Updated: Sep 23
Writers for TV shows and movies commonly employ a host of clichés to forward the plots of their stories. I don't know how this can be because I remember my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Boysen, telling us not to use clichés in our stories. If eighth graders can understand the concept, why can't grownups who make movies that cost a hundred million dollars?
You've seen overused plot elements a hundred times. Here is a short list for you anyway:
Characters who are jerks
The Chosen One (most action movies)
Abusive parents or spouse (Sleeping Beauty,1959)
Evil governments, corporations, or religions (most movies)
Love triangles (Hunter Games, 2012; The Host, 2013; Twilight, 2008)
Most movies made by Hollywood in the past forty years use at least one of these. But there is one overused device moviemakers use that's particularly distasteful to me. When it occurs, I start clock-watching or pretend I'm somewhere else until it passes.
It’s the scene that employs the contrived confrontational argument. Not all arguments, but the ones put in place because the writers felt the need to,
[Insert argument here.]
Such scenes are difficult for me to watch because there are almost always other, more creative and interesting ways to forward the story.
Because confrontational arguments exist in real life, they’re acceptable in fiction except when they’re overly used and unnecessary. I can picture two writers sitting at a table saying the following:
Writer 1: “The Boss wants this scene done by lunch.”
Writer 2: “Let’s use Contrived Argument #6.”
Once a contrived confrontational argument starts, one of the following will generally occur:
A new enemy will be made.
A wrong decision will be made.
There will be a delay in plot resolution = artificial suspense.
Someone will die or be hurt resulting from the time wasted during the argument.
I know this because there is a principle that's just as true in real life as it is on the screen or on paper:
Most of the time something good comes from a healthy discussion.
Most of the time something bad comes from an unhealthy discussion.
Healthy discussions or arguments elicit tension, resistance, fear, deceit, bias, and every other human emotion and foible. And, because a healthy discussion or argument can contain every condition of human experience, there is rarely a need in fiction for an unhealthy discussion or argument.
One of the biggest universal rules of fiction is to never let the viewers/readers in on the magic. Contrived arguments stick out as artificial and let the viewers catch on that the story is rigged.
Why is Hollywood fixated on contention rather than forwarding their tales by other means such as a misunderstanding, an accident, or an attack by bad guys? Why can’t bad guys supply the bad and not the good guys?
I have read many lists of top villains in fiction. One of most people's favorite villains is Darth Vader. Can you think of a single argument Darth Vader engaged in across three movies? Perhaps there is one. In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Darth Vader uses his mind powers to give another evil character a scolding. But was that really an argument? And, at the end of the dispute, Governor Tarkin (played perfectly by Peter Cushing) says, "This bickering is pointless."
I'm so right it hurts.
Healthy vs. unhealthy
What’s the difference between a healthy and unhealthy argument? I propose the following.
Assuming the argument is necessary and not contrived,
a scene containing a healthy discussion or argument is where
at least one person has some sense.
Not everyone must have their head on straight, but if no one does, the discussion devolves into a tedious experience that bears no fictional fruit.
Imagine a dinner consisting of only one item. A hamburger patty, perhaps, or a big serving of mashed potatoes. Imagine a painting with only one color.
Likewise, if every character in a tense discussion acts like an idiot, then the scene becomes painful to watch.
See the following video clip. It's one of the most memorable scenes in Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977). Granted, this example is an exaggeration of my point. It's where Obi-Wan uses his mind-control powers to make a stormtrooper do his bidding. But clearly, it’s an example of a confrontation resolved by at least one person in the scene who has his act together.
Imagine how gut-tearingly hideous it would have been had the scene turned into a ten-minute argument where every character acted like an idiot? Most of the audience would have stood up right then and left the theater, and the Star Wars saga would have ended halfway through the first movie.
If you want your readers to hate your scenes, make every character behave foolishly. Yet, such scenes regularly appear in movies and TV shows!
Don’t open that door!
There’s another reason that unnecessary contrived arguments should be avoided. Have you ever watched a scary movie where everyone in the audience knows there’s something terrible behind a door but the mindless character opens it anyway and is either killed or “lets out” the adversary to hurt someone else?
Viewers don’t like it when characters in a story are more stupid than they are. Likewise, watching characters engage in senseless arguing is not enjoyable for viewers to watch.
Terms of Endearment
Years ago, we tried to see the movie, Terms of Endearment (1983). We watched about forty-five minutes before we realized the entire movie consisted of nothing but vicious, spiteful, and angry arguing. (I know, we’re slow.) We turned it off. Perhaps the rest of the movie was pleasant. We’ll never know.
Whose fault is it when I’m bad?
We watched the first season of Netflix’s TV series called, The Umbrella Academy. While it was a great show, we noticed that the characters were terrible communicators. This caused them to become embroiled in frequent contrived confrontational arguments.
In Episode 9, the writers of the show employed a series of even more intense contrived confrontational arguments to provide the reason for one of the characters to become evil. What was tragic about the episode was there are many reasons why people turn evil. Why use only the same, overused technique throughout the series to forward the story? This makes the story uninteresting.
I was hoping the character would have been evil all along but didn’t know it until one day when she stole something, broke something, or said something mean and discovered she liked it. This would have made her transition to evil all on her. Instead, we end up with victimhood, which put the blame on everyone else but her.
It was frustrating to watch because ordinary people do not engage in ceaseless arguing. See how insidious the message is? “Evil is never the fault of the person committing it.” How terrible and mindless Hollywood is!
With the pervasive contrived confrontational arguments layered across most TV shows and movies, when things invariably go badly, the resulting negative actions are often blamed on the group or on society instead of the person making bad choices.
There is already too much blaming going on in modern societies. Instead, let’s show in our stories examples of people taking responsibility for their actions.
Even in the first episode of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, there is constant incessant bickering that contributes to one character doing something bad. This event sets the stage for the remainder of the series.
Really, Hollywood, can there ever be any variation?
Contrived closemouthed cousin
Contrived confrontational arguing used to artificially inflate conflict in fiction has a close cousin that is used just as often. It is where,
One character asks another character an excellent question,
and the other character stands there and doesn't answer.
Then the scene ends.
This situation happens throughout most movies and TV shows because it's a cheap way to artificially create tension. No script or acting required! Just characters standing around wasting viewers' time.
A good example of overuse of the contrived closemouthed cousin is the TV series Falling Water. The otherwise brilliant show is heavily infused with half-conversations: discussions that end with characters staring at each other instead of asking or answering obvious questions that anyone in the viewing audience would ask.
Fiction is fake enough as it is. Please, use creative and fresh ways to create tension and conflict, rather than characters suddenly losing their ability to speak.
I had never realized this until I wrote this post, but I can’t think of any scenes in any story I’ve ever written that contains a contrived confrontational argument. Not only that, but I cannot imagine a reason for ever using one because there are so many creative ways to forward plot.
There are endless creative ways to make stories live. And they’re much more fun to write. Aren’t we supposed to be having fun when we write our stories?