Cliches I Abhor: Getting Caught After Discovering The Plan
January 7, 2010
You know that cliche, the one where a character, usually the weak or whiny side character (the young kid, the girl, the bad guy who is redeeming himself) discovers the Big Bad’s plans, and just as they turn to leave, getting ready to tell the hero, they get caught and imprisoned and the hero has to save them?
I hate that.
It works well when it’s a bad guy being bad hearing the plan, because no one wants to see the Big Bad succeed, but when it’s a friend, all the writer is really doing is telling us the Big Bad’s plan. I mean, seriously, events like that shouldn’t happen in practically every story ever, not when they’re there for emotional impact. Putting a friend in jeopardy is all well and good and definitely makes for an exciting plot, but there’s a host of other ways to do it. When a story becomes predictable (Friend hears plan -> friend gets caught -> friend gets tortured -> friend escapes or is rescued), it loses something.
Avatar was good, had some great character interaction and such, but the very predictable plot (as in, I knew what was going to happen without needing to think about it) really hurt it. North by Northwest, on the other hand, had a very tightly controlled script that put you in a lot of tense situations without ever being that predictable. The auction scene is possibly one of the greatest confrontations in all of film. Casablanca’s ending was also unexpected, but everything in the film had been assembled so well that when we reached the climax, we were glad to see the characters act as they did.
I could rant here about unpredictability, and how there’s a difference between not being cliche and coming completely out of left field and being unrealistic, but I’ll save that for later. Back to the topic at hand.
Letting someone (the audience also) hear the plan is lazy. It’s like “yeah, well, instead of showing you the plan, I decided that I’d lay it out so it wouldn’t be a surprise, so the real plot would be about how the hero rescues his friend.” First off, one of the most important writing rules EVER is “show, don’t tell,” and this cliche breaks that rule. Secondly, and more importantly, by telling us the plan and then shifting the focus of the story to the rescue of the friend, we don’t get the cat and mouse game, or the hero gradually discovering what the villain is up to, or anything of that sort. All we get is someone saying “oh, the hero is doing X and you need to do Y to stop him.” In most television shows, the climax takes like… five minutes, max. Usually, we get this pattern (I mentioned the cliche pattern earlier, and this is the fallout pattern):
- Friend is captured
- Villain interrogates
- Hero bursts in, fights, rescues friend
- Friend hurriedly tells hero about the plan
- Hero blows something up or whatever to stop the plan.
- The end.
The danger of the big dangerous bad guy plot, gets subverted, and not subverted in a clever way. By telling us the plot, the big dangerous thing loses all mystery. It’s not dangerous, anymore, because now that at least one good guy knows, we know the hero’s going to find out sooner or later. Sure, occasionally the hero will find out another way and rescue their friend and be like “I know what’s going on,” and that might just be worse, because it means that the friend’s capture was all for nothing.
In summary, problems with the cliche are that it:
- Ignores the “Show, don’t tell” rule
- Removes the mystery of the plot, transforming the story into an action story rescue/demolish plot
- Is a cheap way to create a tense situation that has a predictable outcome
It just pads the plot, and sometimes isn’t even necessary. It’s cheap and easy to fall back on, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. Fuck that shit.
Examples: Nearly every story with any sort of good guy/bad guy altercation, as long as there’s a weak/annoying character to be captured.
BONUS HATE: I hate this cliche partly because USUALLY I’m sitting there screaming “no, don’t do X alone!” and X is always the thing that leads to them hearing the plot and getting caught. X is usually something no reasonable person would do because X is a very stupid action.