Monday, May 17, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #17: A Cell Phone Shouldn't Solve the Problem

There’s been a fun trend recently of YouTube montages of movie clichés. John August has been posting them on his screenwriting blog as red flags for screenwriters, but I thought that this one deserved some discussion of how it points to a deeper problem.

Thriller writers love to complain about cell phones. It’s now impossible to write a thriller, so they say, because rescue is always just a phone call away. Of course, there are ways around this problem… no battery, no signal, phone gets destroyed, etc., but each one of them has become a cliché, as the above video amply demonstrates.

But if you find yourself sweating over how to cut off cell phone access, then you’ve got a bigger problem. If your hero only needs to make a call to get out of trouble, then, by definition, they’re not the only person who could solve this problem, which means it’s not really their problem. “Wrong place at the wrong time” is too little to hang your movie on. If there’s a cop out there who would be better at solving the problem, then we should be watching a movie about that cop.

There needs to be a deeper reason why your hero is the only one who can solve this problem. Calling the cops should not be an option, whether or not they have a cell phone. Of course, most of the traditional reasons why a hero might not call the cops have become clichéd too: no one will believe them, or they’re on a revenge trip, or they’ve been accused of the crime themselves, or the cops are crooked, or it’s the perfect crime, etc… But these, at least, have become clichéd for a good reason—these clichés personalize the problem and put the hero in a position where they and they alone have to solve it. As opposed to contrived cell phone issues, which feel tired and emphasize the fact that the hero doesn’t have any pressing need to take care of it themselves.

1 comment:

Steve Bird said...

I feel confident that, for all its flaws, "The Departed" will be looked back upon as the movie that taught future screenwriters and directors how to use cell phones to tell a thriller, rather than writing a thriller in spite of the existence of cell phones.