We’re often told to avoid clichés
like the plague.
That’s good advice, except when it’s not.
I was thinking about clichés after seeing two Emma Stone movies in quick succession: Crazy Stupid Love and Easy A.
I have to say, I enjoyed both films and they did one thing the same way: Namely, they called attention to rom-com and John Hughesian clichés and made fun of them. The screenwriter pointed at them (some call this writing technique “hanging a lantern on it”) to let us know, proudly, we know this is cliché and we aren’t apologizing. It’s not dumb if you know what you’re doing.
In Crazy Stupid Love, Steve Carell gets into an argument that destroys him. As soon as it’s over, he’s left alone to sulk and it begins to rain
in buckets. “How cliché,” he says. Wink!
Easy A is a witty story with smart people saying funny things (so it’s the opposite of reality TV.) Stanley Tucci and Emma Stone are father and daughter and, in wordplay, are the same smart, funny person. The jokes are often about clichés that the protagonist recognizes are worn out repetitions, but she longs for them anyway. She wants her life to be like an ’80s high school movie. (Is Emma Stone old enough to get the reference to John Cusack with a boom box outside the dream girl’s window in Say Anything?)
Easy A is fun because of the clichés. I haven’t enjoyed a high school movie this much since Ten Things I Hate About You, so all those hanging lanterns didn’t hurt the movie a bit.
It’s okay to use clichés as long as you do so consciously and cleverly. In a rom-com, the couple are going to get together in the end.
You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. A few self-deprecating nods to the demands of the form (mixed in with original surprises and charming characters we care about) can make a rom-com much less cloying than it might otherwise be.
When forced to succumb to cliché, you can use the opportunity for wry dialogue and a wink at your audience through the fourth wall. Do so clumsily and your second draft will have a bunch of strokes through the too familiar and the repetitious.