Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (15)


A screenwriter’s daily conundrum is how to avoid cliche.

You can be near the cliche, you can dance around it, you can run right up to it and almost embrace it.

But at the last second you must turn away.

You must give it a twist.

And insisting on those twists, defying that inner voice that says “Oh, well, no one will notice”, is a universal struggle that good storytellers have been fighting forever.

To quote the studio executive who first blurted out this rule to me, Sam Goldwyn-like, during a development meeting: “Give me the same thing… only different!”

Bless his pointy little head.

In every aspect of creation – from the idea, to the way characters speak, to the scenes themselves – putting a fresh spin on it (whatever “it” is) is what we do every day. But to know how to avoid the cliche, to know what tradition you are pushing forward, begins with knowing what that tradition is. A full-fledged knowledge of hundreds of movies, and especially those which your movie is like, is required.

Yet surprising as it seems for people who are interested in pursuing a career in movies, I am shocked – shocked! – to find how many up-and-comers can not even quote from movies in their own genre, much less movies generally.

Trust me, all the big guys can.

Listen to Spielberg or Scorsese talk about movies. They know and can quote from hundreds. And I don’t mean quote as in “recite lines from”, I mean quote as in “explain how each movie works”. Movies are intricately made emotion machines. They are Swiss watches of precise gears and spinning wheels that make them tick. You have to be able to take them apart and put them back together again. In the dark. In your sleep. And your knowledge of a few movies you like is not enough. It is also not enough to know all the movies of the past five years. You have to go back, see the lineage of many types of movies, know what movie begat what in the line of succession, and how the art was advanced by each.

Which leads me to the subject of genre.

You are about to embark on the next step of writing a successful screenplay and that is the categorizing of your movie idea. But no! you think. My movie is new! It’s like nothing ever seen before! I will not be put into a category!

Sorry. Too late.

You can’t tell me any idea that isn’t like one, or dozens, found in the movie canon. Trust me, your movie falls into a category. And that category has rules that you need to know. Because to explode the cliches, to give us the same thing… only different, you have to know what genre your movie is part of, and how to invent the twists that avoid pat elements. If you can do that, you have a better chance to sell. And, by the way, everyone, and I mean everyone in Hollywood, already does this. So why not know what they know?


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