Tag Archives: plot

When a Hurricane of Clichés Equals a Great Movie

Today, I’m going to talk about Casablanca. If you want to know more about why I care about Casablanca, check out my previous post, ‘Writing Reality – Or Escaping It‘.

quotables button“Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making…Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, and “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”)

For years, filmmakers hungered to know what made Casablanca a classic. If they could just crack the formula – figure out what made people instantly love it so much – they could crank out sure-fire hits over and over. After all, on the surface, there’s not much to recommend Casablanca above your average movie. It’s a very clichéd plot – a love triangle, a sacrifice, a clear antagonist, a damsel in distress. The characters are walking stereotypes. The character arcs have all been done a thousand times before (even in 1942, when this movie was made).

If there was a key to filmmaking—or writing in general, which is what I care about most of all—wouldn’t that be nice? A magic key unlocking the secrets of what makes stories work? But there isn’t. There’s no magic key – only magic. The magic that happens when, in this case, the right combination of actors, characterization, plot and tired clichés combine.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed Casablanca. You’d think by now, seventy or so years after its release, the plot would’ve been spoiled for me. It should be like those people who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and wondered why it used every fantasy stereotype in the book, when it reality it’s merely because Lord of the Rings INVENTED those stereotypes (except in this case it’s romance stereotypes, and Casablanca didn’t invent them but merely inspired the continual recycling of these old tropes). I saw the end coming from a mile away. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked up something everyone told me was a classic, and hated it (see Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights).

However, I did love it. Like I said, there was magic.

And I love the quote I pasted above, because it shows how conventional wisdom about stories falls short – how in this particular case not an avoidance of clichés but a hurricane of clichés is what makes the movie. Casablanca breaks an accepted, basic rule of stories. But then again, every piece of true art is flawed.

Will lightning strike again if you use a hurricane of clichés? Or is Casablanca merely lightning in a bottle? There’s no way to say, except that creating art involves risk-taking and bravery. Sometimes that means breaking new ground. And sometimes that means risking doing what everyone else tells you is overdone.

The genius comes in telling what situation calls for which.

And if your striving eventually comes up with a story that works – a story that speaks to something inside humanity, and satisfies something in our cores – well, then your work has been touched by that magic.

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Filed under Misc. Books, On Writing, Quotables

The Crime of Re-Using Plots – Is It A Crime?

Oh no, a romantic comedy! (Sabrina trailer – {PD})

Oh no, it’s another mad dash to the airport, where the girl swears she will leave the country forever and the guy insists he’s in love with her, you sigh to yourself. Everyone knows romantic comedies all have the same plot. Why do they even bother making more of them?

Well, how many plots do you think there are in the world, anyway?

Don’t get me wrong, I get as annoyed by a formulaic “plot twist” as anyone else. I never want to see another break-up where the girl found out the guy was really a newspaper reporter and writing about her the whole time, ever again. I’ll be perfectly content if think-he’s-cheating-but-actually-it’s-all-a-wacky-misunderstanding scenes are banned from movies and books altogether. But that doesn’t mean expecting every element of the plot to be completely original every single time is at all realistic.

Like I said in previous posts, ancient writers all let each other play in their sandboxes. There was nothing surprising that the bard who wandered into your village told the exact same story as the bard who was there three months before. Another story about the Fall of Troy? Hey, why not, it’s not like anyone owns it. And so people only got famous if they did something really, really interesting with the well-worn story.

Romeo and Juliet was originally The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, and end with the nurse being hung and the apothecary banished. Shakespeare was merciful to the nurse and the apothecary, and a classic was born. The Metamorphoses was just Ovid retelling every single Greek myth he could think of, and making sure everyone changed into an animal at some point in the story, but everyone agreed he told the stories better than anyone else. And shoot, everyone knows Star Wars is based on The Hero’s Journey. Just because we’d told stories about heroes before, didn’t stop Star Wars from becoming insanely popular.

The key is – it’s got to be done better. We don’t live in a time where plagiarism is allowed, so an original take on the plot of the latest best-seller won’t get you anywhere, but no one’s copyright The Hero’s Journey. Or the romantic comedy formula. Use them to your heart’s content, but do it better.

Because that’s the real source of frustration with the formulaic plots, isn’t it? It feels like the writers or whoever thought the audience must be feeling the emotions they want them to feel because they hit all the right plot points. Who cares if the characters are cardboard and have no motivation – they’re racing for their love in taxicabs through New York, so you have to cheer for them. On the other hand, if the writers succeed is presenting a hackneyed plot in a fresh and interesting way, you almost forget you’ve heard some of the plot points a thousand times before. For example, in Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, Audrey is chased by two brothers who are in love with her. Not the most original set-up in the world, but I still love the movie because Audrey makes me care which guy she ends up with. Or you can take the millions of re-tellings of Pride and Prejudice that exist, and I will watch as many of them as I can get my hands on, because the dynamic at the center of the book is so intriguing I want to see what other creators do with it.

Re-telling the story is not the problem. Re-telling it well is.

Cinderella is another story that’s been re-told a hundred thousand times. Can it handle one more? Call me deluded, but I thought so and wrote Prince Charming because of it. And since it’s free today and tomorrow, you can go here and decide if I succeeded.

What do you think, is re-using plots a crime against writing and the source of all formulaic books and movies? Or can writers dispense with being completely original once in a while to play around with well-worn tropes?

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Filed under On Writing, Prince Charming Extras

Same Old Story

OR, Are Original Plots Over-rated?

I love Bollywood movies. I’ve only watched one, but they tell me there’s all the same (Apparently these movies tell the same stories over and over – a highly cynical view, I think). But I loved the one I watched – the emotional, over-the-top, tug-at-your-heartstrings cheesiness of it all. Which made me think – maybe original plots are somewhat overrated.

After all, I’ve read Lord of the Rings over and over, even though I know what was going to happen after the first time through (I could say the same for Howl’s Moving Castle). And I got out and watched or read almost every version of Pride and Prejudice I could get my hands on: the BBC version, Bride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ Diary, etc… I love to get all the different takes on the exact same plot.

Not to mention how many plots are based on the whole “Hero with a Thousand Faces” journey – Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the Lion King. And no one would claim the plot of Avatar was original, but people flocked to see it anyway. Though I have to admit, this was one hit whose attraction I didn’t entirely understand.

I think we’re pre-programed to like certain plots that are familiar to use – the Cinderella plot, the hero’s journey, the struggle of characters in the face of incredibly odds – and people will watch and love these plots over and over again, no matter how old and clichéd they get. But at the same time that doesn’t entirely rule out the need for creativity. Every writer has to bring a new perspective or re-imagining of the old tale in some way, or it’s not worth writing. Go ahead, subvert readers’ expectations, take risks, throw in a twist. Experimenting is part of the fun of writing. But I’m starting to realize more and more that familiarizing oneself with a common set of “elements” already in use can be a useful tool for writers.

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Filed under On Writing