In response to Chip’s post about three million years ago on what he calls the “ubiquity of ideas” (alright, it was beginning of Oct, but told you I was busy) here is a list of the stories, scenes and elements I see most often as a script reader…
Unlucky in love. Our hero/ine has the worst day at work ever, gets fired and comes home to find their girlfriend or boyfriend in bed with someone else. Sliding Doors was a decade ago people!
Pardon me. Scenes where someone splutters “You what?” at the start. Slides through easily most of the time, but sometimes writers overdo or – shock, horror – have them drink something and spit it out at the same. Argh! If I had a quid every time I saw this… You can see this on some car advert showing at the moment (don’t ask me what car, I wouldn’t know even what car my own husband drives).
Mad axemen in the rearview mirror may be closer than they appear. Our protagonist goes to the country/desert/arctic where they *should* be safe from hazards, sharp objects and general psychos but of course the only other person in the middle of nowhere wants to kill them. And why not? Despite seeing this one a lot, I find writers come up with some ingenius ways of pepping it up. Much fun.
Romeo Must Die. Poor rom-coms, they get chopped to bits. Will writers stop killing off people in them for no reason (especially the protag)?? I can only imagine it’s another hangover from the 90s: Four Weddings and A Funeral this time.
Drama is…Drinking tea. Apparently. Something terrible has happened. Characters are horribly affected. So they sit in a living room and people offer condolences for pages and pages whilst drinking tea and sometimes offering slices of cake to each other. Is this because we’re British?
The Now-Gay Ex-Boyfriend. I have an ex who is now gay, but only if you define “boyfriend and girlfriend” as “we kissed on the lips age 11”. Was it WILL AND GRACE that makes this character turn up again and again I wonder?
Women are the weaker sex. Female leads are often self-obsessed and must learn some kind of life lesson in specs, usually that friends and family are more important than moisturiser. In addition, female characters are still being tortured, raped, passed-over, rescued by men or even forgotten about altogether (in that there actually aren’t any) in specs.
Working in an office is bad for your health. I’ve never worked in an office for longer than a couple of weeks at a time, but I am reliably informed by the specs I read that if you do for any length of time your sanity snaps and you do terrible and disgusting things to your colleagues.
Breaking the law impresses girls. Really, it’s true guys. If you want to get your girlfriend back, all you have to do is rob a bank, defraud the government, break out of jail, beat someone up or take someone hostage or preferably, all of the above.
Misery loves company. People cry a lot in the specs I read, yet I’m struggling to think of a film I’ve seen where people cry more than once in response to a specific revelation or event (like a funeral). But characters will spontaneously burst into tears in specs, usually during arguments and often repeatedly, nearly always female characters too.
Meet your destiny…Bee-atch.If a character can see into the future in a spec, they can do nothing to change it usually. Which must mean the majority of writers don’t believe in The Chaos Theory or they’re unsure of how to actually make it play out in the script. Which is interesting.
Accessories are everything. Small stones, necklaces, old books, diaries, amulets, mirrors and brooches can transport you to magical lands – or at least give clues as to what is going to happen next or where someone is going.
Beauty before age. Very few characters I read are beyond their twenties, most are dark/handsome or dark/beautiful. Sometimes colour is mentioned, creed less often. Very few are described as ugly. Often more attention is given to clothes than attributes.
Mothers’ ruin. If you have a baby you’ll probably die. Or your husband will have an affair. Or he’ll be having an affair whilst you go into labour and die. You have been warned girls.
Scare-Fi.Horror in space might be an oldy but it’s still a goody and I’ve seen some corkers, especially in the last few years, though I’m thinking the “space trucker” motif is getting a little worn now 28 years after Alien.
Work sucks. If you work for the government in any way, even just as tea lady, you will be killed. Same goes for news reporters or anyone who goes to someone in authority and says, “I haven’t told anyone else so handily there are no other witnesses apart from me…” Trust me on this. I know.
The one line sex scene. Come on. You gotta give us readers more than that! It’s a perk of the job, surely?
Crashing cars mean you go back in time or to another dimension. I think we can probably blame Back To The Future for this one, though I wouldn’t know ‘cos I haven’t seen it remember.
Any others I’ve missed?
“Very few characters I read are beyond their twenties, most are dark/handsome or dark/beautiful.”
This is kind of writing for the market, isn’t it? What’s the point of writing an ugly character if all the actors who turn up for the audition are going to be terribly pretty and straight outta Sylvia Young?
I do have a habit of coming up with concepts which go into development shortly afterwards. Which either means I have very commercial taste, or they (you know… they) have put satellites in my teeth. You know which one it is.
There was a period a while back (and it definitely must be a long while back) where ideas I’d had appeared in cinemas about two years later. Sounds about the right length of time to be stolen from my sleeping mind, written in screenplay format, tinkered with by execs, made, tinkered with again and put into cinemas. This cannot have been a coincidence!
I now wear a tin foil hat and make sure I only have the very worst concepts. And it’s working! Not a single one of my ideas has made it to the screen!!!
So you don’t believe working in an office turns you into a homicidal maniac? So explain why you don’t see knives lying around then? Of course they always forget the killer pencil sharpeners.
Oli – it’s more the fact that everyone’s dark, I thought gentlemen preferred blondes?! Seriously though, not everyone has to be beautiful. And like the old adage, it’s what’s inside that counts…
Jon – I’ve never had that problem, but then none of my specs have been optioned either.
Rach, it’s not that I don’t believe it! I just wonder why… After all, you office workers just sit around on Facebook drinking coffee all day, right?? 😛
I didn’t die when I had a baby, but I did discover my husband has a penchant for wearing nappies himself. Does that count?
Crashing cars takes you to another time/dimension – more likely Freejack than Back to the Future. I just don’t want to admit to having seen the former in public.
There aren’t many stories to go around. Even Shakespeare borrowed/stole some of his ideas (or simply recycled them if he was doing a comedy – mistaken identity? cross dressing? how simply hysterical!) And if you’re in the camp that believes that Ran was one of Kurosawa’s greatest films (if not the greatest) then that’s nothing but King Lear retold in feudal Japan.
That being said, the cliches you’re talking about still seem to make it into film so often so I can hardly imagine how many scripts there are which have them in too.
I want to say more but I’m about to go on a seasonal homocidal killing spree in my office.
so anyone heard from Red Planet yet then?
Anon1 – good grief, commiserations. Unless that excites you too and in which case, isn’t family life great?!
Tom – good point, we do still see a lot of samey stuff on the big screen. And “updating” and “paying homage” (even “ripping off”) has sustained a lot of our greatest writers’ careers I should think.
Anon2 – no word yet from Sir Daniel and the RP website hasn’t yet been updated. I’ve heard nothing on my entry but given my horrendous stint of competitions the last three months I’m not holding my breath on getting to the next stage.
I would like to make it abundantly clear that I’ve never had a film made, commissioned or anything else! I had brilliant ideas, didn’t tell anybody (or even write them down in some cases) then two years later they appeared on screen as if ‘they’ were monitoring my most secret thoughts. I thought I ought to clear that up: it was just my bad writing that led to the confusion (and maybe that answers the other question). It does become peculiar though when you have a concept, set it to one side as not worth continuing with and a couple years later something similar appears and you think… ‘if only’!!!
Ideas do go round and round: often in cycles, born of societal trends, the zeitgeist and all that; and others speak to simple human truths and therefore have a tendency to never die… no matter how hard you hammer a stake through them!
Less flippantly, I’d suggest that we now feel we are being bombarded by cliches far more because of the proliferation of the media and the greed for ideas that the media industry has. A quick look on Wikipedia says that the lowest feature production in the US was 1963 with 121 and the highest 1921 with 854. Japan has pretty much equalled and mirrored this. This doesn’t include the film industries of each European country. (India is now the largest producer but in the West we have limited access to the product.) So, at a conservative guess of say 250 films a year from the US since say 1920 is 21,000. Halliwell’s film guide claims listings of over 23,000 cinema features. None of these figures includes the whole of world cinema. On top of this there is all the TV dramas! And all of this is readily available 24-7.
Compare this to the pre-cinema/TV days of a book or a play every now and again. If a cliche or two came up every 20-30th time it might be every quarter; if it comes up with that frequency now it’s once or twice a week.
I’m sure I know what I’m trying to say even if I’m not putting it down so well: fewer ideas now, less time between the recycling of them… that sort of thing!
Further to Tom’s point…
Unless this is a scurrilous urban legend bandied around by primary school teachers, all the roles in contempary productions of Shakespeare’s plays would have been performed by men, with slightly more effeminate men playing the women’s roles… So on what level does all of the cross dressing work?
There’s a man playing a woman who’s dressed as a man in order to disguise himself… but, but that’s just a bloke dressed as a bloke! Gah!
Prithee ’tis true. Though how it actually worked is a mystery to me. Presumably, it was our old friend ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. And the audience understanding the convention. And they probably had effeminized (is that a word?!) men with wigs and powdered and rouged faces dressed in overly masculine costumes. But that’s just me hypothesizing and quite possibly bears absolutely no relation to any known fact! It was definitely illegal for a woman to appear on the Elizabethan stage (the heart of Shakespeare In Love).
In the clips I’ve seen from Branagh’s As You Like It when Rosalind gets dressed up as a man there seems to be absolutely no attempt at any sort of maleness… I think that’s pushing suspended will a little too far in this cinematic age!
Back to pencil sharpeners and facebook.
Sorry too old for facebook. My colleagues just give me sympathetic looks on that one. But I make a mean aeroplane. With killer pencil sharpeners on the end to wreak revenge.
To be honest we office workers are all sitting there working out our script structures aren’t we?
I describe clothes more than the physical attributes of characters because, unless vital for some reason, they will depend on the actor or actress cast. After all, nobody seems to be bothered about casting a tall Hermia!
So my order of preference in description is (a) bearing and manner, (b) clothes, (c) physical attributes.
I find it especially tricky when one character is describing another in dialogue; I tend to do something like put ‘(or whatever the actor playing Jack looks like)’ in a stage direction after the line. I don’t know if this looks amateurish or not.
“I tend to do something like put ‘(or whatever the actor playing Jack looks like)’ in a stage direction after the line. I don’t know if this looks amateurish or not.”
Personally I wouldn’t, since it *could* take the reader out the story and remind them THIS IS A MOVIE. But different strokes and all that.
As for a), b and c) SK, I definitely go for a) but never mention clothes UNLESS it has a direct bearing on a) – for example, a smartly dressed person becomes slobby or vice versa for a reason in the actual telling of the story. I like to mention a few “summed up” things on c) just for some differentiation or again because of some story reason – ie. it might be important to know a character is a particulour colour if they’re subjected to say a racist comment or attack.
I seem to find myself, more often than not, doing a quick run-down on clothing because they can be: an extension or reflection of character; indicative of what the character wants to project about themselves; a method of disguise. There are probably more but that’s how I view it…
At the Screenwriter’s Festival there was a debate that covered issues such as describing physical attributes and its relationship to ‘colour-blind’ casting. It was stated that as soon as you say blonde hair and blue eyes there is a clear indication of ethnicity even when it wasn’t intended or even thought of. However, musclebound, scrawny or hideous, for example, would be perfectly acceptable!
It is of course true that if the role and story were “racially neutral” so to speak i.e. that a protagonist’s colour wasn’t germane to the drama BUT then, for instance, a black or Asian star was cast in the role you might be asked to rewrite with them in mind.
Still, if your film is getting made and with a star attached who has enough punch that the producer specifically wants you to rewrite FOR THEM, then you’re already having a good day and, I’d suggest, are unlikely to want to complain that much.
This part of the panel’s discussion was specifically about the situation pre-casting.
While clearly a casting director/ producer/ director can cast whomsoever they like presumably if the script has been specific enough as to what the characters look like it will seed this notion throughout the whole of the 120 pages. This will surely alter perceptions when it comes to the casting choices.
Of course, the naming of characters lends cultural/ ethnic specificity as well: a Theresa is different from a Kaljita is different from a Kylie. But the only alternative there is to just name characters a, b and c. These things can lead to some jarring moments that could be cured with just a little thought: recently, I’ve seen a couple of TV dramas where they didn’t rename the character appropriate to the cast member and I was left finding it very hard to suspend disbelief to enjoy the drama.