There is an old saying “Avoid cliches like the plague.” It may be a joke but it illustrates an important point- where possible you need to avoid certain situations, phrases and so forth that often act as a lazy shorthand.
The problem is that some people think that the way around this is to call attention to it. This in many ways compounds it- characters being self aware can work a couple of times. Sometimes in a film such as Wayne’s World it can be amusing and subversive, adding a few extra jokes on top of the limitations of a conventional plot by drawing attention to it.
This is not good when you are trying to write something serious- while it is true that even the heaviest dramas need some lighthearted moments there are certain references that are played out. If you find yourself using any of the 10 listed below try and think of ways around them. Contrary to popular belief audiences are not stupid and they will see through this!
1. The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz is without doubt a major classic. It is a modern fairytale and a lot of its elements are rightly iconic. Sadly it also resulted in the use of “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore” and its variants in everything from The Matrix to Sex And The City 2.
The reference is often used because it is easy for writers- it signifies the character going from their ordinary world to the special world of the film (as defined by the Joseph Campbell “monomyth” theory.) With The Matrix it is ironically reversed as the hero goes from a supposed ordinary world and is transported to a bizarre world that is in fact reality.
Admittedly there are exceptions and times when you can put a clever spin on this reference- the sarcastic usage of “Dorothy” to describe DCI Sam Tyler in cop time travel show Life on Mars is one such exception.
2. Alice In Wonderland
This is another overused reference used in The Matrix (and many others)- “Going down the rabbit hole” is a byword for descending into a strange and unusual world. In this instance it highlights the oddness of the situation and how it goes beyond reality. Indeed a lot of the imagery has often been used as well to highlight surrealness.
3. Star Wars
Inevitably given the mythic quality of the series it was always going to get referenced a lot. In some cases the jokes can be quite clever. Unfortunately this is something that will often get namechecked. Avoid the temptation to go “I referenced it so you can’t say I’m ripping it off!”
4. James Bond
“You look like James Bond…This is just like James Bond…” Sorry but namechecking James Bond will not make your action film/ spy film more like James Bond. Nice try.
5. Taxi Driver/Robert De Niro in general
Another easy reference- The irony is that the classic “You talkin’ to me?” scene was improvised by De Niro, so it seems strange that it has since become this iconic moment that people feel the need to reference. Other common references include the slow motion punching from Raging Bull and stories about grumpy potential future in-laws.
6. A Few Good Men
Yes we can handle the truth- yes Jack Nicholson may be over the top but there are only so many times you can make fun of something that is over the top.
7. The Terminator
Worst culprit- Sly Stallone and Bruce Willis in The Expendables 2! Also saying a villain is “like the Terminator” or a cartoon that uses a villain called “the something-ator”. As with many things on the list at The Simpsons has managed to do clever twists on Terminator references but for the most part it is a soft and easy target.
8. The Matrix
Once upon a time the gravity defying bullet time was incredible. Then people decided it was funny and parodied it. If you are writing a comedy do not write in this gag it has become stale and predictable.
9. Horror Movies
Strangely enough there were films before Scream that mocked the conventions of horror films (indeed the director Wes Craven got there first with the Nightmare on Elm Street series). A great writer or director can point out the flaws in horror films and use this to wrongfoot the audience- a bad writer or director can lose sight of the fact that a horror film needs to scare people!
Furthermore certain visual cues are often simple shorthand- crashing lightning over a castle, creaky floorboards, creepy children and so forth. A clever writer or director will be able to subvert them (such as the recent Tucker and Dale vs Evil that flipped the “dangerous hicks” genre on its head).
Referencing other films on purpose
This is at the other end of references- you may think you are being very clever by putting in images from the Hollywood of yesteryear or Italian Neo-Realism. However if these references and symbols are not used to specifically evoke an atmosphere or to add to the story then they are no better than the cheap shocks in a horror film.
In short when you are writing a script check it carefully- sometimes a reference will worm its way in without you knowing it! While it is true there are only so many stories you do have to be aware of how to tell them as effectively as possible.