Writing comes in many forms, and different genres and styles have different techniques and requirements. Writing for film or television is necessarily different than writing an essay or a novel, but the great secret is that these techniques are not mutually exclusive. Just because you’re writing an essay for a class doesn’t mean that you can’t be inspired by something you heard in a film. I’ve heard it said that the best way to become a good writer is to read a lot, and I think that’s true, but incomplete. You shouldn’t limit yourself to one form of writing. Novelists can learn a lot from TV, screenwriters can learn a lot from essays, and so on.
It is my intention with this column to find writing lessons in television and film, lessons which I think can be helpful to writers of all sorts. I myself am a great evangelist of popular culture: I’ve turned many a friend and family member into a fan of some show or band or game they were unfamiliar with, so hopefully I’ll also be able to introduce readers to a variety of shows and films they might not otherwise have seen. I’d also like to think that the analyses that will follow might help readers become better critics themselves, and help them to see visual entertainment as more than “merely” entertainment, and instead as mediums that should be taken seriously, and can have as much merit as any novel or opera. I guess we’ll see.
So all that aside, I’d like to talk about a sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie. A little background, first. Like most of my favorite sketch comedies, A Bit of Fry and Laurie was a British show. It was created, written, and performed by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, hence the name. Both are quite well known performers, although Hugh Laurie is probably better known in the United States these days for having played Dr. House on, well, House.
What I love about the show is that it’s rather intellectual, and most of the sketches rely on wordplay, context, pronunciation, or definitions for their humor. Oh there are plenty of jokes about body parts and a good deal of absurdity, and no small amount of social and political commentary, but it’s the use of language that really does it for me here.
The sketch, “Young Tory of the Year,” embedded below, is only about three and a half minutes long, so give it a watch. For those not familiar with British politics or history, all you really need to know to understand this sketch is that the word Tory is used to refer to members of the Conservative Party, both within and without the party.
So why am I sharing this with you, besides the fact that I think it’s funny? Because the critique Fry and Laurie are providing here is that Tories are known for speaking in clichés. Clichés occupy an odd place in the English language: everyone says not to use them, but people use them all the time. I had a friend point out to me recently that if you watch reality shows, you tend to hear clichés all the time, because people use them as a shorthand to provide information or indicate a feeling quickly. They have some value in this way.
The problem with clichés is that they don’t have a set meaning. “Family values” (or “family standards” for that matter) means something different to every single person who hears or says the phrase. When a politician says that they’re “for” family values, they’re using it as a shorthand to reassure people that they can be trusted to uphold… something, but they generally leave it to the audience to determine those values for themselves. This allows the speaker to avoid making statements that must be backed up with specific actions, and protects them from criticism for not performing certain actions in the future. It does invite criticism that they’re not really saying anything, and this is what Fry and Laurie are saying about Tories.
The same ideas apply to writing. When you use a cliché, you’re not telling the audience anything specific. If your goal is to use that cliché as the basis for a joke, perhaps you need it, but if you’re trying to actually impart some kind of information or emotion to your audience, it’s best to stay away from them. When your readers come across clichés, they tend to either question your skills as a writer (especially in an academic environment), or they take their own, personal meaning from the cliché. The latter poses the threat of confusing them when a character does or says something “out of character,” because they have a different vision of the character than you.
Avoiding clichés is difficult, but not impossible, and I would suggest avoiding them as much as you can. If you watch television with a critical eye, you’ll likely notice how often clichés are used to quickly establish a character, a scene, or a plot, in order to keep the story moving. Sometimes this is a necessary evil, but often it results in the story feeling unoriginal and leaving the audience without much to recommend it. Give your audiences something to think about, give them writing that doesn’t rely on cliché; it’ll take more work, but that work will be better for it.