CLICHÉ, ANYONE?

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.




Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

Posted May 23, 2005 by TW in category "The Craft

14 COMMENTS :

  1. By William on

    I like this entry a lot because you really break down what you should do to make your work original and that, to me, is the most important thing. Whether people listen is another story but I agree on all these points. Especially 1 and 2. Any good literature will force your mind to think outside of your own boundaries regardless if it’s the same subject matter. Actually, I think it’s better if it doesn’t. Research is so important. Even if you do use every single piece of that research it let’s you experience a subject that may be foreign to you and that will always make you a better writer. Good work…

  2. By alan on

    john

    you have a burning desire to be genuinely creative? creativity is not something to be conjured up through dint of effort. you’d be better off tossing the burning desire and just being creative. that’s what i do. why try? trying can only result in over complex cliche (or, on a bad day, simple cliche).

    i avoid cliche by using my imagination to come up with original takes on stuff that’s been done a million times before. did i say using? i meant ‘allowing’. anyway, i make no effort nor have a burning desire (or desire of any kind) to be creative, either in a genuine or false way. one might as well make an effort to be talented. i just tap the keys

  3. By TW (Post author) on

    You, Alan, may well be the one-in-a-thousand writer I referred to above. As for me, “just being creative” includes a tremendous amount of elbow grease. Ultimately, the ideas are not complex. They are simple, focused, and fairly original (or so I’m told). Just as the most talented dancer is not born with his or her skills, but rather works on them daily, I, too, must work very hard to develop and maintain my ability to write well.

  4. By Moviequill on

    Great article, it does make one take a second look at what you just wrote before firing up the Blogs for a quick procrastinating perusal (ie: coffee break). I think I include some of the old cliches but I tend to weed them out on the re-write. Almost like getting the character down on paper, then see what you can do to play him against type (the mean quick tempered mafioso morphs into the quiet, reserved but still lethal crime boss)

  5. By alan on

    tw

    sorry i called you john. maybe we’re talking about different things. i work very hard on my ability to write. i don’t work at all at being creative. creativity, to me, cannot be conjured up – it’s either there or it is not.

    i’m not sure what you mean by ‘just being creative’. don’t get it. are you talking about pushing the brass tacks of the craft of writing aside in order to find creative spark? i could see that.

    i’m equating talent with creativity – much the same thing. it’s there or it’s not. however, as for structure, dialogue, subtext, supblot, etc – well, i work like a dog. honestly, i’m not that good at that stuff (except maybe basic 3 act structure). i need several passes to get close. for that stuff, i most assuredly do not ‘just tap the keys’. i slog through a long process including jotting notes on any scrap of paper handy, scrutinizing scene order, toying with dialogue rhythm, et al, hour after hour, week after…okay you get it

    so, if i’m right and creativity is innate, then it’s of no use to have a burning desire to be creative

    as for craft – takes constant work. when that work is done, you may support craft with whatever level of creativity you were born with – but not more than you were born with, no matter how fervent your desire to do so

    ever read mavis gallant? talk about good literature. i like her ‘paris stories’. she’s scary good. holy cow. i mean, damn, that’s good writing. i’d tip my hat except a salute from me to her would be silly

    sorry i called you john

  6. By TW (Post author) on

    Actually, my name is “Jon” (with no “h”), so no offense taken. You can learn about me, including my name, in the “What The Hell Do I Know?” page on this site.

    I agree that, at some level, some writers have some innate talent that raises them above the rest. However, I believe that (a) most of writing can be and is learned (even the oft-cited dialogue, which purportedly cannot be taught, but is taught all the time); and (b) whether any particular writer has an innate talent takes years to find out, is a very subjective judgment and should not be of concern to anyone seriously interested in a writing career. Learn the craft. Let others make up their own minds about your level of innate talent. If you are making a living at writing and turning out work that satisfies you, screw the naysayers.

  7. By alan on

    jon

    would disagree: all of writing can be learned, not most of it.

    you know, i’ve heard that. that dialogue can’t be taught. hooey. it would take a very good teacher, but it can be taught. don’t know why people say that it can’t

    you know, i called you john cause you have a blurb re: johnaugust.com on your front page and i mistook you for him. funny. forgot whose blog i was on

    hope you’re considering the mavis gallant. brace yourself, though – you should wear restraints when reading her – it’s that good

  8. By Michael on

    For me writing is a bitch. I’ve always felt that filming is like great sex, editing is like great masterbation, and writing is like sitting through a long awkward dinner with someone who isn’t very nice to you.

    Thanks for keeping this blog Jon. It’s invaluable to young writers like me.

    I agree, dig past the cliches, and keep digging. sooner or later you will be in a place where you are free to tap away on the keys.

  9. By electroglodyte on

    Jon, thank you so much for this post. Simply being told to look outside of film once in a while (as in 1,2,3 above) was just the right kind of little kick in the head that I need once in a while. Shortly thereafter, I ran across “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” on my bookshelf and decided it’s definitely worth a re-read.

    And once in a while, it really is worthwhile to turn off the computer for, say, a whole weekend…

  10. By Fun Joel on

    Hey Jon! Like the post, and particularly so, since I was in the middle of working on my next article for scr(i)pt magazine on this excat topic. I’ve recently launched my own screenwriting blog (like two days ago), and have posted a bit on this same topic. Would love to see some of your comments there too! Link is above, of course. Thanks, and keep up the good blogwork. :-)

    Peace.
    Fun Joel

  11. By Bill on

    I find that just writing the outline is a tremendous help in my “hosing off the cliches” from my story. If I get it right in the outline then:

    a) It’s ready to go to script, and I can write it.
    b) I can twist things around quickly, see how they work, and experiment without having to do a lot of rewriting in the script phase. Saves time and effort. Big plusses in my field of D2DVD movies.

    Best,

    Bill

  12. By Melville on

    First of all, thanks for the blog, Jon, just came in and started to read with big interest.

    Second, I am a writer, but English is not my mothertongue, so please excuse, once and forever, all those awkwardly mistakes I will make for sure.

    About the cliché-problem: Are you familiar with the work of Edward de Bono? He would define ‘cliché’ as the normal process of thinking if it’s left alone: Once it finds a way to solve a problem or to analyse a problem, there’s no use of looking for another solution.

    So, what he is (as clever as dazzling) suggesting, is what he calls LATERAL THINKING, nothing else then a toolbox to motivate your thinking to find new (speak: creative) ways of seeing and interpreting the object of your interest.

    ( He is by the way also a critic of the conventional educational system. He claims learning should not only be about learning facts but mainly interpreting and interleacing them.)

    Highly recommended:
    http://www.edwdebono.com/

    Melville

  13. By Rena on

    holy shit dude! this band is rad! i recently got this weird lp comp…shit i fgeort the name. but trottel has a great song on it, so i went searching on the internet for them and bought a tape called “the final solute”. i haven’t received it yet, but it’s so crazy that you just posted this. nice telepathic move!

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