What You Need To Know About Cliche

advice, novels, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.

This was very painful.

We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.

I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.

So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.

She told us “a cliche is anything  you’ve ever heard before.

This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?

Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.

Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.

I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.

But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.

Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better —

Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.

How A Scene Is Like A Joke

comedy writing, drama, jokes, screenwriting, T.V. writing

I’m working on scenes right now. So I’m thinking about scenes as discrete units, like jokes. A mentor taught me this, and a showrunner he worked for taught it to him.

A good scene is pithy like a good joke. It takes leaps and accomplishes its mission in shorter than expected time and distance. It doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t tip its hand — it leaves its most important points unsaid, to the imagination, to be completed by the audience. Any time you let the audience step in to fill in the space you’ve supplied between Set-Up A and Punchline B, they’ll love you for it. Because you’ve let them become the heroes of the telling.

Whether you’re writing a joke or a scene — you wanna get in there as late as possible, get out early. But not too late, not too early. Finding those right moments to jump in and out of scenes (or jokes) is an art. A great scene will have a beginning, a middle and an end, turned like a little three-act play, as will a great joke (even a one-liner, if you look hard enough).

Think of the beginning of the scene (Act 1) as the set-up of the joke: Why does this person need something, here, right now? The set-up builds expectations.

Middle of the scene (Act 2): a reversal happens, a set-back. The twist in the joke. The moment we realize all is not right in joke-world.

End of the scene (Act 3): the character is thwarted or spun a new direction. Surprise! Punchline.

The punchline is the most important part of the joke. Your punchline lands your joke and lands your scene. Scenes finish with a twist, a turn, another obstacle for the character — they finish dramatically, and whatever you go out on is your punchline. The body of your scene was the setup, so you made it pithy and tight and turned it, then you killed with your punchline. Maybe it’s the hero’s final line as he blows out, maybe it’s what the hero does, maybe it’s what you reveal, maybe it’s an explosion. Whatever it is, it’s a punchline, something we lock onto, digest, understand what’s being turned or thwarted or revealed and then wonder what happens next.

Set ’em up. Knock ’em down. Always leave ’em wanting more.

Because in both joke-telling and scene-writing, the business we’re really in is keeping them wondering what happens next.

My post on how to write jokes can be found here.

Resistance Is Futile

advice

Man. People do this every day? Really? Okay.

Forcing myself to write here regularly, whether I’m inspired or not, is good for me because that’s good writing practice.

Not wanting to write or not having anything to write about can be a sign of resistance — there is something there but for whatever reason you don’t want it to be there.

So when you develop the practice of writing every day, it no longer matters whether it’s there or not, resisting or not. You do it first, force the ideas to follow you.

We lead. By putting pen to paper, thoughts to words. The world and its ideas follows. We lead. They follow.

Write Back To Front

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Start with your target.

Your target is the moment you build to — that big reveal, big stand-off, joke on the scene, revealing look, twist — whatever pushes us stumbling forward, searching our hearts for more. This is the last moment in the novel, last beat in the scene, last beat in the act.

Drive the arrow of your story through the target where you want it to land. Find that last beat — of the story, of the scene, of the act — start with where you’re going.

Unless you experiment with rhythm and timing by placing your big moments in the middle or the beginning, your biggest moments should go last. Your end beats stand as booster rockets pushing us forward, constantly building tension and emotion, propelling us all the way past THE END to continue the story in our minds and in our hearts.

Instead of loading up your arrow and launching it, hoping it will stay on course and land where you want it, target these end beats first. Then, pull back — what happened right before the arrow nailed the target? What happened right before that? Follow the line of the arrow back all the way from where it hit its target to where you loaded your bow. You’ll find the path between target and pulling the string a lot shorter than it might have been had you started with the quiver.

I’ve been writing back to front for a long time — both within scenes and over entire scripts and novels — but it didn’t occur to me to write a post about it until I read this post at Screenwriting Foxhole in which Michael Lee discusses how to structure a scene — from back to front. Ensuring the last beat is caused by the beat immediately preceding it, which is caused by the beat preceding it, and so on. Like a director organizing a shot list, ensuring that every beat has a shot and that these shots flow in a tight, inter-dependent chain like a spine through the back of the scene.

Begin where you want to go. You’ll get there fast.

Story Shorthand

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Fiona Akerman

I used to write slowly. As a novelist, I would meander, let myself go, simmer, get stopped up, go around in circles, find my way again and again. I still do that, I just do it very fast now.

If you’re on a deadline, but want to write a rich story fast, here’s a shorthand:

Every character gets an arc that hits at least three beats:

  • We meet them when they’re low — or don’t know yet they’re about to take a big fall.
  • They struggle with a new challenge.
  • They change as a result.

Show each of these beats in a scene or scenes consisting of:

  • a visual image
  • an emotion
  • a question in the mind of the audience — what comes next?

Weave these scenes together like a building conversation: each scene interviews the next, asking a more insistent question that’s only partially answered by the next, which answers a question with its own question in turn. Building in speed and intensity.

Every moment in your story is a great moment — if it’s not, lose it.

If you’re on a tight deadline, you can use this shorthand to develop a pretty tight story. Once you’ve got the story down, you can get profound.

Fucking Is A Feeling

drama, storytelling

Fucking is a feeling.

You don’t think “I should fuck that person.”

You have a feeling. An urge. You want to fuck.

This feeling carries us through a story. We buy emotionally. On page one, in the first few minutes of the movie — we buy in. We get turned on. We want to fuck.

Doesn’t matter what kind of story. It’s the feeling. That sense of drawing forward. Because we’ve seen something in there that’s mysterious, or vulnerable, or heroic — something small starting down the road to getting big. We get turned on. We want to fuck.

Give us something we want to fuck. We’ll go.

How I Write: Motifs

comedy writing, drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

I love motifs. If there’s some physical law where the number of motifs in your story threatens to reverse the chemical ratio of metaphor to action, I’m the person to test it.

A motif is a detail that repeats through a story to draw attention to an idea or theme. The motif can be a word, phrase, color, character, monster, sign, place, image, way of describing something, way of talking, alliteration, simile, character trait, situation, anything. The point is that it repeats. Once it repeats it becomes a trail of breadcrumbs we leave to help the reader or viewer find depth and meaning in our stories. When motifs cross and combine, they reflect and magnify each other, drawing a map that points the audience down paths of allusions, partly inherent in the story and partly supplied by the audience’s experience. This is the theme.

I’ll use my Iraq pilot LIONESS as an example to show how I use motifs. I decided to introduce a new motif in each act, like a recurring chord in a symphony, that, once introduced, would blend together in the end. Each act’s motif shapes the act, giving it a guiding metaphor to direct the action.

These are the ideas that take root in the imaginations of my characters in each act. They discuss them, they see evidence of them all around themselves, they see parallels to them in their environment, more importantly, they DON’T see parallels to them in their environment. These motifs show up in both subtle and un-subtle ways, as jokes, as images, as plot points, as looping topics of conversation.

Act 1:  Motif: Bloodshed.

Act 2: Motif: University of Texas Cheerleaders.

Act 3: Motif: Missing Humvee and Suicided Soldier.

Act 4: Motif: We Don’t Leave A Man Behind.

Act 5: Motif: Innards.

You don’t have to tell a serious story to use motifs — my sitcom pilot was standard network fare but also very motif-driven. You can bury them beneath the surface or not. What they give you is a deeper, more meaningful, more textural world.

How I Write: Dreams

drama, screenwriting, T.V. writing

Had a dream where my back was turned and someone stole my couch, coffee table and computer.

Wrote in my journal: “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.”

This line resonated with me. I’ve been working on a pilot about Iraq that’s affecting me deeply. I felt this line spoke to my experience writing this pilot and what I imagine to be soldiers’ experiences over there.

I decided to develop a scene where my female combat soldiers are outside the wire for the first time with their Marine comrades. The Marines leave them to guard the Humvee while they rip apart a house to find an insurgent. Iraqis create a diversion on the street, distracting the females just long enough for the Iraqis to steal something big — haven’t figured out what yet. A weapon, something significant. Maybe even the translator they were guarding.

When the Marines return to find they’ve lost something their first day on the job, the females are humiliated (though they shouldn’t be considering they were never trained for missions outside the wire). The main character says some version of that line from my journal later to her girls — “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.” In the end, this line might be too on the nose, and it’s certainly awkward as written in my journal, but for now it stands as an emotional placeholder — a way to go deep.

The scene rings early on in the script as a warning bell for what they’re going to lose on the inside.

Characters Should Be Seen, Not Heard

advice, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

The perfect screenplay is a silent movie.

Seeing the story transpire firsthand makes us witnesses. We participate. Instead of hearing the characters relate how they think and feel about what happened, we witness what happened and we relate how they think and feel for them. We tell their story for them, in our minds and to each other. When a character talks, she takes the witness stand, and we nod out in the spectator seats. When we watch her act, we take the witness stand, sitting upright and paying attention to detail and thinking carefully about what we know of her thoughts and feelings so we can get the story right.

When the entire story happens in the minds of the audience — with the audience as witness — audience becomes storyteller. We care more, we’re invested more, we believe more what we see with our own eyes. Because we’re in the witness stand now. We’re the real stars of the show now — we’re telling the story.

Whenever you can, let your audience tell the story. Give us all the information we need, and let us piece it together. Then it’ll be ours. You have no greater goal.

You Have Been Radicalized (Why Write Like A Pussy?)

advice, novels, pilots, screenwriting, T.V. writing

How do I know you’ve been radicalized? Because you’ve got something to say. Speech radicalizes you.

Don’t neuter your words. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Say it bold. Don’t fear conflict: cause it. Tension and anxiety rise as you near the heart of your subject. Trouble creates story. You are dangerous now. You find dangerous places, and you stay there, despite discomfort. You do it because your audience turns to you to do it for them.

Remove weakening language. We weaken our words because we feel uncertain. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth writing, and if it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing with conviction — brave, confident, stripped to its most radical core.

Weakening language weakens you. Write the weakening language because it allows you to write at all. Padding comforts you enough to venture out onto the field or into the arena or down the dark alley. Once there, remove it. Leaving it implies you don’t deserve to be radical, that you must pad your self against the world seeing you. But you do not need to speak if you’re not going to be heard. You diminish your authority — in your own mind and in the mind of the world — and make it harder to be radical next time.

Everything you say and write prints on a boldface sign the world sees. The world takes you seriously, and we consider every act of speech you make to be a billboard on which you speak to the world. So make it bold, make it clear, and make it count.

Following are weakening words. To experiment, take a current writing project and save it as a new file. Run a search for these words and remove all of them. Yes, you’ll have to go back and replace some of them. But say goodbye to most of them for good — they were the incompetent employees whose absence you celebrate. The draft emerges tighter, cleaner, leaner, less burdened. It stands as a sign blasting your good ideas rather than a manifesto burying them.

WEAKENING WORDS:

well, sure, you know, seems, much, in, bit, I, you, [first names], here, and, then, once, [-ing], when, suddenly, now, appears, to, that, right, okay, [repeated words/phrases/ideas], is, little, might, maybe, first, probably, well, so, among, all, the, but, hi, how, are, try, start, begin, which, about, why, continue, slowly, for, what, it, it’s, actually, totally, very, [adjectives], [adverbs], almost, [cliches], pretty, [anything ending in -ly], however, [anything ending or sounding like -ish], oh, own, ?, [comma clauses], just, really,

Anyone have anything to add?