Pop culture is a never-ending source of wonder and amazement. We’re seeing some really top-notch, innovative writing across every medium right now. But there’s also a lot of tired, warmed-over stuff, that feels copy-pasted from script to script. Here are 20 screenwriting moves we’d be happy never to see again.
1) “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?”
The whole thing where someone is talking smack about someone, not realising that person is right behind them. The movie Jack The Giant Slayer used this joke two or three times, ostensibly as a call-back to earlier uses of it, which just made it feel more tired. See also: someone is talking smack to an adversary or monster, who runs away — because a bigger monster is actually right behind the smack-talker (e.g. Jake Sully in Avatar.) Also worth mentioning: “I’m standing right here” and “I can hear you,” from someone who’s right there when people are trash-talking them.
2) Exciting but confusing action scene, followed by “X Hours Earlier…”
I swear to god, every other episode of a CW show featured this recently. Also, one of the latest Falling Skies episodes had this. The whole “in medias res” thing is a time-honored tradition — but if your story is most interesting when you start in the middle, maybe just don’t jump back to the boring setup? Also, starting the episode with exciting parkour/motorcycle action before jumping back 24 hours telegraphs that your episode has a boring first half and you wanted to showcase the only exciting bit.
3) “He wanted to get caught!”
The next time a villain gets caught on purpose, I want to see the good guys put him/her in a medically induced coma. Or just shoot them. Whenever a villain gets caught too easily and then is put into a see-thru plastic prison, it doesn’t end well. Except for the villain — it ends great for the villain.
4) Fractured mirror/pictureframe indicates broken identity
Bonus points if somone breaks the mirror or picture in a fit of despair, and then stares at it as music swells. Also, bonus points if we can magically see the person’s complete face reflected in several shards at once, or a fractured, ugly image of the person’s face in all the shards. That way we know this person is having an identity crisis.
5) “It was just a cat”
Or any kind of jump scare that turns out to be something harmless — the wind, your friend coming back from getting a drink. In general, jump scares are getting old, and the “just a cat” thing was a cliché in the 1980s. See also: ominous POV sneaking up on the main character turns out to be friendly, or masked figure turns out to be someone who went missing earlier.
6) At the end, someone picks up a pen, and writes the narration we heard at the start.
Really, any kind of opening voiceover narration indicates a certain lack of confidence in the story, or in the audience’s perspicacity. But especially if there’s any kind of reveal towards the end — the narrator is actually Sleeping Beauty! The narrator is that weird old guy, who’s actually writing this down! — it feels cheap and silly.
7) “A wise person once told me [something you told me an hour ago]”
The thing where Person A says something to Person B, who then repeats it back to Person B an hour later, is supposed to show that Person B has learned an important lesson. It’s a cheap form of shorthand to indicate personal growth. Sometimes Person B just repeats the words of wisdom to Person C, as if sharing wise counsel. One variation is where this is done sarcastically: Person A taunts Person B, who then repeats the taunt back. But more often, repeated or parroted lines of dialogue are used as a hand-wavy “people have learned a lesson” indicator.
8) Voiceover describes the plan for the heist, while we see it play out on screen
This is even more commonly used than “voiceover turns out to be someone we didn’t realise.” In fact, it’s almost de rigeur nowadays, any time there’s a daring caper — to save time, our mastermind describes what will happen at the same time that we see the plan being carried out. One variation is that we don’t actually get to hear a crucial part of the plan — until something surprising happens, and then we flash back to the “planning” scene and realise the mastermind actually planned an extra plan, on top of the plan that we already knew about.
9) “We only use 10 per cent of our brains”
As a general rule, people who think we only use 10 per cent of our brains are only using 10 per cent of their brains. I’m really sad that Lucy, which looks like a fun movie otherwise, is leaning on this trope so hard — I hope it doesn’t drag the whole movie down, since it seems to be the main thing people have noticed about it. But in general, this is a pernicious bit of pseudoscience that screenwriters always seem to reach for.
10) “Destiny” is used to explain huge, ridiculous coincidences.
Sure, fate is mysterious and unpredictable, etc. etc. But once the pieces are being moved around too obviously, it starts to feel less like the hand of fate and more like the hand of the writer.
11) Way-too-realistic dream sequences convey crucial plot info
Sure, psychic visions are awesome, and everybody loves a cryptic/weird dream sequence — but when a character needs to learn crucial plot info in a hurry and they basically have a ridiculously easy-to-interpret photorealistic dream which lays everything out, that’s kind of a problem. See Twilight: Breaking Dawn.
12) “I promise I’ll explain everything later, but right now you have to trust me”
Or pretty much any conversation where one person promises to give another person all the answers — at some later date. When you’re older. Once you’ve proved worthy. When I’m sure it’s safe. Etc. etc. In a larger sense, characters who go out of their way to speak cryptically in order to keep the plot moving, instead of just spitting out what they know, are the worst.
13) “You’re off the case!”
This one is such a cliché that it’s been lampooned in every cop-movie satire ever. And yet, it still happens in countless cop movies, superhero movies, TV shows and every other genre. Obsessed investigators are constantly being taken off the case — but it never takes. Telling someone that she/he is off the case is pretty much a guarantee that they will stay on the case. In fact, maybe it’s reverse psychology at this point.
14) Bomb with 1980s clock-radio display and helpfully colour-coded wires
If I ever build a bomb, I’m going to make all the wires the same colour. And is there a store somewhere that sells old clock-radios and microwaves with big digital readouts, which all the bomb-makers shop at?
15) Daddy issues
If it wasn’t for daddy issues, most mainstream media characters would be perfectly well-adjusted. It’s pretty much the only thing that motivates most heroes, villains and complicated anti-heroes to get out of bed in the morning. Daddy is either an absentee father, an overly demanding tyrant, an abuser or just kind of a creep. Let’s have more mummy issues. Please?
16) “We make a great team”
Or on a related note: people informing each other that they started out as a team, but now they’re a family. Usually this happens when they have known each other for less than two or three hours of television, or half a movie. If the characters have to announce to the audience that they’re great together, it’s probably because the writer is worried the audience won’t realise this otherwise.
17) Tracing a call takes forever, but you can see on a map where the signal is.
If they can see on the map where the trace is going, doesn’t that mean they have already traced the call? Also, why does it take so long? Plus every villain bounces the signal off satellites, and when you finally trace the call it’s always a trap/decoy.
18) Zoom and enhance
This one is almost too easy — it’s been lampooned endlessly. The fact that you can take a blurry low-res camera image and enhance it until someone’s face is giant in HD is kind of awesome. And yet, it’s still so prevalent, it needs to be called out.
19) Fight scene ends with someone pinned down, groping for a weapon… until they grab it.
Note to bad guys: If you have someone pinned down, don’t let them grope for a gun, knife or shard of glass for several minutes. Just head-butt them. Or kick the weapon further away. Seriously, every fight scene ends with the “person getting choked/attacked but groping for weapon” thing lately.
20 White person saves all the natives/aliens.
AKA the plot of Avatar, and many, many other movies and TV shows. The “white guy is the chosen saviour” plot is overplayed enough in general, but it’s especially bad when everybody who needs saving is a poor native or some other species. Just give it a rest — maybe let the natives save the white guy instead, for once. Image via Paper-Bird
Bonus: “I know you hate me right now, but [villain] has [mutual love interest]!”
Thanks to Dolly Moehrle, Madeline Ashby, Tom Coates, Patrick Toews, Andrea Zanin, Sloucher Zine, Michael Handler, Jason Alan Dewey, Norm Wilner, SarcasmChris, Mara Maccabee, David Mack, Zack Stentz, Austin H. Gilkeson, Daphne D., Tomb Svalborg, Schaef Tolliver, David Wohlreich, Sarah Dzida, Shaun Barger, Jack Lint, Zem, Kal Cobalt, M. Nafpaktitis, Gwynne Garfinkle, Marwan Imam, Regis Donovan, Drew Chial, Otts Bolisay, Darren McKeeman, Christina DiEdoardo, Annalise Ophelian, Andrew Mayer, Ranjan Bagchi and everyone else who helped out!