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This isn’t so much a lesson as it is an observation, but it’s also a call to arms to break out of old habits. Someone told me a long time ago that the most commonly used line in all of cinema and television was the question "What are you doing here?" I shook my head and offered the smarmy rebuttal that it would more likely be the word “Hi” or “What’s your name?
Many years have passed since that conversation and now I can’t watch a single television program or movie without hearing the phrase what are you doing here uttered. It’s so very true - the phrase is used everywhere - and I really started to wonder why. As I’ve been in the midst of these screenwriting posts and in the process of rewriting several scripts, I figured now was the best time to assess the usage of this question.
I started taking note of when the phrase was used and in what context, and at first its usage was quite obvious, which was to explain why some person who shouldn’t be there is all of a sudden there. Then there’s the inflections and emphasis used - what are you doing here, what are you doing here, and what are you doing here. The first variation is more of a misplacement, like a “Hey dickwad -you weren’t chosen to be on the team.” The second emphasis is a personal attack in the vein of “you’re a dickwad - this foosball tournament is for people with actual talent.” The third iteration is in relation to someone being in the wrong geography, sort of a “yeah, dickwad, this is the cool kids’ table, the fuck are you doing here” variety.
The binding factor is that it’s all about someone who’s in a place where they’re not supposed to be, and from a storytelling standpoint, it’s the driver of a narrative in the most random-yet-feasible way. I started to see the use of the phrase as an easy out. If a screenwriter is stuck in a situation and has no idea how to get their characters out of a predicament, then just have someone show up, and then have them explain why they showed up.
Guy is being chased by a bunch of goons, is chased into an alley. He comes upon a dead end. Guns are drawn. Our hero doesn’t have a weapon. He’s a goner. Head goon utters a witty one-liner, something to do with revenge and fucking someone’s mother. Our hero closes his eyes and awaits a shower of bullets, which rings out in a cacophony of violence. Our hero - still alive - opens his eyes and sees all the goons dead on the ground. Through the haze of gunsmoke walks a heavy-set woman carrying a submachine gun, wearing a floral print mu-mu and with curlers in her hair. Our hero looks at her and utters:
"Ma? What’re you doing here?"
Any kind of explanation can follow ("I just happened to be in the neighborhood" or "Mindy told me all about the fake diamonds and said you’d be here") or it can be a lazy heat-of-the-moment excuse to delay the explanation ("We’ve got no time, I’ll explain later!") or it can even be a rhetorical question (“I should ask you the same question, dickwad.”). Any which way, our hero is magically pried out of his seemingly impossible predicament, momma’s joined in the journey, and the situation just got a little bit more interesting.
So I can see why it’s used all the fucking time in movies and television. Even some of the greatest movies of all time use it. But I can’t help but think that it needs to be retired. For some reason it reeks of lazy writing to me, a quick patch for a tough situation. Sure there will always be the need for an element of surprise, but I think we need to figure out a different way to do it.
In both of my feature films - Lilith and 19 Revolutions - I purposely avoided using the phrase, and I’ll be honest, it was not easy. It became very apparent that “what are you doing here” has been programmed into our brains from a very young age, and I was forced to find new, fresher ways to introduce characters or get my characters out of predicaments. By getting rid of “what are you doing here,” I was put to the task of really fleshing out why someone would actually be in that place at that time, and it made my narratives that much stronger. The logic worked.
That’s not to say we can’t have random encounters in our stories. The terror and uneasiness of a character seeing her husband walking into a bar with another woman would naturally bring up the phrase of “what are you doing here,” but try not to use that phrase. Think of another way to do it. Say she sees him, and looks at her cell phone, which has a text message from her husband saying “Hanging out with Greg, gonna be late.” She walks up to him at the bar and surprises him by extending her hand to the other woman, saying “Hi. You must be Greg. I’m Esme, Steven’s wife.”
"Jesus H Christ - not this AGAIN."
Steven’s reaction can also be a cliched “what are you doing here,” but again, think harder, and make it more creative. “Are you following me?” can be a much more interesting response than “Esme, what are you doing here?”
Things become cliches because they’ve worked over and over again for us, and they’re fail safe. But they’re tired, and they make things predicable. And when things get predictable, they get boring. And we don’t want to write boring stories. It’s time we as writers should draft a “Dogma 2012” manifesto of the cliches we need to avoid. When I was in film school we did such a thing, ruling out the top cliches for our student films. There would be no shy guys who didn’t know how to talk to the pretty girl. There would be no extended takes of people shaving or brushing their teeth. There would be no pictures of dead loved ones or exes on the piano. Suicide was never going to be an option for any characters - it’s just too easy an out. Girls being chased by axe murderers can’t trip and fall. Axe murderers - once they get a bullet in the head and are pronounced dead - cannot come back to life. Cats should not jump out of the dark. Men and women cannot orgasm at the same time. Shotguns need to be held with two hands. Luggage needs to be heavy (I’m amazed by people in movies hauling luggage that seems to weigh 10lbs). If our hero gets shot (in the shoulder, of course) - then he needs to dress that wound asap before he continues to fight.
Uh, you’re probably gonna want to have that treated.
When you rule out the cliches, you’re forced to find new ways to tell your stories. Sometimes you’ll find that you just have to have cliche happen - mathematically, a man and a woman could very well orgasm at the same time - but then make sure that it has purpose and a narrative meaning. Make it happen for an interesting reason - a guy’s having sex with an android that’s programmed to climax when he does, because the manufacturer of the droid knows the importance of customer satisfaction and to not assault the ego of the buyer. Corporate sex, at your command.
Aaaand that’s just creepy.
And don’t cheat. You can’t have someone ask “where did you come from” and have it replace “what are you doing here.” That’s like messing with the margins and font to meet the requirements of a one-page essay. Have fun with it - defying a cliche can make for the most seemingly random of dialogue and actions. How we react to something can be fascinating, and reacting in a manner that is not of the norm can be exhilarating. After an evil mastermind kills a dude, you can either make her laugh menacingly, or you can have her pick her nose until it bleeds. I ask you - which one is more interesting?