When is a cliché not a cliché?
That’s not a riddle, by the way. It’s a question because I have no idea.
I know a cliché when I see one … but not always when I use one.
On occasion I’ve had people asserting something I’ve never seen before is a cliché even when they can’t give any examples of where or when it’s been used.
But, you know, I know that does happen sometimes.
I know there are some campfire tales which are so widespread that no one could get away with using them in a script … or at least get away with claiming they came up with them. But sometimes I’m surprised by what people consider a cliché without being able to list either specific stories or specific characters.
This surprises me more the older I get, because as younger people roll up to give me notes, I would expect them to recognise less clichés rather than more.
We all know, for example, that escaping in a ventilation duct is a cliché. Everyone knows that, no one would even consider using it in a film … except the people who do.
Why on Earth would anyone do that though when it’s such an overused cliché? Not just a cliché, an overused one. A double cliché, if you like?
Well … my daughter’s six and she wouldn’t consider that a cliché. She doesn’t really know what a cliché is and even if she did, she probably hasn’t seen anything where anybody uses a duct to escape something.
So does that mean it’s okay for people writing scripts aimed at six-year-olds to use the vent-duct cliché?
I mean, apart from the fact it’s fundamentally stupid and wouldn’t work?
Is there a statute of limitations on clichés?
Again, I don’t know, I’m genuinely asking.
As we get older, do more things seem like clichés? Do we inadvertently limit ourselves by avoiding clichés our potential audiences have never seen?
I think I’ve written a similar post to this before about jokes … but I can’t be arsed to look for it and it might have been a dream anyway. So take clams – the jokes which seem fresh and funny but quickly go off.
“He’s behind me, isn’t he?”
“Did I say that out loud?”
“Another joke I can’t be bothered to think of.”
Are these off the table forever?
Or do we just have to wait ten years or so? Can we use them in kids’ stuff? Is it even a problem anyway?
Who are the people who complain about clichés?
Scriptwriters, critics and people on the Internet who think they’re critics?
Writers spend a disproportionate amount of time watching films and TV and trying not to do anything anyone else has done. Critics and Interneters just do the first bit.
Are these people representative of the audience as a whole? Should we be taking their (and our) opinion as to what is or isn’t a cliché as gospel?
Or should we accept that the majority of the audience find these things funny or inventive years after people with too much screen-time on their eyes are bored of them?
Yet again, I don’t know. Just thinking in public.
When The Matrix came out – every damned concept or idea in that film was a hoary old cliché from a Century or so of science fiction pulps … yet people loved it because it (the first one! Just the first one!) was incredibly well done and packaged in a new way and, most importantly, watched by people who had never, ever come across those concepts before.
It literally blew people’s minds.
Science fiction fans, on the other hand, could happily list a half-dozen books with the same concepts and point out (in dreary detail) that every long running sci-fi TV show has at least one episode with the same set up. Along with an episode where the characters end up in a parallel dimension and one where two (or more) of the major characters swap bodies.
Imagine if the Wachowskis had brought that script to me:
“Yeah, well it’s well written and all … but you’re clearly just ripping off Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin. Can’t you think of something original?”
That, by the way, is why I’m not a development exec – I’d be fucking terrible at it.
So the question remains – should we as writers avoid all clichés forever more? Or is it acceptable to reanimate the classics after a certain rest period? Maybe each individual writer should be allowed to use each cliché exactly once? Or maybe individual writers should avoid the clichés they recognise, but not get bent out of shape when script-ociety as a whole keeps using them?
I don’t know
All I know is that’s more than one question and I wish I had some answers.