We all know they exist, and they usually exist for a reason: to serve as the lynchpin of a plot that is either too lazy or the writer too unversed in films and stories to realize how stock they've made their production without intending to. Stereotypical plot turns, unrealistic but procedural character reactions, suspension of logic for the sake of following in well worn footsteps: none of this necessarily means the final product won't be entertaining, don't get me wrong. But what can't be denied is that cliches cheapen a product and make story lines feel less organic and more contrived.
However in addition to pointing out a few of these classics and trying briefly to explain why they might be used, I'd also like to provide my suggestions for how to get around these road bumps in plot structure and accomplish what these placeholders are meant to, but perhaps accomplish it in a much more interesting way in service to the story, not detrimental to it.
Plot and story are not the same thing, and the sooner more people remember or learn this the better our stories might be.
-The Liar Revealed
The Purpose: This is one I was reminded of by a friend recently, and which Doug Walker The Nostalgia Critic has said several times in one of his all time pet-peeves.
We've all see it, mostly in children's films.
Our lovable but somewhat neglectful/impulsive/cowardly hero is caught in a lie, or supposed to be lying. Suddenly nothing else matters in the lives of everyone around them. Their family and friends instantly turn against them. Even if there's other things to worry about that could only be dealt with by having a larger force of friendlies (like say, an impending invasion of bad guys) the protagonists will one and all abandon their loyalties and turn away to weep ineffectually at this betrayal or even perceived betrayal. This can, and often does, occur in the most toothless and cliched way possible: a love interest overhears their significant other saying something that sounds like a proposal of love to another...but this is actually part of a conversation taken out of context.
Why go through this particular dance? The answer is multifold. One of the most cynical answers is padding out the runtime as our displaced hero tries to find his way (inevitably) back into his friend's good graces, but another reason this might be employed is supposedly to have some poor decision have a ramification thus leading to a rather blunt-force moral that bad actions reap bad results, even when time has passed. If it's only a perceived lie then...I guess the purpose is to drive a rift in between the hero and his friends to test their relationship? Honestly this particular idea never made much sense to me.
The Effect: This is in my opinion a trope so played out and parodied over the years that it has no emotional impact. Even children can see for miles away how weird it is that, because the hero wasn't truthful about one thing (or supposed is not) that their closest friends would just leave them to fend or scream and yell at them. The hero ends up looking like a heel for keeping secrets, but the other characters also look tarnished because they're so quick to cast anyone aside who does so even if that secret is not of immediate importance compared to some issue more pressing. So instead of strengthening relationships it weakens them. Instead of making the time seem more full of meaning and purpose, it drags the pacing.
Also if this event is supposed to provide consequences for the heroes' bad decisions or actions...this doesn't do that. Even if initially everyone turns against the hero, without fail in every situation this storyline comes up the hero will arrive in the nick of time to rescue their friends or ingratiate themselves in some way and be forgiven completely. There is ultimately no consequence but a momentary and largely meaningless parting of the ways.
The Solution: If you want more running time and a strain on the relationship which proves the core of its strength ultimately there's a better way to do this then a contrivance which has been repeated until its become an absurd joke. In fact there's several ways. One is to have something literally come back to haunt our hero from his checkered past: a lie unveiled which has immediate contemporary consequences. If the hero was originally involved in a shady deal, have his debtors come to collect and catch his friends in the crossfire. If he's been living multiple lives, have these intersect with his current one. For the truly daring perhaps these resonant consequences might not even have an easy solution. What if the hero has actually broken someone's heart, or caused something to be ended/destroyed that cannot be repaired? Even if he's forgiven there will always be that black spot on their record: something perhaps that can inspire them to do better with their lives, even give them an edge on others who haven't seen the dark side of themselves. As for straining relationships or separating the heroes to boost the runtime, first of all there is NEVER any real reason to boost the runtime to improve a story (The movie Dredd proved this when it told a fine story in 90 minutes only) and secondly, if you really must create a schism...CREATE A SCHISM. Don't create a story beat where everyone leaves each other even after all they've been through because they have to and for no other real reason. Have the heroes literally get scattered by circumstance: obligations, ideologies, twists of fate pull them apart, even if they still care for each other. If there is a conflict of ideologies, have that conflict lead to the break so it feels like the schism comes from the personalities of the characters, not because the writer pushed the 'plot contrivance' button.
-The Hero Appears to Be Dead (But Isn't)
The Purpose: Sometimes you want the big battle to have a shift in tone from crazy action to a more sedate and contemplative sensibility. A lot of writers, especially newcomers to the field, are under the impression that the more prominent a character is the more dramatic their deaths/danger will seem so what could be a more impactful way to conclude your story then with the apparent death of the protagonist themselves. In children's films again its shorthand for instilling a blast of undiluted drama into the faces of the audience, assuming that children don't have the sophistication to understand anything less then the hero getting killed off, but there's several examples in more mature films as well where this gimmick has been tried. The other intended purpose of the hero's death is to create an apparent sacrifice of grave import. No greater love is there surely then giving up life, so to allow the hero this quality, even if it's ultimately a ruse, it seems to boost the protagonists moral justification. Also the rise from the ashes of a hero from death has the ring of something triumphant and powerful.
The Effect: The problem with cliches is that although serviceable in a general way, by definition they've been done so often they're predictable. Our hero with very few exceptions cannot die literally because the plot won't allow him to. No Country for Old Men showed rather decisively that although it's unique for the hero to be randomly killed off screen, as 'realistic' as this might seem, for a LOT of people this seems to drain all energy from the production, creates a jarring sense of loss without resolve, and also end up making the story that followed feel pretty pointless. For a story to have resonance and traditional weight there has to be resolution for established ideas/plots/story-lines/character arcs, and for this to happen the hero usually has to be alive. So the audience, savvy by now in the ways of film, know in the back of their minds that as still as the hero is lying he's still going to get up after all the other heroes have finished weeping and talking about how great they were. So these moments that should be latent with dramatic energy turn into waiting games. Their eyes are going to open, they're going to crawl out of the pit, and all this build up is just for a completely expected and flat outcome.
The Solution: Short of actually killing the hero in some suitably dramatic way that feels right for their character and justifies or denies their ultimate purpose for heroic or tragic consequences, there are ways to get the dramatic impact without the problem of the audience sitting and waiting for the ruse to end. There's a few movies and stories which seem to realize the limitations of killing off the hero, but settle instead for meaningfully injuring them, sometimes permanently. If the hero exits a battle but without a hand or foot it doesn't even matter if this limb is replaced. Something has been taken from them they cannot fully replace. They have sacrificed something they cannot recover for a cause they believe in. If the hero loses a close friend for good, or has them injured or maimed desperately this too is like a blow to the hero's core and the audience is less certain these side characters will make it to the rolling credits so there is potential for drama here. Other ideas might be the hero crossing a line in their personal code which although others might not see the big deal, means a great deal to them. If they have to do something they never thought they could be drive to, or sacrifice something they held dear and never saw themselves parting with, that changes a person.
And that change, that development, is not only largely the purpose of following characters, but its also the big impact people are looking for in the conclusion of a story. Not just an explosion which usually changes nothing. Not even just a death.
A change that sticks.
-The Doomsday Weapon
The Purpose: Bigger is better, so threatening a mass scale destructive situation equals more drama and more interest surely. Doomsday weapons serve as an all purpose, immediately understandable plot device. Suddenly the hero's motivations are transparent and his actions can be guided without much difficulty. Why does he want to stop the bad guy? Because nobody wants to be nuked by a doomsday weapon. What will our hero do to pass the time? Track down leads, collect resources, and fight bad guys to stop this same doomsday weapon. Seems a nice blend of potential for a fraught time based plot with a lot at stake and a nice cut and dried checklist to pad out the running time with the heroes going to arbitrary places to solve the central problem.
The Effect: This is a plot idea so old that classic cartoons made fun of how silly it is. It just seems so cartoonish even if there's an attempt to justify the bad guy having access to a real high-grade weapon like a nuclear missile, simply because its been done so many times. Again the audience isn't stupid and has seen lots of movies before this one. The weapon will not ever discharge and if it does it will be safely away from civilians. There CAN be some drama involved in a time-based chase to locate/defuse a doomsday weapon, but this is only possible if it seems the story has potential to play against expectations. The movie Sum of All Fears is one of the few productions in which a nuclear missile IS detonated in a major population center, and afterwards because of this rather unprecedented occurrence it doesn't seem so impossible that Russia and The USA might go to war and lead to even widespread death and destruction. Bond movies can get away with the bad guys having giant guns or missiles because they tend to play the trope as a campy joke: an entertaining premise which serves mostly as an excuse for Bond to do his spy stuff. Recent Bond films have actually wisely scaled back on the scope of the villain's plans, but super hero films then as now consistently feel the need to end everything with a focus on the bad guy trying to blow up a city or invade the world. The problem is that nobody buys it at the best of times, and at the worst of times it ends up making anything featuring this idea seem like it's making that campy excuse, turning everything cartoonish around the very notion of a doomsday weapon.
The Solution: SCALE BACK.
We all know New York isn't getting flattened (especially subliminally if your budget can't support the idea) and as Man of Steel has shown even if you DO destroy the city but provide no real context about the people living there or the greater reason any of the events should be cared about, then all we're left with is a bunch of twisted metal and faceless bodies. No drama.
So we focus not on something too big to comprehend, but instead on something near enough to realize in our minds, something we can care about more immediately. Instead of a giant city, or a country, or even the world, settle on the life of one person we like, or at least has some kind of influence or role that could be drastically effected if they were compromised. Or, more sentimentally, consider something even 'smaller' but strong nonetheless: the wellbeing of a person. There are worse things then simply dying. You can have your dreams crushed, your friends denied you; you can be left alone and bereft in a cold and heartless world. And that can feel worse then just someone being threatened with death, and THAT can also be more of an understandable battle to avoid. If the president is threatened, that impacts us in a general way. If he died there would be immediate practical and negative consequences. But if a child is unhappy or threatened, a good person is made to suffer, or a person's very reason for living falls apart that can ring a clearer tone of drama then a hundred simulated city blocks.
-Bad Guy Does Something Stupid to Kill Hero
The Purpose: They're the bad guy. They don't need a reason. Presumably the idea here is that a bad guy would be driven by rage and vengeance to strike out irrationally at the hero, even making stupid spur of the moment decisions to harm them or their loved ones. This also conveniently allows the writer to put the bad guy into a situation for their plans to be thwarted by their own impulsiveness, or even to get the bad guy to essentially kill themselves even if the hero is the one striking them down since in all technicality it's an act of self defense, keeping aloft their moral high ground.
The Effect: The bad guy looks like an idiot.
As recently as the film The Wolverine there have been bad guys the hero beats soundly into submission...only for them to leap up and attack them from behind, leading to their inevitable demise via reflexive counterstrike. If the bad guy can't contend with a hero, why make a last ditch effort to backstab them especially if the hero basically just let you go to scheme another day? It also doesn't help that almost without fail the bad guy preparing to backstab will scream in fury as they rush forward, giving the hero ample time to prepare a response.
Other instances of this trope don't help the perspective of bad guy as idiot. If the bad guy is in a vehicle the story better establish them as literally crazy if we're to buy them rushing the hero at the risk of his own life. If for instance the bad guy is in a helicopter it makes zero sense for him to fly close to the ground, hoping to kill the hero with his rotor blades. All this means is that the hero can formulate a plan to destroy the otherwise inaccessible vehicle the villain is riding inside of. This goes for tanks too, slow moving, boats or planes that the bad guy randomly decides to RAM into the hero after the weapons run dry or are jammed. This is an excellent way to die having not accomplished your desperate purpose to kill the hero if they have the foresight to jump out of their own vehicle, leading to a crash in which only the villain is killed or injured.
Another thing that never works is the villain making one last draw of a weapon when the hero is discussing terms of their surrender. The villain is at a disadvantage, the hero is more often then not surrounded by armed friends, and the villain ALWAYS has to punctuate their inevitable betrayal with a veiled threat or an insincere declaration of their remorse for their evil actions that even the dumbest hero can see through fast enough make all this posturing pointless and fatal.
The Solution: Bad guys have brains. They should use them.
When the hero is confronted by a villain that is outthinking them this creates something the industry used to refer to as 'suspense'. The heroes victory seems in doubt not because they or the villain are acting in an idiotic manner, but because one side (preferably both sides) is clearly shown to be thinking through actions, measuring responses in advance, and formulating a plan and maybe, just maybe, a counter plan. With the angles covered a bad guys doesn't have to make a stupid move to hit the good guy because they can make a thousand smaller moves before hand to even the odds. Certainly the villain may be destined to lose, but you want to make it clear they put up a solid fight. Otherwise the hero has accomplished nothing more then beating a crazy, stupid moron, and this doesn't seem all that heroic in the grander scope of things. If the villain is driven to a desperate action instead of using it as their first and only gambit that can say a lot about how sorely the hero has taxed them over the course of a battle, but this needs to be earned and meaningful to the progression of the story, not a cheap way for the hero to gain ground long enough to dispose of the baddie.
-War Is Hell...But It's Also Cool!
The Purpose: Filmmakers brought up in a simplistic tradition of right and wrong as both echoing arbitrary rules, but also being relative, will usually hold two clear definitions of right and wrong they cannot see contradicting each other. The one is that war is bad. It's wasteful, evil, and usually perpetrated by big greedy corporations against good and decent poor ethnic people. Violence is wrong too because we don't want kids getting the wrong ideas, or parents complaining about content.
The other is that killing bad guys is awesome.
So in the same films we get people going on and on about how their lives were destroyed by being soldiers and taking human life is never, ever justified, we also have slow motion gun battles in which some time hundreds of bad guys bite the dust, sometimes in horrific ways. Many people simply don't have a problem with this at all. Bad people deserve to die, and in great numbers. Bad-enough-to-die also usually is extended on top of another distinction so that literally its perfectly fine for our upstanding hero type to execute in cold blood an unarmed person, so long as they are something like a neo-nazi, a drug dealer, a child molester, a shady businessman, or in some cases anybody whom the filmmakers establish as unfair or just mean.
The Effect: Some might never see this as an issue, but this contradictory stance of violence being wrong, but right as long as its used against the proper socially acceptable enemies really rubs me the wrong way. It would be hilarious if people didn't take it so seriously: nodding their heads to the prescribed anti-war screed about how guns are never the answer and people should all get along...and the next second cheering and clapping as the heroes bloodily massacre rooms full of sentient humans who may or may not be firing back. The more immediate practical effect from a story stand point beyond my own indignation at the hypocrisy however is a problem that video games side step, but movies find it harder to. In a video game you can kill thousands of bad guys and never once question where they're all coming from. For one thing these baddies look roughly the same, for another levels go by quickly and their purpose is to fight, and for one last point the narrative is usually only loosely tied to gameplay for a lot of action/shooters. In films however, unless its a parody, the parade of faceless goons becomes ridiculous with a moment's thought. Where are these people's parents? Are they really getting paid to die wholesale fighting a hero who is better armed then they are? Are no diplomatic incidents or murder trials coming after someone finds a room full of men riddled with bullets? Sure you can suspend disbelief but it needs a certain touch. With James Bond you buy it because those films are, with a few exceptions, basically video games committed to screen. But with movies that take themselves seriously why is there such flippancy in the sacrifice of boatloads of human life, and how does our hero butchering these people make them morally superior?
The Solution: I think its safe to say it will seem more of a morally justified operation if the hero is in a straight up combat situation, versus just killing people he doesn't like. It may seem simplistic but just having the bad guys fire first makes it less of a disconnect between our hero and moral values, even if he has to take lives to escape a situation or rescue someone. Also, and this is weird I have to say this, but consider the hero NOT killing everyone he sees. Maybe he comes up with solutions that are based on distractions and ruses rather then throttling people from behind or snapping their necks in stealth situations, and maybe he is quicker to threaten with a weapon then to open fire? Another solution would be to establish more of a moral through-line with consistency. If war is bad, don't make it look good if the heroes are involved fighting it. If violence is wrong, don't make it the solution to the hero's problems. If life is precious, don't have the heroes callously blow away bad guys because 'they don't count'. And if judgement and bias is wrong, how about proving this instead of assuming people you disagree with deserve to die horribly?
-YOU KILLED MY (Fill in Name of Loved One)!
The Purpose: Revenge is a powerful motivator undeniably. Throughout history people have moved mountains, begun wars, and ended lives in the millions for the purpose of paying back what they saw as owed. Revenge is easy to understand since its so primal. Something was taken so at the core of someone's being now rests this desire to right a great injustice, usually by revisiting the exact same (or similar) consequences to the perpetrators, or anyone involved. A life for a life. Destruction for destruction. Ruin for ruin. This balances out presumably because now that the hero has gotten his revenge the cycle will end apparently. The baddies paid in full with interest so we can all go home secure in the knowledge that justice is done and nothing bad will happen ever again...until the sequels which will usually just reboot the cause of revenge rather then exploring any repercussions of the previous film's rampage (NOW they killed his kid sister!). As a placeholder revenge sounds great on paper, can realistically motivate a good person to doing violent and cruel things but remain a 'hero' through moral justification on some level, and is quick and easy to establish. Don't want a lengthy backstory about the relationship between hero and villain or why there's a need for one to hunt down the other? Just have one or the other mutter 'He killed my parents' and there you have it: instantly established characterization and motivation in one!
The Effect: Revenge is difficult to morally justify in any meaningful way. You can argue from the perspective of moral relativism that revenge is justified because...um...the hero decides that it is from his perspective, ergo it IS, provided good and evil are entirely based on perception. But from a philosophical, religious, and legal standpoint its frowned upon pretty much universally. You do not have the right to kill somebody just because they killed someone else you knew. Most religions with few caveats argue that revenge should be the prerogative of God, not man, and philosophically to kill someone in vengeance is to become what they are: a killer driven by base desire, thereby meaning you've accomplished nothing. Biologically what good does revenge do? Satisfy a primal urge to repair something that can never be fixed, especially by further death?
So we're left with something we all WANT to do (we're only human) but CAN'T do, so we project this into a heroic fantasy. Unfortunately with the least amount of thought the fantasy falls apart.
Here we have a decent guy who is driven to kill a human being out of petty personal selfishness. Killing this guy might help others in the long run, but more often then not it comes down to the hero pointing his weapon at the otherwise defeated bad guy, snarling the name of their loved one...then blowing them away. What a hero? Seriously. From a non-religious perspective what good does killing somebody in memory of someone else do other then make the killer feel good about themselves, which can be said of any psychopath? And religiously, would a person's spirit usually want their death to be avenged...by having their loved one kill another guy and tarnish their soul in their own name?
Our hero's purpose is strangely hollow ultimately. With his enemy dead he's stuck with a record, nightmares, and more often then not knee deep in criminal charges or divorced from society since he took up a weapon to murder-back someone else. One of the more famous examples of this kind of lingering doubt that remains in the wake of vengeance is oddly from a comedy/fantasy 'The Princess Bride' when Inigo Montoya a vengeful Spaniard reflects towards the end of the film 'Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with the rest of my life.'
And this faces our heroes after the deed is done even if they do drive off into the sunset. If not we're stuck with a rather brutal consequence-free power fantasy which can be fun if its cartoony, but if its blood-spattered or hateful it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
The Solution: Revenge is a motivator, but should it really have the final say for a hero? Shouldn't our struggling protagonist eventually confront his own poor decisions and have them matter? If the bad guy is usually chiefly the bad guy because he hurts/kills others to get what he wants...how exactly can we tell who are the heroes if they do the exact same thing? So I say by all means have the hero dealing with issues of vengeance which can make for dramatic and powerful emotional complications, but build on this theme in a way that seems less of a fantasy and more of a true investigation. What happens when a hero discovers themselves veering away BY CHOICE from their own principals, ultimately for a cause even their enemies might be perfectly fine with: 'you hurt me, I hurt you'?
This motivator could be easily turned from a cliched and lazy excuse for the hero to kill and hurt people, into a dark mirror of what the hero could become despite all of their moral concerns. Imagine if instead of a placeholder to drive the plot, this motivator because the central conflict; the war not only for the hero's life but also their soul.
After recently watching Thor the Dark World I wish someone had seen to it that their cliched placeholders were at least given some kind of twist, some kind of meaning. As stands unfortunately an action-packed sci-fi story featuring the possible end of reality left me completely bored, and I think I'm not entirely alone there.
You can have entertainment, yes, but you can also have CONTENT, and the two are not mutually exclusive.