Cliche or formal necessity? You decide!

From time to time, someone starts up threads to list/bitch about cinematic and/or television cliches. Inevitably these threads come to include arguments that a poster has listed something that isn’t truly a cliche, but is something else again.

Let’s see if we can come to terms. I’m going to list some specific examples that are often cited as cliches, and others can judge which category my examples fall into. Try to explain why you’ve put an example in one category or the other, and feel free to add your own.

First, let me define my terms. A formal necessity is an element of a work of fiction that is used over and over because it’s a logical or practical requirement of the genre in question. For example, the fact that virtually every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place on in outer space is, obviously, a formal necessity; it’s a fricking space opera. Cliches, by contrast, are oft-repeated elements that are (a) not necessary to the form and (b) draw undue attention to themselves by their lack of freshness. Using TNG again, the fact that so many episodes include a space anomaly, unrelated to the emotional plot, that the crew escapes with some meaningless technobabble is cliche.

All clear? Good. Here’s five to start things going:

  1. In the first act of Lethal Weapon, Riggs demonstrates that he can dislocate and un-dislocate his shoulder at will; in the third act, he uses this ability to escape from captivity.

  2. On House, the simplest diagnosis of the patient of the week is invariably wrong.

  3. In the last ten minutes of most episodes of Xena, Buffy, and Angel, the heroes typically get into a battle with a villain they’ve been pursuing for the rest of the episode, dispatching said villain in a creative way rather than using brute force.

  4. On the original Law & Order, if the detectives and the squad commander are having a meal and discussing a case, any interruption will come from someone with specific information on the case they’re talking about.

  5. For most of the first four seasons of Buffy, if a member of the Scooby Gang was kidnapped by the baddies, it would be Willow, the most sympathetic character.

This is the one I want to address. In my circle of friends that idea is called a “Launchpad’s Brownie”. It comes from an episode of Ducktales where at the begining of the episode Launchpad makes brownies that are really really sticky. This is played like a joke to just illustrate that Launchpad is a bad cook… later they need to use the sticky brownies in order to escape from a dire situation. I think they use them to fix a part of the plane that keeps breaking loose.

This is an achingly common plot element. It is necessary because without the set up you would just accuse the writers of pulling the solution out of their asses.

The Lethal Weapon brownie isn’t so well done because Riggs uses the ability to escape from a straight jacket at the begining… later he uses the ability to …esecape from a straight jacket (or I think technically it’s a heavy duty bag or something). There’s no drama in that because we know he can do it because we saw him do it an hour ago. The proper way to set up that brownie is to have the ability mentioned or demonstrated in a way that doesn’t directly reflect how it will be done later when it actually matters. For example: Riggs could have been shown getting his yearly physical and the doctor mentions the shoulder injury being an issue and Riggs comments on how he can dislocate at will.

I really like the idea of this thread and am saddened by its seeming quick death.

I remember watching Knight Rider as a kid, and whenever they showed a new accessory/feature/function on KITT, we were always guaranteed that (a) it would be used before the end of the episode, and (2) we would never see that accessory/feature/function again in any other episode. The James Bond films are also guilty of this.

It’s not always easy to seamlessly integrate a particular skill/device/feature into some early exposition so as not to transparently telegraph its use later on, but the LW example is particularly clumsy.

L&O is a procedural show, which means that each episode’s focus is devoted exclusively on the case at hand. You very rarely explore characters’ personal lives in the L&O or CSI shows unless something about the case intersects with that detective’s private life. Therefore, having meals interrupted with particulars on a case is simply a matter of narrative expediency (which is different than a more far-fetched contrivance or coincidence). Similarly, we’ll assume they canvas a dozen apartments, but the only one we actually see is the one that yields information. From the show’s perspective, the meals that go uninterrupted are the ones not worth seeing.

Hey! Maybe we’re still thinking.

While I’m thinking, props to Skald the Rhymer for starting some very interesting CS threads.

Much as I love it, I see House as a formula show. The failure to diagnose the patient-of-the-week accurately is part of the formula. The answer to the medical puzzle is not going to be the obvious or logical choice, because Occam’s Razor doesn’t work in the House universe. Maybe that accounts for Hugh Laurie’s perpetual stubble.

Allow me, then, to expound briefly on the topic of the Damsel in Distress. It’s generally recognized as a cliche, but I would argue that it’s a formal necessity that is most often done in a cliched manner. Typically, the bad guy kidnaps the hero’s girlfriend and he must either rescue her or do/not do something demanded by the bad guy, such as give him a million dollars.

However, dramatically, the bad guy (or gal) has to do SOMETHING disagreeable in order to get the plot rolling, and what could be more emotionally powerful than to do something disagreeable to the hero/heroine’s girlfriend/boyfriend? The most disagreeable thing a villain can generally do is kill the girlfriend/boyfriend, but if the bad guy/gal just kills the girlfriend/boyfriend outright, that pretty much punctures most of the dramatic potential at that point. So next best thing, capture and threaten to kill. Keeps the drama going. It’s very simple, and it’s not a cliche, just a plot device that can be done in a cliched or fresh manner.

I can demonstrate that it’s not necessarily a cliche by showing some examples in which it’s not used in a cliched way. The most notable example is “Speed.” Everybody on the bus is a damsel/dude in distress. The bus is the bomb, the death threat that motivates the hero. The passengers are rescued by a male/female team, Keanu Reaves and Sandra Bullock’s characters. Sandra herself is a damsel, but she saves the day repeatedly with quick thinking and courage, so she’s more of a rescuer than a damsel. And it’s hard to argue that going to the trouble of coming up with a fresh approach here didn’t help the movie become a hit.

Last night’s NCIS rerun had a similarly fresh approach, though not so fresh as “Speed.” I’ll spoiler box the plot giveaways for those who haven’t seen it yet. In the ep, a 15-year-old boy straps a bomb to his chest and takes several classmates hostage, threatening to blow himself up if he doesn’t get to see his mother. Gibbs (the leader of the NCIS crew, goes in to negotiate with the boy.

The NCIS crew figures out that someone other than the kid is controlling the bomb the kid is wearing. It turns out that it’s not really the kid by himself, terrorists have given him the bomb and the idea that his mom is alive (she’s supposedly dead) and their real agenda is to get mom reunited with son and blow them both up, their real target being her as she is a spy.

These examples are exceptions to the rule, which is where the bad guys kidnap the good guy’s girlfriend and take them to their hideout where they hang about until the hero comes by and kicks the shit out of them (in Walker: Texas Ranger, this was literally true in most cases).

I’ve written extensively elsewhere about other, more technical ways to ramp up the drama on damsel in distress scenes as well, but will not go into that, as it might offend the delicate sensibilities of some Dopers.

Well, depending on the skill of the writer, even a cliche can be a formal necessity. Henry James (not my favorite writer, but I admire him for this one) managed to write a very good story (“The Great Good Place”) with the ending “He woke up and discovered it was all a dream,” for god’s sake. If that can be used, then anything is fair game – it’s just much harder the more cliched the situation is.

Heroes battling the villains for a finale is just fine (when well done) and really is the only satisfying ending for any sort of adventure fiction.

Similarly, showing a character trait or talent, or using a recurring riff that becomes important later (e.g., Batman Beyond’s “You need to be aware of your environment.”) are just part of the trade of storytelling. It works more often than not.

I have come back to the thread, bringing pie.


Er, no. A formal necessity is just that: a necessity OF THE FORM, that is, something required by the genre you are working in. James’ pretty damn brilliant dream ending in GGP isn’t a requirement the genre, but rather a skillful working of a device that could easily have been a cliche in lesser hands (e.g., mine. :wally, since all the writing I’ve managed to sell is confession stories even I mock.)


I agree with your other examples, though.

But the two categories are not mutually exclusive. You can have things necessary by the form (e.g., the hero defeats the villain) that is badly cliched (“Before I kill you, I will tell you my clever plan.”) Or they can be done well.

In sports films, for instance, the protagonist ends up winning the match. This can be done well, or in a cliched manner.

Which is why I gave, and asked for, specific examples. F’instance: Because *Law & Order SVU * is a network TV show, it needs to periodically have big-name guest stars; that’s a genre requirement. But having those big-name guest stars invariably be the guilty party when the identity of the murderer/rapist is a mystery is a cliche, because it eliminates the suspense. When Martin Short, say, guest stars, or Michael Gross, you say, “Oh, HE did it,” as soon as you see the name in the credits. This is in contrast to my earlier example of any lunchtime interruption being pertinent to the case at hand, which, as ArchiveGuy observes, is a true formal necessity.

Here’s one from the sitcom genre:

In a family home, the couch is always placed in the middle of the room, rather than against the wall. While this is an arrangement you’d never see in a real house, it’s necessary so that a standing character can converse with a sitting one without having to turn his/her back to the camera.

But Law and Order isn’t usually a formal mystery show. Usually the cops and DAs and viewers know whodunnit, the challenge is proving it to a jury. Only occasionally do we have a suprise reveal of the guilty party in the last scene.

And this is neccesary because of the structure of L&O…the first half hour is always the cops investigating, the second half hour is always the DAs prosecuting. If the cops don’t know whodunnit until the last act, there’s no time for the DAs to prosecute them.

If you’re responding to me, I was thinking more of SVU (and CI, though I didn’t mention it), which are more formalized mysteries than the procedural original series. I agree that, on the original series, you’re generally meant to know who the murderer is by the 30-minute mark.

Although I’ve never seen a full episode of any of these shows, I’ll take a stab at it.
I would offer that in both cases, this is formal necessity (albeit, it could be done in a cliched way for any given episode). The form for all listed shows is a one-hour television drama.
For Example 3. there isn’t much drama in a set of characters who simply and expeditously kick the crap of their opponents. It is the creative nature of the solution that provides the catharsis.
For example 5, given the episodic nature of most television dramas where the ability to develop sympathy for any given character is necessarily very limited, the danger should be to the easily identified star or (if the star is the rescuer) the most sympathetic character. This is particularly true of up-and-coming or critically-acclaimed shows because a certain number of the viewers will be first-time viewers and if you don’t want them to be one-time viewers, you have to grab them in a single episode.

Never? If I put my couch against the wall it’d be so far from the rest of the furniture no one would sit in it.

Beyond the couch, every sitcom house has essentially the same set up. The couch in the middle of the living room, facing a (usually invisible) TV, with at least one chair on either side of the couch. A staircase right behind the couch leads upstairs. Immediately opposite the front door is a door to the kitchen (which is often kept closed). The kitchen will have lots of counter space, a large island, a dining table, and probably stairs leading upstairs or to the basement.

The generalization of these is “Something unusual happens every episode”. I would argue that, in both cases, it’s a necessity: We’re not meant to conclude that every single mission of the Enterprise involves a space anomoly; most of them probably go exactly as expected. But those aren’t the missions that they make episodes about. Likewise, on House (I presume; I’ve never actually seen it), most of the patients that come in probably do have exactly what it looks like they have, but that’s not interesting, so it’s only the other patients, with the bizarre afflictions, that we see on TV.