There are some things in storytelling that we repeat, rehash, and make anew. That’s part of the human condition; we love telling stories and boy howdy, do we love hearing, reading, and seeing them on the screens. Chalk it up to the hero’s journey, but humans are just super into that rising-action/climax/conclusion cycle. And within that cycle we come up with literary tropes as well; the wise old mentor, the sidekick, the monster. These have been around since humans first sat around a fire together telling stories.
As storytelling evolved, so to have these tropes. In fact, with regards to film and TV, there’s a whole website dedicated to cataloging them. Sure we have wise old mentors, but we also have The Hacker, who can smash a keyboard and get into any computer system. We have The Jock and The Cheerleader and myriad other roles we slot our characters into. There are themes that get repeated, lines of dialogue that pop up again and again — i.e. techno-jargon followed by a, “Speak English!” — and even plot holes that writers fall into again and again.
Writing and storytelling are hard; it’s easy to walk on the well-trod path that others have set before. In fact, in many ways it’s a good thing; the hero’s journey speaks to us on a nearly primal level. Humans like it, and your story probably already follows obliquely; let it. Have fun with it.
But there are some tropes, particularly in film and screenwriting, that we do not need anymore.
The following list is a collection of some of my least favorite writing tropes. They’re just malarkey. Frankly, they are dated and offensive. You can do better.
There’s a slew of books and lists of books about how to write screenplays, and they’re all fine, but let me tell you, it’s the weird and unexpected books that really added to my writing chops. Read on for a list of books you need on your shelves to up your writing game, and your life!
(This article contains affiliate links from bookshop.org! Buying through these links gives me a small commission and supports independent bookstores! I’ve also included my regular amazon affiliate links for you as well if that’s easier.)
If you’re my age or older you may remember when this book, (along with a handful of offshoots and sequel books), came out. I bought my copy from the now-defunct Border’s to give you an idea of the time period (ah the early to mid-aughts. What a time to be alive).
This may not seem like the kind of book that would help with writing at all, but it is in fact a gold mine of plots, solutions, and tips for living in a dangerous world. If you’re writing an action movie, this is your bible! Not only does it outline what to do in weird, worst-case, situations (which actually eases my anxiety a lot) but it’s a trove of inspiration. Put your characters in these predicaments and see how they react. The best part, your characters probably don’t know the ‘right’ way to react in the situations in the book; these worst-case scenarios can get even wilder!
Let’s learn all about writing accents in this latest installment of the Dialogue Doctor. The Dialogue Doctor is back after a long hiatus, mainly due to quarantine depression (because seriously, this situation is depressing…). Got a question about writing dialogue? I’m here to help! It’s the one thing I know how to do!
So you have a great story idea, something really whacky and fun! Congrats. And the best part? there’s a zany character who speaks differently than ‘normal people!’ You’re excited to write out each word they mispronounce in detail in your screenplay! Sounds like it’s going to be a great source of both comedy and plot!
Reflecting on an average American school shooting through screenplay.
Working Log Line; In the immediate wake of a school shooting, the community of Foothills Christian High and first responders struggle to contain the situation and understand what has happened.
(I’m not above admitting this log line is awful… it’s a work in progress)
A school shooting is an impossible subject to wrap one’s head around if you’ve never experienced it. I’m one of the lucky 99.999% who got to go through my school years safely. That being said, I’m also part of the generation raised on lockdowns and active shooter drills. Columbine was almost twenty-one years ago; I was nine when it happened. Millions of people in my demographic had lock-down drills and lived with that weird, intangible tickle in the back of our minds that, while probably nothing will happen, something could.
It was always there.
Starting my research, I came to realize more and more how affected I actually was by the events of Columbine, and all the subsequent shootings. Mainly because it didn’t affect me. School shootings were both mundane and terrible. It seemed like the norm, even though I think we all knew deep down it couldn’t be. I imagine it’s even worse for students who were born post-Columbine (and even more heartbreakingly, post-Sandy Hook), as shootings have become nearly normalized. I, and so many other children, absorbed the stories about shootings the way a child absorbs everything else.
But there was that thread of fear, mostly unconscious, that I absorbed as well. Sometimes it was comparable to my fear of quick sand or the Bermuda Triangle, sometimes evolving into the more real fear every Californian has of a massive earthquake, sometimes as present as a car accident, a mugging or a heart attack.
My last big girl blog post was about being a fat woman trying to make it as a screenwriter.
Now I’m wondering if perhaps a more pertinent problem is just to be a woman trying to make it as a screenwriter. And whether or not that’s worth it in an industry that is so skewed.
I’m of course talking about the Roman Polanski win at the Cesars in France (god bless Adèle Haenel and the others who walked out!). But I’m also talking about Harvey Weinstein. And I’d be remiss to forget about all the women snubbed at the Oscars last year — Natalie Portman may have embroidered their names on her cloak, but they deserved so much more.
According to Woman and Hollywood and the Center For the Study of Women in Television and Film, of the top 100 grossing films in 2019, only 20% of the writers were women (I don’t have the stats on POC, or WOC, but I imagine they’re equally abysmal). The disparity is just astounding and awkward. This wasn’t some statistic from two decades ago, these were the films from last year. The industry tells time and time again that our voices and our writing isn’t worth it.
I’m tired. That’s all I can say. It’s International Women’s Day and it doesn’t feel like things are changing at all. Maybe they’re getting worse. And I don’t have a solution; I can’t offer any real advice. I’m struggling and I’m hoping it’s because I’m struggling like every other writer and not because my gendered name on the cover page of my screenplays (my mom once told me that I should change my name on my writing from Elizabeth to Eli… I’m almost tempted to try it).
I’m just going to keep writing. That’s all I can do.
To all the women out there feeling less than great about how things are in our industry – and really, any industry – I’m with you. We’re just going to keep going, and we’re eventually going to win.
Thank you to all the women who are standing up and fighting back.
Something I am guilty of doing in my screenplays and have to actively fix in later drafts of work is over-directing the actors. Adding too many ‘umm’s and notes. Not the worst no-no in screenwriting etiquette, but not a great look for anyone. It’s a habit that makes sense; you know how the scene is supposed to play out in your head, and writing it with every pause and tone clearly marked is comfortable and safe. Arguably it’s great for a first draft! There is no misinterpreting your words and meaning. Except that’s the problem, isn’t it?
(Betsy the Gremlin is a self-appointed Dialogue Doctor. Everyone says she’s good at writing dialogue and by gum she wants you to be good at it too!This post may contain affiliate links; I earn a small commission that helps support this blog when you purchase through these links at no cost to you.)
I’m struggling a lot with what I want to write for my Nicholl Fellowship screenplay. I don’t feel confident enough in my old stuff to work from those, but I literally am having no ideas as to what to write for something new.
The early submission date is in 32 days. (I can wait longer and do regular or late submission, but it costs more).
As of right now, my brain is bouncing three subpar ideas around in my head;
A gay bull rider on the rodeo circuit trapped in the closet.
A young woman with control issues has to go to europe to collect her dead twin’s body after he commits suicide.
A school shooting.
That’s it. I don’t hate any of them, but they’re not giving me the passion I once had with writing, ya know? But maybe I just don’t have that passion anymore because I’m older and wiser and jaded. And I’m feeling a little gun-shy because the response I got back from my AFF coverage, while good, said it wasn’t the most original story. So now I’m wracking my brains trying to come up with something original.
Either way, writing is still hard. To win the Nicholl Fellowship would be a huge deal, and the fact is the story idea itself needs to be original, plus the dialogue and writing needs to be perfect. Even then it’s a long shot. I don’t anticipate this is going to be my year, but I want to submit nonetheless — this is my career, this is what I’d have to do to get noticed in my field.
The first medium.com article I ever wrote, exploring the way that screenwriting instruction focuses on what characters want and need, but without explaining what those things actually mean in terms of writing. It’s a strange little language/code-switching barrier that warrants a deeper look, with Remy’s journey as a focal point.
One of the core elements in any text on screenwriting is to understand your protagonist’s want versus their need. On the surface, this seems reasonable. Knowing your character’s motivations — used here as a term for wants and needs as a driving force — is fundamental and relatable. How many times have you known that something you wanted was bad for you in some way and still wanted it? The internal conflict of a protagonist is when wants and needs don’t match up.