Monday, August 22, 2011

Embracing Cliché (by not being cliché)

"There is nothing new in art except talent." – Anton Chekhov

When teaching story structure, one of the biggest objections I have run into over the years is that “life’s not like that.” You can read my answer to that on my old Sherman Alexie post.

Another objection is that utilizing structure creates stilted work. Yes, it can, if one has only a superficial understanding of structure and has yet to master it. But that’s true of learning any new skill.

Still another objection is the beginner’s idea that the practice of story structure leads automatically to cliché. Legendary playwright Anton Chekhov said that a writer can’t introduce a gun in the first without using it by the third act. This is the most basic rule of story structure. Hollywood legend Billy Wilder said, “If there is a problem with your third act, it is really a problem with your first act.”

This is a variation of what Chekhov said. I am not smarter than Chekhov and Wilder, so I listen to them and do what they say and more times than not it works out.

But people who know this rule see a gun introduced early in a story and roll their eyes because they know it will be used later: “Of course the gun was used at the end. That’s so cliché, so predictable,” they say.

So these writers who want to avoid cliché often opt for randomness, because randomness is not predictable. But after teaching hundreds of students over the years I have noticed something about my students who desperately want to be different – they are all “different” in exactly the same way. They create, ironically, the same clichés. In their stories, the guy will not get the girl. In their stories, characters are quirky. In their stories, the main character dies at the end. Their stories are dark – no happy endings for them. Their stories present random scenes that go nowhere and are awkward because, “That’s the way life is.” These are the clichés of the avant-garde, the clichés of those who wish to be simply “different.”

These writers never seem to ask themselves why the more mainstream clichés exist – they chalk it all up to lazy writing or rose-colored glasses. Sometimes it is. They are not completely wrong about that. But it is no less lazy than a series of random events and dark, quirky characters that do not serve a story function. (Making the writer feel “original” is not a real story function.)

Hitchcock talks about want to avoid a cliché in his classic film North by Northwest. In the story, the main character, played by Cary Grant, is being pursued by the bad guys who are trying to kill him. In one scene, the bad guys try to kill Cary Grant in an open field using a crop-dusting airplane.

Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock about this in a 1963 interview:

How did you get the idea for the plane sequence?

This comes under the heading of avoiding the clichés. The cliché of that kind of scene is in The Third Man. Under a street lamp, in a medieval setting, black cat slithers by, somebody opens a blind and looks out, eerie music. Now, what is the antithesis of this? Nothing! No music, bright sunshine, and nothing. Now put a man in a business suit in this setting.

What’s funny to me is that Hitchcock both used the cliché and avoided it. He knew he needed a scene where the character was isolated and alone, where the bad guys try to bump him off. He did not choose not to have the scene, but rather to avoid the cliché trappings of the scene. This is what made the scene an original and a classic.  

An old song lyric goes, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” Craft is about how well you execute a concept. 

If you want to avoid a cliché first ask honestly why the cliché exists – there may be a good story reason to have it. But then what you do is find a way to get away from the trappings of the cliché.

One way to do that is to choose opposites. This is an old acting trick. They say that when playing a miser stress his generosity. Good actors will often play opposites because it takes their performances away from the cliché. The actor might smile and speak sweetly when the character is seething with anger, for instance. Playing opposites gives characters depth and avoids the cliché. One can always play against a cliché while still understanding its usefulness in telling a particular story. This way one gets the best of both worlds. 

At the very end of his classic film The Apartment, Billy Wilder had guy get the girl and proclaim his love for her. This is a cliché if ever there was one. How did Wilder both use the cliché and avoid it, too?

In the scene the man and women are playing cards together when the man proclaims his love. Does the woman say that she loves him too, throw her arms around him, kiss him and say that she loves him too? No, she does not.

What she does is continue to play cards. The man bears his soul and says again how he feels. Still interested in her cards the woman smiles and says to the guy, “Shut up and deal.” And we know she has feelings for him, too.

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine
in The Apartment.

This is a film classic by one of the best filmmakers in history. He did not run away from the cliché, but he knew just how to soften it, take the gloss of sentiment off it.

Another way to use the cliché while avoiding its trappings is to tell the truth. If the story demands that you have a type of scene you have seen a million times before then ask yourself what might really happen in that situation. Don’t copy what you have seen in the movies, but be as honest to real life as possible. How would a person really act if they were being shot at? How would someone behave if they were trapped somewhere with a bloodthirsty monster? 

Jodie Foster in the basement with the killer as he views her through  night-vision goggles in The Silence of the Lambs.

I remember reading an interview with Ted Tally, screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs, where he talked about needing get the heroine in the basement with the killer. At first he wanted to avoid the cliché, but he realized that he could not escape the story’s demands. So his job was to find a convincing story reason that compelled the woman to go into the dark basement alone with the killer.

When you are constructing a story, and you introduce a gun in Act One that must be used by Act Three, your job is not to use the gun, but to surprise the audience by how the gun comes back. Maybe it is used by a character that we least suspect would use it. Or you could construct the story so well that the audience forgets all about the gun until it returns.

My point is you don’t avoid the clichés by not using them, but knowing why you might need them to help tell your story and how you might dress them up in new clothing.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

My Book FREEMAN Is Out!

  Hey guys, my new book FREEMAN is actually out now.  We had a pre-release last month at TR!CSTER, but now it is available to anyone on or

FREEMAN, an original screenplay, is a western about Thomas Freeman a former slave, living out West with his wife and child, building a new life. Accused of stealing, he is forced to become a fugitive. To evade the posse on his trail, he finds himself using the same tricks he used as a runaway slave. Problem is, Freeman's also being hunted by an expert tracker by the name of Cage. Cage's former profession? Slave-catcher. And he knows all the tricks.          
The book also includes my notes on how the story was constructed.  As often as possible I like to show you all how the elements of story I write about can be put to practical use.

In my first book INVISIBLE INK I use the script for my short film WHITE FACE to show how the principles of Invisible Ink were applied. And on this blog I often use the work of others as examples. But with FREEMAN you can see how these principles can help in the construction of an entire feature film.

In this book I show how theme/armature can be applied to every aspect of one’s decision-making when writing a story – how one can use armature as a compass that points true north. I hope that I show how these ideas of structure can be used to create an interesting, exciting, emotional and meaningful story. That was the idea. So far people tell me that the book does just that.

Hope some of you find it helpful as well.

-- Brian  

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Movies I Like (Redux): Planet of the Apes

"Overall theme leads to characters then on to plot"
-- Rod Serling

This post is a kind of “re-run” of a previous post, but I thought that with the new Planet of the Apes film about to open, it was worth posting again. The original post was about the erroneous, in my opinion, comparison of M. Night Shyamalan to Rod Serling, I have altered this version just a bit to speak only of the original Planet of the Apes.

It would take only a casual glance at my writings to deduce that I’m a huge Rod Serling fan. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are tired of reading about it.  

When I was a very young boy (this would have been 1969 or ‘70), I remember my father speaking with wonder and excitement about a film he’d seen called Planet of the Apes. He spoke with such joy it is possible that my love of film started at that moment.

My Dog Trixie and I in 1970
When I saw the film I was just as impressed as my father had been. It wasn’t until years later that I would know that the film was co-written by Rod Serling—or even who Rod Serling was.

Serling was the creator of an early television classic called The Twilight Zone, a show known for strange happenings and twist endings. But for me what shines through his work is his love of humanity coupled with his profound disappointment that we can be a cruel, self-destructive and greedy species. 

This can be seen even in his work which precedes The Twilight Zone, when he was writing for the live television dramas of the early 1950s. His work spills over with humanity. But for better or worse, because of The Twilight Zone, he has become known as the twist-ending guy.

People who are not practitioners of something are often impressed with the obvious. People who don’t act, for instance, think that crying on demand is good acting. Or that being able to do accents or memorize lines is good acting. Trained actors know different. A lot of work that people don’t notice as easily goes into great acting.

In writing, the twist ending is one of the obvious things that people are very impressed with. But what is often overlooked is that Serling’s endings were linked to the story’s theme—the reason to tell the story.

Serling winning Emmy number four.

Back to his screenplay for the original Planet of the Apes, which is very much like a feature-length Twilight Zone. (By the way, I used to tell people that Planet of the Apes was just a long Twilight Zone, that it had all the same structure, but people said that I was crazy. Then some guy cut a short version of the film and made it into a Twilight Zone and people were surprised how well it worked.)

Okay, back to the monkey movie.
Planet of the Apes was a film where the twist blew people away.

In the opening of the film an astronaut on a starship tapes a log. In it he talks about how long he’s been away from Earth and how even more time would have passed on Earth because he and his fellow astronaut have been traveling at light speed. Then he says:

“I wonder if Man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the unknown...still makes war against his brother, and lets his neighbor's children starve.”

This is the theme that the entire film explores—are human beings essentially war-like, self-destructive creatures? The story never loses track of this.

So, Taylor, the astronaut, and his fellow travelers crash land on an unknown planet. At one point, as they walk through a desert looking for food and such, they have this exchange:

LANDON (heatedly): You thought life on Earth was meaningless. You despised people. So what did you do? You ran away.

TAYLOR: No, not quite, Landon. I'm a bit of a seeker myself. But my dreams are a lot emptier than yours. (pause) I can't get rid of the idea that somewhere in the Universe there must be a creature superior to man.

There it is again. Human beings are not so great.

Later, intelligent apes with the power of speech capture Taylor. On this planet, human beings are primitive brutes that cannot speak (Taylor was injured during his capture and cannot talk). One of the apes, Dr. Zaius, talks to another in front of Taylor’s cage:

ZAIUS: Men are a nuisance. They outgrow their own food supply in the forest and migrate to our green belts and ravage our crops. The sooner they're exterminated, the better.

Here it is again. Humans are self-destructive. But this time out of the mouth of someone other than Taylor. Now Taylor finds himself trying to argue on the side of humanity.

This point of view is consistently stated throughout the film.

At the end of the film, Taylor escapes the apes and this strange planet only to discover the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. He has been on Earth the entire time. Humans have destroyed the Earth. This “twist” is right in line with what the film has been saying the whole time. We brought about our own destruction by way of a nuclear war.

If the three acts can be defined as Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion, then we can look at the tape log at the beginning of the film as a proposal. And the second act as the argument when the opening statement or proposal debated. So the conclusion of the film is proof positive of what the film has been saying all along.

This is not just a trick—it is storycraft.

Serling’s stories are timeless and they matter. In the ‘60s, when he wrote the film, the cold war was raging and people felt like any minute the world might end by our own hand.

Today, although it is still a possibility, we are slightly less worried about the nuclear threat and more an environmental one. But it doesn’t matter what the method of possible destruction is, only that we may be the ones ultimately responsible.

 Great stories are never just timely, they are timeless.

Rod Serling was so much more than a writer of twist endings. He was an artist and a craftsman. His writing was so good that it still inspires filmmakers today. I wonder if this new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes will employ as much storycraft. Will there be a strong underlying theme that can be seen, and felt, throughout...or will it be an excuse to show cool-looking CGI apes?