Top 5 Tired Screenwriting Tropes and How To Avoid Them

Avoiding cliché is the first job of any writer. Anybody you submit your script to will have read hundreds of scripts, and as soon as you start to feel “samey,” you are doomed. Whilst some of these conventions can be intelligently inverted or satirised, most make for storytelling that feels stodgy. To save you from a regurgitated narrative, we’ve bashed our heads together until the following list of five emerged.

Death Trap

The Deadly Rotary Fan. The Shark Pool. Even The Sauna of Death. Because a villain simply shooting the protagonist would be too simple, wouldn’t it? This trope involves the protagonist waking up in a room (preferably a darkened room), unable to escape whichever painful, perilous punishment our villain has prepared for them. The technology is explained at length by our hand-waving antagonist, who typically makes the mistake of not observing the hero closely enough, allowing our champion to escape JUST IN TIME. Bonus trope points if the death trap is used as an interrogation method for extracting valuable information.

JAMES BOND is, of course, the model here. In Goldfinger, the villain insists on strapping Bond to a table and bringing a laser beam towards his crotch. Thankfully Bond escapes, and a trope was born! Bond-specific death traps are endlessly parodied in the AUSTIN POWERS films, in which Dr. Evil speaks the glorious line ‘All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.’ KINGSMAN too employs Bond paradigm: in the first film, Valentine promises Harry Hart to come up with ‘some absurd and convoluted way to kill you, and you’ll find an equally convoluted way to escape.’ Unfortunately for Harry, the trope is sharply subverted when Valentine promptly turns around and shoots him dead.

Morning Routine

For you, every day starts with the same morning routine. It probably isn’t very cinematic. That’s just one of the reasons why a film hasn’t been made about your life. And yet some screenwriters persist with a tedious carousel of teeth-brushing, toast-popping and bus-missing that sucks the energy out of a film before the title cards have had a chance to drag themselves listlessly across the screen.

If a morning routine sequence is going to make it into your final draft, try to inject it with some contrastive meaning (as in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) or lay down some important character work as in AMERICAN PSYCHO, in which Patrick Bateman opens the movie by literally pulling off a ‘mask of sanity’. Edgar Wright’s opening sequence in SHAUN OF THE DEAD might seem pedestrian on first watch, but is later contrasted by a high-stakes, zombiefied version of the same journey. The opening scene of your script is a chance to announce your film with a bang; don’t miss out.

Disposable Women

It’s sad to watch anyone die on screen, but it’s truly sad for that death to be little more than a fickle plot device for motivating the protagonist. And, you guessed it, 90% of these sticky fates are suffered by women. Take TAKEN: Bryan’s (Liam Neeson) daughter Kimmy is accompanied by a friend on their inexplicable trans-European U2 stalker-tour. The plot purpose of this friend? To be killed. Unfortunately for Amanda (yes, we had to Google the character name), her only narrative function is to prove that these Albanian baddies mean business, a fact that kicks Liam Neeson’s butt into gear in the effort to save his daughter. Amanda isn’t even a ‘Damsel In Distress’, she’s one trope lower down the pecking order, and that is not a good place to be.

Hollywood Atlas

Oktoberfestland. Gay Paree. The ‘country of Africa’. What do they all have in common? Well, they don’t exist outside the ‘Hollywood Atlas’.

It’s both a blessing and a curse that film has enabled us to explore the world from the comfort of our sofa. On the one hand, we’re spared the aeroplane food, delayed trains and sun-burn that comes with global tourism; on the other, our perspective of the world is warped by the often derogatory, simplistic depictions of place brought to us by jaded writers and production teams.

The ‘Hollywood Atlas’ phenomenon causes every culture to be reduced to its most recognisable export or asset, creating a stereotyped view of people and customs. If you’re a lazy writer, you may believe that all Germans are pretzel-munching, weißbier-guzzling men or mädels. But you would be wrong. (Or the writer of Beerfest.) Likewise with Africa, which is, some would be surprised to hear, in fact a continent, not a single country. Certainly no one told the writers of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON when they sensitively decided to situate one of their battles ‘on the coast of Southern Africa’.

Demonstrations of global ignorance won’t win your audience round, and they won’t stand the test of time. A little bit of nuanced research goes a long way to avoiding cliché in these fields, and will add colour and texture to your locations.

Sudden Death

One for all the sports film lovers out there. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any closer…it can! Whether it’s a basketball overtime, a tennis tie-break or a football penalty shoot-out (a favourite of the GOAL series), tropetastic screenwriters always have a device up their sleeves turning the stakes up to eleven after the final whistle.

Customarily accompanied by a dimming of stadium lights, first-person POV, and audible heavy-breathing, a sequence that’s intended to have a viewer chewing her finger nails off will often leave her tearing her hair out. Some stakes devices can be identified from a mile off even by the most naïve viewers, and the bad news for the creators of the film SUDDEN DEATH is that trope is certainly amongst them. Apologies to you, Mr. Van Damme.

For a pitch-perfect satire of all the tropes of sports filmmaking, Rawson Marshall Thurber’s comedy DODGEBALL stands as the shining example.

By avoiding (or subverting) cliché and tired tropes, your screenplay will float to the top of the pile. Remember, indulging in cliché will only make it seem as though you are writing a movie about other movies. Use your creativity to achieve the same story goals in new and interesting ways.

Written by Team ScriptUp. You can meet the members of Team ScriptUp at the London Screenwriters’ Festival.