For a writer, being accused of writing clichéd dialogue is one of the worst insults imaginable. Writers like to think of themselves as terribly clever people motivated to shower the universe with their scintillating originality. There are definitely moments when I’m writing a scene and a red light goes off in my brain telling me that I have hit into a cliché. All at once, the character development and dialogue will have boxed me into a place where in order to get the emotional payoff I want, I must do something painfully unoriginal. Something like…having a protagonist who’s going through a rough patch express something like, “All I wanted to do was to help, but now I’ve ruined everything.” Ugh. I want that cliché in my writing like a want a rusty nail in the brain.
When I find I’ve ended up in a cliché cul de sac like this I sometimes beat my head against the wall in an effort come up with a way to write around it. But this is not always for the best. Sometimes clichés are necessary. Sometimes they are exactly what you need in a particular scene. And sometimes, they can end up being the best part of a scene.
One of the most cliché excerpts of dialogue I can think of crops up in The Order of the Phoenix film during this conversation between Harry and Sirius Black:
Harry: “What if after everything I’ve been through, something’s gone wrong inside me. What if I’m becoming bad?”
Sirius: “I want you to listen to me very carefully Harry, You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. You understand? Besides the world isn’t split into good people and death eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
Reading those lines out of context is definitely cringe-worthy. It’s the cliché of all clichés: a hero wondering if he is actually good and a mentor responding that there is no such thing as absolute good and evil.
But watch the scene. Better yet, watch the scene in context of the entire film. Development-wise, it’s pitch-perfect. The cliché-ness is necessary to get Harry’s character from a dark brooding place to a place of self-assurance. And we get a tender moment with Sirius before he’s gone forever as an added bonus.
What’s more, the dialogue is actually kind of brilliant in its manipulation of its cliché simplicity. The screenwriters had to know they were philosophizing on the age-old theme of “the nature of good and evil.” They could have very easily used the word “evil.” In fact, every time I watch the scene I expect Harry’s line to end, “what if I’m becoming evil?” But it doesn’t. It ends in, “what if I’m becoming bad.” And that jarring dose of simple childlike language gives the scene its first weapon against seeming to be unbearably clichéd. It makes it a heartfelt line of dialogue, not a fancy-pants philosophical question slotted in the film for intellectual props. This is a teenage boy living through experiences that actually merits him thinking about the good/evil binary, and he approaches the topic with the uncertainty and naïve confusion that seems perfectly reasonable. For adult viewers, Harry’s conversation might be clichéd, but for Harry’s character it’s a necessary moment of development, and the writers do a good job of making it seem authentic to his adolescent voice.
It takes a certain amount of confidence for a writer to be able to include something that simple without shying about from the cliché-ness of it. But the scene undoubtedly would have been much worse if, in a effort to avoid the cliché, the writers had put in some post-modern elliptical way of broaching the subject and winking to the audience to avoid the topic. Like having Harry say, “What if I’m bad?” and Sirius chuckling and answering by telling him to read Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and then come back to him and talk about the nature of good and evil.
We see this pathological fear of heartfelt clichéd dialogue in films like Shrek, in which clichés are included only to be mocked and discarded, resulting in an ephemeral and cynical humor . It may be good humor. But I don’t think it’s good storytelling.
As writers, we have to let go of our egotistical desire to avoid clichés as if they are the plague. We may think we’re above them, but that doesn’t mean our characters are. Suck it up and accept cliches for what they are: the building blocks of story development. Instead of worrying about them making you look like a hack, use them at the right times and with as much authenticity as possible and suddenly they won’t seem so plague-like after all.
That doesn’t mean you should use all the clichés that pop into your mind when writing. Instead, you have to ask yourself, Would my character use this cliché? Or is he/she smarter than that?
I used to argue with a friend about all the romantic clichés in Star Wars: Episode II. He maintained that they were honest reflections of what it’s like to have your first relationship. I maintained that the problem is that Lucas did not craft it to be intentionally uncomfortable and difficult to watch, so it doesn’t count. A film like Moulin Rouge! does count, however. Characters say things like “He’ll destroy everything” and “Above all, I believe in love” and “All you need is love” with absolute sincerity, but the film is made in such a way that we realize that it’s portraying dramatic, hyperbolic, clichéd romance purposely and intelligently. There’s a difference between not knowing the cliché you’ve used (Lucas), making fun of the cliché with an annoying wink to the audience (Shrek), and using the cliché because you recognize that real life is full of clichés and they must be explored (Moulin Rouge!). To use a cliché, the Lucas method is too hot, the Shrek method is too cold, but the Moulin Rouge! method is just right.