Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thursday Throwback: Clichés I’m tired of seeing

This rerun post was the start of my Cliches I'm Tired of Seeing Series. It first appeared on February 11, 2009


Screenwriters are often advised to “Show, don’t tell” and I’m a big believer in that advice. Film is a visual medium, and it’s always best to take advantage of that rather than simply spelling something out through dialogue. Still, when doing this, show some imagination in your “showing.” If you come up with the same visual cue as a hundred other screenwriters, you run the risk of the reader reacting “Not again!”

I wish I had kept a running tally of how many times I’ve seen some version of the following scene. It usually happens in a romantic comedy, though often it pops up in dramas centered on relationships. Usually, the core romance has landed on the rocks at the end of Act Two, thus forcing the protagonist to fight to save the relationship in Act Three. The penultimate scene typically plays out one of two ways – the characters confront each other and the relationship is either explicitly mended, or there’s an emotional catharsis that ends ambiguously. Are the couple still together or aren’t they?

And then comes “the scene.” Four times out of five it will be a montage without dialogue, and almost always is set “One Year Later.” Carefully, each character is revealed in this coda, culminating with….

Come on now, dear reader… surely I’ve given enough set up for you to guess?

… the woman of the couple. And guess what?

Please, people. This isn’t hard. Speak up, now.

That’s right! She’s pregnant! The guy and the girl are going to live happily ever after and the proof is in the belly! And the scene is totally showing, not telling! Isn’t that cool?

To be blunt, not really. Too often I’ve seen writers use this as an out to show that the couple’s together without doing any of the work to really make it feel like the couple is together. It’s a cheap “out.” I admire what the writers are going for, but the next time you have the urge to end your movie this way, take another day or two and see if there’s a more original way of showing the couple is going to turn out all right.


  1. Hey - long time lurker and admirer and grateful recipient of your advice, but ..oh no! is that really a cliche? that is how my current script will end. Is it less cliched if its not a montage, you didn't realise they were a couple and, in fact, thought the mum was dead? (actually, as I type that out I realise that may be worse...). Thanks for opening my eyes. bugger, now how do I end it?

  2. ps - its an action plot, not a comedy or a romance, so it's just a pleasant 'rounding up' not an obvious outcome. any chance I can keep it without remaining cliched?..grateful for any thoughts

  3. I agree, that example is definitely a cheap shortcut. It's a way of TELLING us that the couple will stay together, without really SHOWING us that they have any foundation or appeal for one another as a couple.

    I am curious, though - where do you draw the line between cliche and convention? For example, different genres have sort of an expected structure - generally in a rom com, we expect the couple to meet, fall in love, separate, and come back together. So how do you play to your genre without falling back on cliche?

    And regarding characters - there are certain "archetypal" film characters like The Overbearing Mother, The Mean Boss, or vaudeville-based comedic pairings like The Big Dumb Guy and The Skinny Smart Guy, and so on that you sort of see recycled over and over again in films throughout time. Does it make sense to use these "stereotyped" characters, and if so, do you have any tips for keeping them from seeming cliched?

    Maybe this was a better comment for your "questions" thread...but oh well, I already wrote it.

  4. nmegan - Don't know if I have any advice on how to freshen this old chesnut. I've heard from other readers about how they find it hackneyed and cliched too, so just know that it's not only me who gets grumpy about this.

    Julie - I want to handle your question as one of my many responses in the question thread, so look for it in a future post.

  5. Bitter - I thought any response might be a bit involved for a comment. :) Looking forward to it!

  6. Thanks anyway Bitter - maybe I can show them signing a mortgage together and then opening a pantry full of baked beans and 2 minute noodles to emphasise the financial commitment..(aaah domestic bliss). Kidding...but hey..

  7. nmeagan - what was the couple's main conflict? what kept them apart? what did they disagree on? find some way to relate that in the resolution. the ending example that comes to mind is Rear Window. I won't spoil on here...but check that out for ideas that avoid the pregnant bliss.

  8. Thanks Januaryfire - will check out RearWindow, haven't seen it for years but I have a Hitch collection here...throughout she is seeking to get back with her exfiance as a B plot and this guy she ends up with is a character from the action (A plot)story line, so there is no inherent conflict in the couple's story line, more that - on reflection, after A plot twist is revealed - you realise they were always good for each other. Hard to explain 'cos at one stage you think they have died and when A plot resolves itself with them alive audience are meant to be pleased that the B romance story doesnt then resolve with her getting back with her ex.

    But over the last few days I have reflected on this cliche and I may kill her off properly after all!