Nobody likes to see clichéd plots in movies. After all, everybody and his brother has pointed out the tried and tired plot that Avatar used, which was similar to a slew of movies like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and Fern Gully. In fact, people hated it so much that Avatar made $2.75 billion worldwide. Okay, so maybe that’s not a good example. In fact, maybe overused plot devices don’t bother audiences as much as critics (professional and amateur) would have us believe. Sometimes cheesy, trite films exactly like ones we’ve already seen are very popular. When a plot cliché is used so much, it becomes its own sub-genre (buddy cop action flick, teenage sex comedy, slasher film) and there are specific elements audiences expect from those types of films. What is less obvious, though often amusing, are smaller plot points that are just as clichéd, which filmmakers often use offhandedly for no other reason than these things have been seen so often in other movies that they’re just expected.
As a screenwriter or filmmaker, be careful not to fall into the trap of using a plot device simply because you’ve seen it before in many other films. Use real life instead. Much fun has been made of car chases where vehicles crash into fruit stands and through panes of glass being carried across the street. Of course, most human beings have probably never seen a car chase, fruit stand, or pane of glass being carried across the street, let alone all three together. But let’s say you were to write a car chase scene. Would you automatically throw in the fruit stand or glass pane, or would you stop and think about what a real-life car chase would be like? In real life, do cars flip upside down when its bumper connects with a parked car without the parked car ever moving? How many times have we seen that in a film? Is it automatic instinct for a writer to put that in a screenplay simply because that’s what’s expected, rather than how damage done to both vehicles would realistically happen? Here are a few area where some perspective needs to be put in place while writing scenes in order to reflect real life as opposed to what only appears in motion pictures.
As stated in a previous article, it is tempting to write a scene based on previous movies viewed, and not by what is actually happening in life today. Times change, even if movies refuse to acknowledge that fact. For instance, in 2010, 70.7% of families in the United States with children between the ages of 6 and 17 had working mothers. So a TV series like Suburgatory showing a whole community with stay-at-home moms is simply ludicrous. Of the 45 million women in the workforce, an overwhelming majority is still employed in education and health services, so the stereotype of the female caretaker is still a reality (regardless, the median wage for women is still only 77% that of men in these fields). The industries that hire the most women after those are wholesale/retail trade and financial/professional/business services. What about the glamorous jobs that contemporary movies and TV shows like to depict women as holding down? Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25% of chief executives are women; 32.4% of lawyers are women; 32.2% of physicians and surgeons are women; and 26.4% of detectives or criminal investigators are women. However, an overwhelming majority of school teachers, paralegals, librarians, nurses, dietitians, dental hygienists and assistants, maids, restaurant servers, cashiers, administrative assistants, bookkeepers, payroll and file clerks, travel agents, and hairdressers are women. In short, if you want to write about a female character and be believable, she would more than likely be working in an unglamorous job. Not to say that you can’t write about a high-priced female attorney–after all, people like escapist fantasy–but if you acknowledge the reality of the situation that she would still be in the minority with 2/3 of the attorneys around her being men, while most of the subordinates in the office would be women.
Furthermore, what is life like in most households now? With the majority of both parents (in homes where there are both parents) working, what happens to the kids? There are a certain number of children who have to stay home alone after school until their parents come home from work, though some states have instituted a latchkey age limit. If kids have to be home by themselves, they often cannot go outside and their parents call to check up on them. More and more elementary and middle schools have an after school program where kids can stay at school doing their homework and taking part in games and activities until their parents get off work. Even when home, kids are often restricted from going outside unless the parents are there to watch over them. This is assuming the kids even want to go outside, since most activities for young people now revolve around the TV, computer, video games, or other electronics. In place of simply playing with the neighborhood kids, children are often involved in regulated, supervised, scheduled activities like Scouts, clubs, or sports to the point where parents are shuttling them from one event to another on a daily basis. Gone are the days where kids just roam town or the neighborhoods left to their own devices.
How does all this relate to screenwriting? Imagine trying to retell Stand By Me in modern times where you have a group of 12-year-olds who fool their parents and camp outside without permission only to walk miles down a railroad track to search for a dead body. In today’s age, the kids wouldn’t be gathering in a tree house but making their plans on Facebook. The parents would easily contact each other, and even if the kids somehow pulled a fast one, the parents would be checking up on them via cell phones that all the kids would own. It would be unlikely that the kids would even own any camping gear, unless one of them was in Scouting, and chances are they wouldn’t even be in shape to make that journey. There would be more than one fat kid in the group. Would there even be a train track running through town, since thousands of miles of tracks have been abandoned over the last 40 years? Would modern kids even care about finding a dead body in real life when they can kill all they want in Grand Theft Auto?
Moore’s Law says that processing power in computers doubles every year or so, which means that once you buy a computer (or anything with computing technology, like a cell phone), it is already obsolete since the companies are already developing the next generation of that device. We are in an era where technology is being thrown at us at a dizzying rate. Even the motion picture industry is experiencing this future shock, since digital cameras are on the verge of overtaking traditional 35mm film. Even major movies like The Social Network are being shot on digital rather than film. Technological advancements have hit every aspect of our society, but for some reason screenwriters tend to be left behind. It’s like creative people have no concept of how gadgets work, so they just make up what they think might exist, as a Cracked article hilariously points out. You’d think some screenwriters have never used a computer before, even though they write their scripts on computers.
The simple reason is that some people are digital natives while others are digital immigrants: a digital native is someone who has grown up with computers and whose brain is “hard-wired” to understand the concepts behind modern technology; a digital immigrant is someone who grew up in the “analogue” days and is learning the new language of the digital universe. Many screenwriters and filmmakers are digital immigrants, so anything related to computers is like a foreign culture to them–they can learn about it, but it’s not inherent in their nature. Younger filmmakers are digital natives, so it’s second nature to include modern technology in their stories–it’s a part of who they are. If you’re an immigrant, you’d better immerse yourself in the language of the digital realm and understand how our culture now works in order to stay relevant, or else write about other eras than our own. If you’re a native, then you still have your work cut out for you; due to Moore’s Law, you have to stay on your toes to stay current or chance falling behind.
As stated earlier, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using standard movie situations, but you can’t do that with the changes brought about by technology. For instance, if someone hangs up during a phone call in a movie, you inevitably hear a dial tone to signify the person has disconnected. Let’s examine that situation for a moment. A full quarter of the homes in the United States have forgone the land line in favor of only using cell phones, and a good portion of those who still have home phones rarely use them. Even when we were using land lines, the cliché of the dial tone after a disconnection never happened in reality, but we were used to seeing it in movies so we accepted it. But now? How many of us have been yakking away on a cell phone, only to realize that the call was dropped? There’s nothing to tell us that we’re talking to a dead phone, except perhaps a little musical tone depending on what service you have. That could actually be a funny replacement for the dial tone cliché. It’s also common that children of all ages have cell phone. People text each other on a regular basis. This is life as we know it, and should be reflected in movies as a commonplace thing, not as something that is outrageous or bizarre.
We as a culture are no longer afraid of computers where we think they’re going to gain consciousness and take over our lives (or have they…?). They’re not magic, they crash often, they’re a source of amusement and frustration, and they’re a part of our everyday existence. Screenwriters should treat them as such, writing in the realities of computers rather than making them be some super machines that can do anything (as depicted in most movies or TV shows about police or government agencies). They have limitations. Similarly, depict computers as they really are. Most of us use Windows, so we’re familiar with what a screen looks like. We know how email works, and no one has flashy graphics that take up the entire screen when a message arrives. We’ve all typed on a keyboard, and while some of them are the clickety-clack types, words appearing on the screen don’t make dot matrix printer sound effects. Things like these are insulting to everyone and are on par with a movie made in the ’70′s showing the awe-inspiring effects of microwave ovens, and getting every aspect of them wrong.
And for once, can we see a movie where someone actually says goodbye when hanging up a phone?
Hollywood is notorious for not understanding religion. We see religion in movies in regards to holidays, in particular Christmas; with characters who are religious zealots (see most Stephen King adaptations) or right-wing politicians; or when making statements about the Church (i.e. Catholicism) or culture (such as Jewish families). According to a recent survey, 78.4% of Americans profess to be Christian, with over half being Protestant of any denomination. Only 23.9% claim to be Catholic. By contrast, 1.7% is Jewish, 0.7% is Buddhist, 0.6% is Muslim, and 0.4% is Hindu while a whopping 16.1% is unaffiliated (3.0% that is either atheist or agnostic). Let that sink in for a moment. Nearly eighty percent of Americans identify themselves as being Christian, yet how many movie characters are ever shown as being religious (outside of celebrating holidays or attending church for a wedding or funeral)? Unless religion is somehow important to the plot, it’s rarely discussed. In real life, people attend church without being fanatics. Their religion is a part of their lives just like work or school is; with some it’s highly important and they say prayers before meals and bedtime, and they have a very strong faith while others let it play in the background like Norton utilities. Why do movies tend to ignore this aspect of humanity that has as much importance of making us who we are as our education and careers? It could be that it’s easier to just ignore it. If you make a character a certain religion, then you need to know something about that religion, and that’s often just too much homework for something that appears insignificant. Also, you don’t want to offend audience members who may be of different faiths.
As stated above, over half of the American population is Protestant, but there are countless denominations falling under that category: Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Quaker, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, and so on and so forth. Truthfully, how many people in Hollywood really know the difference between them? It’s easier to paint all Christians with one brush–usually by making the characters Catholic. After all, the Catholic church is a world-wide organization with a high-profile leader with many countries calling it their primary religion. Unfortunately, the United States is not one of them despite what the movies may indicate. By doing a search on IMDb for the keyword of “catholic,” 867 titles came up, whereas “protestant” only generated 86. That number grows laughably small when you narrow it down to “Baptist” or other denomination. What’s interesting is that 1501 titles come up when you use the keyword of “Jewish” despite the fact that less than 2% of Americans are of this faith. Of course, this is misleading since IMDb lists all movies made in the world, not just in the United States. It still gives one pause, though, when you figure that most studio executives and high-powered players in Hollywood are Jewish. Does that mean that Hollywood is propagating a “Jewish agenda” on the American movie-goer? Of course not. It’s just easy (and lazy) to make a story about the underdog (and let’s face it, who in history has been more of an underdog than the Jews?) or about the best-known and showy religion in the Western world. Do either of these represent most Americans? No, but as with other clichéd conveniences, we’re used to seeing them on the silver screen so we don’t question it.
On the rare occasion that a program does show a man of the cloth who is Protestant, Hollywood tends not to know what to do with him. Take as an example the Reverend Eric Camden from 7th Heaven. He’s a Protestant minister, but the show never states exactly what denomination he belongs to. He wears a white collar like a priest, but has a (rather large) family so he’s definitely not Catholic. The Lutheran and Anglican churches are the Protestant denominations that have their ministers wear collars, so he could be one of them. But the actual practices of the church is never discussed, just general Christian beliefs. That’s the problem–Christians of all walks of life generally agree upon the basics, but it’s how they worship and the rituals they engage in are up to disagreement. In a movie or TV show, it’s easier to ignore these controversies and just have a character a generic minister, and what better way to show that he’s a Man of God than to have him wear a collar whether or not it has any bearing in reality? This also applies to the movie Signs, were Mel Gibson plays a former minister with a family, yet random people still call him “Father.” Maybe Gibson is playing an Episcopalian or Anglican pastor, but that term is usually reserved for Catholic priests. Again, this is lazy writing, because it’s easier to use terms movie audiences are familiar with rather than actually commit the character to a specific religion and use the reality of that calling.
As stated in the review for Suburgatory, it seems that Hollywood writers have never set foot in a public school, or at least they haven’t done any research to see how schools have changed since they’ve actually been students. For instance, whenever you see a young adolescent, the child is always attending a junior high school. What’s the problem? Since the ’70′s, public schools have gone away from the junior high model, which starts at 7th grade and goes to either 8th or 9th grade and is the old-fashioned way of education whereas middle schools are 6th through 8th grade and have “teams” where the teachers of the four primary subjects share selected students. Why does this matter? When writing a realistic account of life of a 7th grader, it helps if you actually know what a school day is like. Chances are, a kid will be closer friends with those who he shares classes with, so if his best friend from one year is put onto a different team the next, they will probably drift apart. This can set up dramatic tension in a screenplay, if the screenwriter actually took time to research reality. However, in the lazy ways of Hollywood, they tend to show outdated systems that don’t reflect what is going on in most of the country.
The ways that schools are depicted in movies and TV shows tend to have little connection with what happens in real life. Of course, this can be chalked up to real life being boring, and Hollywood wants to spice things up. But it seems too easy to rely on standard clichés rather than try to get to the heart of what a character must face. How many times have we seen students categorized by types: the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader, the brain, etc.? While the middle and high school years are when kids try to find their identities and like-minded kids tend to drift together, real life is far more complex than simple titles. There are “band geeks” who also play on the football team so that when they’re not on the field during a game, they’re grab their musical instrument and join in on the marching. Some of the highest achievers in a school are also top athletes. An outcast might find a niche in art class, music, drama, or some club yet still not fit in with other outsiders. Most kids fall within simply being normal kids going through the standard relationships with their parents, trying to fit in with the expectations of society, wanting to make friends, worrying about grades, and stressing over the changes in their bodies. It’s too easy to label a character a “this” or “that” rather than look at him or her as a human being at a young age who hasn’t yet figured out life (even if the character believes to know all the answers).
Even well-written shows can fall into easy traps. Take the season finales of Modern Family and The Middle, which are a cut (or several) above the average sitcom currently on TV. Both had female characters in 8th grade ready to move up to high school (of course, attending junior highs). On both shows, these characters went through a graduation with caps and gowns and had to give speeches due to having accomplished something like high grades or some other achievement. Private schools that have students attending from kindergarten to 8th grade may have graduations such as these as a way to send off their eldest students to the next phase of their lives, but public schools don’t bother with this kind of ceremony. If anything, there will be some sort of end of the year awards banquet for the students of all grades who have earned top honors. Graduation is reserved for high school–except in Hollywood’s fictional universe. After all, it’s dramatic to have a young character dressed up and going through the whole throwing-the-hat-in-the-air routine, even if it’s four years too soon.
Kids in General
Speaking of children, when exactly did entertainment aimed at kids decide that adults were idiots? In the ’50′s, parents were depicted as calm issuers of knowledge to their kids. Of course, this was unrealistic. By the ’70′s, smart alec kids became the rage because it was funny hearing a child spout off with things that would normally get him smacked. Let’s not forget catch phrases–”Whatchoo talking about?” and “Dy-no-mite!” caused a frenzy of laughter and applause. It’s too bad real-life kids couldn’t patent their own catch phrases. Instead, they tend to use the same idioms that their friends use, which often spread through culture for no discernible reason. Something that’s cool can soon turn rad before becoming phat, but all too soon it’ll be tight and then evolve into being wicked and finally settle on being hot. Young people don’t even realize that they’ve bought into the newest fad word or phrase, but they sure know when it’s out of fashion. That’s one problem with writing dialogue for kids, if you’re trying to keep current with slang, it’s out of date very quickly. It’s almost worth it to invent slang rather than using something trendy, or better yet to avoid it altogether. How do you write young characters and make them realistic? Avoid repeating things that you’ve seen a dozen (or a million) times on screen and think in terms of them being human beings with desires, goals, passions, fears, and flaws.
The same goes for the parents–even if the story is meant to be enjoyed by children, do not skimp on making the adults three-dimensional. They can be supporting characters as it’s all right to make a story about children, but avoid falling into the pit of making the parents (especially the father) the comic relief. Kids in the audience like to see their own lives reflected in their entertainment, even if what they’re watching is fantasy. They will connect more with a movie if they recognize their own experiences being dramatized. Adults don’t become buffoons just because they’ve reached some magic age. There’s a reason why J.K. Rowling was so successful with her Harry Potter series–not only was it imaginative and weaved in every conceivable mythological element in a complex storyline using kids as the main characters, but she understood that the adults should be as realistic as the minors. How many of us have had teachers like Minerva McGonagall or Severus Snape, not in their magical abilities but in their personalities? Similarly, look at how the parents were portrayed in Super 8. They were identifiable and had layered relationships with their kids, which made the young protagonists even more realistic.
This might better belong in the category of what directors or physical effects coordinators should pay attention to, but so many times in movies weather is just wrong. However, much of it comes from the screenplay itself. If you write lazily, the production personnel will tend to follow your lead. As with other elements of a film, the natural elements are depicted in the most cinematic way. Thunder crashes at the same time lightning flashes across the sky! Of course, if anyone actually notices what happens when thunder and lightning happens in real life, it’s obvious that movies don’t show reality. Physics dictate that light travels faster than sound, so unless the lightning strikes right next to you, you’re going to see the flash before the sound reaches you. Of course, if you think about where movies originate, things become obvious. In Southern California, a slight drizzle is newsworthy. People who have lived their entire lives there have no concept of storms, or weather from anywhere else in the country. For instance, as a rule hurricanes don’t have lightning. Tell that to the producers of the 2005-06 TV series The Invasion, which had a devastating hurricane in its pilot episode. They got so many facts about a storm of this magnitude wrong that it was insulting to people who have lived through this kind of natural disaster.
The same can be said about how most weather phenomenon is dramatized, whether it be standard storms, a rain shower, or snow. Again, sometimes it’s due to limitations of budget or effects. Soap flakes might be the easiest and cheapest way to create fake snow for the screen in sunny Los Angeles, but it certainly doesn’t look like frozen water in crystalline patterns. As a screenwriter, if you’re writing a scene with snow, be aware of the limitations of the production. Will the movie be shot during the winter on location where there’s real snow, or will the effects crew have to somehow create it? Depending on where you set your story, it’s best to research the weather patterns of that area. A storm in Ohio will be different from one in Central Florida. The famous Oklahoma wind will bring ice storms in the winter which will freeze everything, especially roads while the lake effect off the Great Lakes will dump major amounts of snow. What about the other seasons? Spring, summer, and fall all have different definitions in various regions of the country. You can’t assume that what’s normal for where ever you live is the same as everywhere else. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Hollywood writers do. They are familiar with their own terrain and the weather it brings, so it’s assumed that it applies to everywhere, and that everyone in the audience will be okay with it. What usually happens is that we just shrug it off as it being just a movie and having no relation to reality. Wouldn’t it be great for a movie to actually show what happens in the real world instead of seeming to make it up?
copyright © 2011 FilmVerse
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