You’ve come up with a genius idea for a movie or TV show. It’s gonna be a hit! Well, it won’t ever make it past the desk of a lowly script reader or assistant if it’s just like every other screenplay that came before it. What are the screenwriting cliches that make people stop reading? Here are our top five picks for the screenwriting cliches you should absolutely avoid when you write your screenplay.
1. Scripts About Writers and Other Artists
“Write what you know,” they say! This advice isn’t always misguided, especially if you know about a world or subculture that is unique and interesting. But too many screenwriters think that they need to write very literally about their lives as aspiring screenwriters. Good movies about writers do exist; 2002’s Adaptation, adapted by Charlie Kaufman, is a classic, of course. But if your script is a boring story about a guy who sits in a room and tries to write, it’s not going to impress agents, managers, producers and other industry gatekeepers. Give your character a tangible goal and write scenes that are more visual than “guy sitting at computer.” Think about how a general audience would relate to and empathize with your lead. Also, if we stuck to “write what you know,” we’d have no movies or shows about zombies or aliens. Boring! Maybe you should write a about a person you know but stick them in a crazy fictional world!
2. Manic Pixie Dream Girls
Does your script contain a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”? The term refers to a quirky female character – more a fantasy than a real person – who only exists to help a lame dude get out of his funk. It was coined to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, but Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State is probably the most apt example. In a new Vanity Fair cover story, Portman revealed that her one regret about her acting career is playing a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. “I was very lucky that what I was cast in wasn’t anything deliberate — serious adult fare and not child-appropriate things,” she said. “But I feel like I totally ended up in female tropes, like Lolita. And clearly I was part of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl coining. I find it very upsetting to be part of that.”
To avoid this screenwriting cliche, make sure your female characters are fully fleshed-out people who have flaws and goals and dreams of their own.
3. Telling Instead of Showing
The advice “show, don’t tell” is one of the screenwriting cliches on its own at this point – but it’s also legitimately good advice! Movies and TV are visual mediums, so don’t have your characters TELL us about something when you could SHOW it instead. You can start with your character introductions – don’t tell me a person is impulsive when you could show them doing something impulsive in their first scene.
Brainstorm different actions that can show how a character is feeling. “It is [the question of], how are we going to illustrate the character with less words?” says First Man screenwriter Josh Singer. “What are the actions he can take?…In the first version I did, [Neil] slammed the phone down repeatedly. I showed that to Jim Hansen, and he said, ‘No, Neil would never do that.’…I came up with this idea of Neil holding a glass, and you see him practically not move a muscle except for [when] his eyes go dark, which I wrote in because I know Ryan’s going to give me that. And then suddenly you hear a pop and he looks down and realizes he’s broken the glass because he’s been squeezing it so hard…So for me it’s all about, how do I illustrate who this guy is in this very specific way?”
4. Screenwriting Cliches: Your Opening
At the beginning of a movie (or somewhere in the pilot of a show), a character usually goes through some kind of big upheaval that leads them to a new journey. Unfortunately, many writers rely on the same beginnings we’ve seen a million times, such as getting dumped or getting fired. It’s completely understandable that these realistic life events would lead to big changes (and plenty of good scripts use them)…but if a scene is something you’ve seen in many movies, it’s one of the big screenwriting cliches. If you’re going to write a getting dumped or getting fired scene, try to add something fresh or unexpected.
Disheartening job interview montages and bad date montages have also been done many times. If you’re going to try one of these, give it a new spin!
5. References to Other Films/Shows
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scripts in which the characters refer to other films or TV shows in the dialogue. I understand that you’re inspired by your favorites – but don’t you want your script to be as original as those ones were? Think about if your character would realistically make such a reference, or if your character is talking like you (a screenwriter who’s probably obsessed with movies) instead. Obscure references can alienate a reader, while common references can feel cliche. Avoid lines of dialogue that will take the reader or viewer out of your movie.