Screenwriting

Screenwriting Tip #144: Your Protagonist Is Not a Cliché

 

Photo by Tom Newby

Screenwriting Tip #144: Protagonists who yell their epiphanies to the world are—you guessed it—a cliché. Bonus points if a passerby drops a snarky one-liner about how nobody cares.

This is the ultimate form of on-the-nose dialogue; the ne plus ultra of over-writing. Just when the protagonist can’t take it any more—or, alternately, when they figure out exactly what they wanted all along—they can’t contain their emotion. They just have to shout it to the skies!

This is almost always a terrible writing choice. In a comedy it might be funny, but it’s also been done to death as a joke. (Think of all the times you’ve seen a character yell something like “God, give me a sign!”… followed immediately by them receiving a phone call. Good luck coming up with a unique spin on that old gag.)

The softer variant of this is when, during a heated conversation, a character blurts out something nakedly emotional like “Because I love you!” or “I’m just so scared.” There are usually better, softer, subtler ways to achieve this that won’t leave the reader snorting with derision at what’s supposed to be the high point of an emotional scene.

The opposite of the emotional on-the-nose line is the plot reminder line. You know, the bit where a character utters a dramatic line designed to remind us all of the stakes, or what’s just happened, or what’s going to happen next. Something like this: “You know what this means, don’t you, Alec? If you beat this guy tonight… you’ll have to fight Killer McBastard in the final round.” Well, of course he knows what it meansand so do we, if we’ve been paying attention and you’ve been doing your job. This kind of line doesn’t really have any emotional payload of its own, relying entirely on what we already know about the plot to give it impact. It’s like poking the audience in the ribs and going, “Hey! Remember that feeling you’re supposed to be having? Feel it harder.”

And finally, there’s that interminable line of dialogue in which one character (usually a minor character, for some reason) sums up the theme of the entire story for us: “I guess it’s true; people really can change,” or “Maybe all we have to fear… is fear itself.” Listen: if the theme of your script is so opaque that you feel you have to hand it to the audience? There’s probably something wrong with your script beyond that one line.

As you can see, there are a lot of interesting ways to write terrible on-the-nose dialogue. Now that you know what they are, you can go into your draft and remove them with extreme prejudice.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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2 Comments
   Amy said on August 14, 2011 at 11:51 am

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   doggans said on January 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm

//“You know what this means, don’t you, Alec? If you beat this guy tonight… you’ll have to fight Killer McBastard in the final round.”//

// “I guess it’s true; people really can change,” or “Maybe all we have to fear… is fear itself.”//

Anyone else usually get the vibe that these lines are written more for the trailer than for the film itself?

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