Screenplay Clichés to Avoid So You Can Wow Readers

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As a script reader, I’ve read it all. Aliens. Robots. Ex-Boyfriends.

It’s not that I’m sick of screenplays – I cried at one today, it was so good!

But I am sick of clichés. So how can you avoid the screenplay clichés that will make readers mark your script with the evil red PASS?

Here we go!

Aspiring Writers

I know you’ve heard “write what you know.” And I know there are some good movies out there about writers (Adaptation is one, for example). But so many aspiring writers have written scripts about aspiring writers that it’s become incredibly cliche.

Scripts about writers tend to be low-stakes, visually boring and not broadly relatable.

You don’t have to take “write what you know” so literally. Write what you want to know! Write what you imagine! Or write about something you know but then twist it into a something new.

“It Was All a Dream”

Twist endings are great. But if your script ends with the twist that the whole story has been a dream, your readers (and viewers) will groan at one of the major screenplay cliches to avoid.

Yes, TV show Newhart famously ended this way in 1990. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an “it was all a dream” ending in one episode. But that’s the point – it’s been done. It also makes viewers feel like they’ve been duped or have wasted their time.

Just avoid this one for your screenplay. Trust me.

Unreliable Narrators

We tend to believe what’s presented to us on screen. That time is moving forward. That people are who they say they are. That characters are alive (this is why the twist in The Sixth Sense is so effective).

We also tend to believe that what the main character is seeing (and thus what we are seeing) is accurate. Many writers have now flipped this and shown us narrators who are delusional. In some cases, it’s part of a meaningful theme or character detail (like the way the protagonist’s lack of memory in Girl on the Train stems from her alcoholism and trauma).

But we’ve now seen unreliable narrators so many times that they feels like a cheap and easy way to throw in a twist. Please tread lightly.

Starting With Waking Up

It feels logical to start your script with your character waking up in the morning. I know! We can learn a lot about someone from their routine. But please start your script another way.

Groggily lifting your head off the pillow and shutting off your alarm (even if it’s a cell phone) is something we’ve seen plenty of before.

The Journal or Letter of Crucial Information

So you’re writing a mystery. That’s great! It can be hard to think of places where a character might find clues… but please resist the urge to have your character find crucial details in a journal or letter. It’s 2020! When was the last time you wrote in a journal or mailed a letter?

Related to this is when characters very easily unlock someone’s phone or snoop through someone’s email. Remember that we all have passwords and other ways of locking technology. (The Big Sick‘s scene of one character betraying another by using a sleeping person’s finger to unlock a phone was a great way to show something modern yet believable).

The “magic flash drive” also makes my list of screenplay cliches to avoid. How many people really put world-altering information on a flash drive?

The Bad Date or Bad Job Interview Montage

Montages can be great for conveying a lot of information quickly. They can also help you show that your character is going through an exhausting series of events over time.

That said, please think hard before you include a bad job interview montage or a bad date montage. I’ve seen a TON of these! If you can write them in a very funny and unexpected way, then fine. But I’d rather see one really memorable job interview than a collection of joke-adjacent ones I’ve seen before.

You could also choose to portray something else related to your character’s joblessness. How they spend their empty days might be more interesting than how they get rejected by an HR person!

Lessons and Tips