Plot and character-related exposition in screenplays is unavoidable. Your audience needs certain, essential nuggets of information as they embark on the journey. Likewise, when you select your genre, you will need to be aware of some rules of storytelling, some Key Plot Elements that are specific to the type of story you are endeavoring to tell. There is another type of stricture, a convention of plot that basically combines these two elements to bind the writer’s hands in other crucial ways. What kind of bondage—er, stricture? Well, depending again on your genre of choice, you will almost certainly confront extremely familiar—even clichéd—situations that are almost unavoidable.
For instance, in crime thrillers with a cop or an FBI protagonist, your hero/heroine will very likely need to question a suspect or two. No competing suspects, no mystery, right? Likewise, in romances and romantic comedies, the two lovers have to meet. In some instances, they are familiar, the protags may have some distant, even lurid history together. For instance, in Michael Crichton’s 1994 sex-roles reversal, Disclosure, main characters Meredith and Tom had a fling some ten years previous. Tom can’t recall the details, but Meredith enjoyed it enough to seek a reprise. But even in these instances the couple must re-meet, must spark some early, mutual attraction and launch themselves and the audience into the story.
In action films, in heist movies and in most epic period dramas the protagonist must be recruited. He (nearly always, he) may be a subordinate in some army or militia and thus be ordered into the fray. The protagonist might be someone of formidable, essential skills, long since retired, who is drawn back into an old life, old beefs and rivalries by some tragedy, or personal crisis (e.g., Bryan Mills in Taken). Whatever the circumstance, it is a near-universal trope that the likeliest remedy, the most obvious person for the task is either uninterested, unavailable or even dead. Thus it falls on everyone’s second choice (say, a drunken John McClane in Die Hard with a Vengeance), to step up, man up and save the day.
So there we have our three very familiar scenarios: The good cop/bad cop interrogation scene, the two lovers who must invariably meet (or meet-cute), and the reticent action hero who is dragged—kicking and screaming—back into the life that he thought he had left behind. Each of these is a narrative cliché, a chestnut of their given genre. So how do you crack these particular chestnuts? How might a resourceful and inventive writer reshape these weary tropes into something fresh and unexpected? Here’s how…
First, the interrogation scene: My choice for a fresh take on this tired trope is the 1992 Robert Altman film The Player (screenplay by Michael Tolkin, from his novel). In the film, Griffin Mill, a studio production chief, has acquired a stalker. Studio security is clueless, so Mill (played by Tim Robbins) launches his own investigation. He corners his primary suspect (an unproduced, would-be screenwriter named David Kahane) behind a movie theater and—after a prolonged confrontation—assaults and murders him.
Kahane’s death is a classic crime of passion. And Mill, being a novice at such matters, has not covered his tracks very well. Soon he finds himself on the radar of one of the wackiest detective teams in movie history (played by Woopie Goldberg and folk singer Lyle Lovett). Det. DeLongpre (Lovett), waylays Mill on his way to work, diverts him to the stationhouse and delivers him to the not-so-capable hands of his partner, Det. Avery (Goldberg). There is no good cop/bad cop dynamic at play here—it’s more like good cop (Goldberg), weird cop (Lovett).
Mill is laboring under the illusion that he’s due some level of celebrity discretion, and Avery has to disabuse him of that. They don’t sweat out the suspect in some spartan holding cell, observed through a two-way mirror. Rather, Det. Avery grills Mill in the middle of the squad room while DeLongpre suffers some kind of Tourette’s-like episode. The scene feels chaotic—but it certainly isn’t random. I believe Michael Tolkin deliberately crafted a goofy, disorienting sequence because he wanted to underscore Mill’s disorientation and terror. Mill is out of his element here, and so is the audience.
Orchestrating a fresh meet-cute presents its own set of challenges. Ideally, the writer isn’t just moving chess pieces and getting the two central lovers into the same room…in the same club, on the same boat, etc. A really effective lovers-meet should accomplish a couple of other essential things:
- 1.) It should serve to endear the audience to both of them; that is, their continued status as a couple should be a “rooting interest” for the viewer. We meet them independently, then they meet, and we like them both enough to want them to remain together. They won’t—of course, they will confront all manner of obstacles and emotional baggage that conspires to divide them but for now, in this magical moment, we really hope this all works out. And…
- 2.) The meet-up can also provide some foreshadowing of what those dread obstacles might be. As the two principals warm to one another, we see notes of contrast—if not a red flag then at least an amber-tinted signal flare that something could arise, some foible or defect could undermine all of that passion and charisma.
Let’s look at a scene that delivers on both of these criteria: The meet-cute in 2016’s La La Land (written and directed by Damien Chazelle) is actually a third re-meet for the two principals, Sebastian and Mia. They meet in the opening scene (a spectacular freeway overpass production number), exchanging middle fingers but no dialogue in a road rage vignette. They pass like ships once again when Mia wanders in off the street into a supper club, following the sound of Sebastian’s piano. Again, no dialogue, but an intriguing spark as Mia is ignored by Sebastian. (This vignette is re-imagined later in the film, ending in a clinch and a prolonged kiss.)
Finally, Mia and Sebastian re-meet cute at a pool party. There, she again encounters Sebastian, now reduced to playing soft rock with a grade-Z cover band. Mia exacts some payback for being “dis’ed” by requesting “I Ran”, then camps it up by acting like a Duran-Duran groupie. Sebastian is furious, but when he confronts Mia we see both the spark of attraction and that aforementioned foreshadowing of emotional baggage. Sebastian is defensive about his art, asserting that he is in fact a “serious musician”. Mia finds this notion laughable, saying: “Can I borrow that outfit? I need it for an audition. I’m playing a serious firefighter.”
Action film heroes—a.k.a. antiheroes—often get launched onto a path of vengeance with a tragic trigger event. In Death Wish and The Punisher, the mayhem is instigated when thugs kill the hero’s family. Jason Bourse erupts in the Bourne Supremacy when a hitman kills his girlfriend. In John Wick, the retired hitman reactivates because some sadist goons kill his dog. Recruitment of the protagonist in non-revenge plots can run the gamut; paleontologists Dr. Grant and Ellie in Jurassic Park get recruited with an offer of sponsorship from a mysterious impresario (John Hammond). Sarah Connor, a wage-slave waitress with no military skills gets activated in The Terminator because the T-2000 has beamed back from the future with a singular mission—kill her, thereby disrupting an insurrection that will follow in the wake of the Skynet Armageddon.
Die Hard (which Time Out ranks number one on its list of the 100 Greatest Action Films of All Time), is a survival story with dire stakes for its protagonist, John McClane. John’s wife, Holly is held hostage by Hans Gruber’s robber gang. He is recruited because he has a gun, has some convenient proximity to the crime, and has enough improvisational skills to stay alive as he picks off Gruber’s Eurotrash operatives, one at a time. Like so many of his kick-ass brethren, John is a reticent savior; but his reservations vanish in a heartbeat, and there follows a very creative vendetta against anyone with a Bavarian accent.
George Miller’s iconic Mad Max series introduces a classic action antihero in Max, a kind of uber-loner whose allegiances extend only as far as his muscle car and his scruffy dog. Over the course of four sequels, Max does not acquire any new social skills, has not gained any useful insights into the human condition. Miller has, however, found fresh and fanciful ways of activating Max, of getting him out of his car and into dystopian society—such as it is.
This re-activation/recruitment of Max has never been more inventive than in the most recent installment, Mad Max, Fury Road. Miller (with co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris) again begins with Max in his beloved wasteland, on another supercharged ride to Nowhere. In Fury Road, Max is waylaid and captured, transported by a chalk-tinted tribe of thugs called the War Boys to the Citadel. The Citadel is a feudal nation-state, a hollowed-out mesa that serves as the lair of Immortan Joe, a grotesque warlord with respiratory problems. The War Boys’ real motive in snatching Max is soon revealed: He is going to serve as a living blood bank (blood bag) for a War Boy named Nux who is dying of some sickle-cell-related malady.
But just as Max is getting his veins tapped a crisis arises; Immortan Joe’s gaggle of concubines has escaped, spirited away on a tanker truck by a one-armed dynamo named Imperator Furiosa. Nux can’t survive without transfusions, so if he wants to join the chase (And honestly—Who wouldn’t?) he must bring his blood bag along for the ride. So Nux chains poor, hapless Max to front of his vehicle and off they go…And that is how Max is activated, how he becomes aligned with Furiosa’s quest and ultimately, her redemption.
The byword here is originality. Each of these screenwriters was conjoined to a popular genre. Each of them was presented with tired tropes and familiar plot conventions. Yet each of them captured something genuinely fresh and even unique while still accommodating the expectations of their audience.
Monty Mickelson has written YA feature films for cable television, and has worked as a Creative Executive for a literary manager. He also teaches screenwriting through the Recording, Radio, Film Connection and CASA Schools (RRFC) in Los Angeles.