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Put the Gun Down, Martin

August 7, 2010

If you’ve yet to see the cinematic masterpiece that is Toy Story 3, I recommend you do two things. First, don’t read beyond this paragraph, because I’m about to give away the ending. And second, dash down to your nearest cinema, if it’s not too late, or put the DVD on pre-order, if it is, because it would be an act of criminal negligence to miss it. It really is that good.
In particular there’s a moment near the end that made me question everything I thought I knew about narrative conventions. More specifically, about clichés. We are told as writers to spurn clichés as gardeners spurn weeds: to purge them from our own writing and be merciless when we encounter them elsewhere. Writing tutors instruct us to avoid them like the plague. Published writers compile ten-point lists for literary supplements and websites telling aspirant writers how to do their craft, and one of these commandments is unfailingly: ‘avoid clichés’. One of the most acclaimed novelists of the post-war generation, Martin Amis, titled a collection of his essays The War Against Cliché – suggesting clichés should be viewed on a par with terrorism. Nowhere is outside the writ of the law that says clichés are A Bad Thing.
So how must we judge of the heart-stopping scene at the end of Toy Story 3? Woody, Buzz and the gang have just escaped the nursery and crepuscular prison Sunnyside, only to be double-crossed for the last time by the fallen dictator Lotso. As a result they are now sliding inexorably down a mountain of crushed metal towards the blazing heart of an incinerator. The condemned toys consign themselves to fate: stare at each other in despair, grasp each other’s hands, clench their eyes tight and wait – all stock cinematic responses to imminent death, as is the long close-up on their faces and the slow-time march of the music. Children’s hearts are in mouths – are their dear friends really going to perish in the flames? And adults are gripped for entirely different reasons, for we know that the conventions of children’s movies dictate that the good guys must emerge from their trials unscathed, yet wonder how the hell the writers are going to dig them out of this one?
Suddenly the camera cuts to a huge overhead metal contraption which swoops down, scoops up the toys and dumps them in a safe haven. The machine moves away and we see the three green aliens at the controls, droning: ‘The claw!’. At this point my cliché meter ought to have been going off the scale, for what we have here is (as if you needed telling) a deus ex machina. By any measure of cliches, this is about the oldest and hoariest of the lot. And yet I couldn’t stop myself admiring such a devastating piece of chutzpah.
Why does this scene work so well? In the first place, it’s perhaps because the deus ex machina has come full circle: it’s such a worn-out, discredited technique that we assume nobody would dare employ it in front of today’s sophisticated audiences. It would be like mooning on the stage of a West End musical. And so, by the logic of the double bluff, it’s once again become the last thing anyone expects. And secondly, it brilliantly reconciles a theme in the story that goes all the way back to the first Toy Story film, when the aliens are rescued from a claw-dip machine by Mr Potato Head and begin to follow him around, chanting: ‘you saved our lives. We are eternally grateful.’ The circle of that narrative is completed when Mr and Mrs Potato Head echo that refrain after their own dramatic rescue.
Finally, of course, the device works because the writers have milked the scenario for all it’s worth. After watching in horror as the toys face certain destruction, the audience is eternally grateful that something – anything – has happened to spare them. The narrative tension is relieved in a way that is consistent with the rest of the story. Yes, it’s a cliche, but one that gives the lie to the notion that cliches are always Bad Things. After all, great storytelling, especially in a conventional narrative setting (and what form is more convention-bound than the children’s movie?), is all about making the familiar new, and to my mind that’s exactly where the Toy Story series derives much of its success.
When we chastise the use of cliches, what we really object to is seeing language, or narrative devices, used sloppily. The term cliche comes from the hot-metal days of newspapers, when typesetters would clamp together certain pairs of words or short phrases that were frequently used together. In many cases, these phrases were in common use because they were effective in conveying a particular image or action. They became the victims of their own success. Take a much-maligned cliche, one you’ll find in every tuppeny-ha’penny travel piece about Italy: ‘the rolling hills of Tuscany‘. Now look at an image of the Tuscan countryside on Flickr, run the phrase through your head as you do so, and damn it if those hills don’t start to swell like waves! It was once a brilliantly descriptive phrase, but the problem comes, as it does with all cliches, when the words start to be paired together unthinkingly, indiscriminately, regardless of whether they are appropriate to the context in which they are employed.
Cliches are the heirlooms of language. Having served us so well, the least they deserve is to be dusted down and tried in new settings once in a while.Deprived of proper care they appear cheap and superfluous, but in the hands of a skilled craftsman they can once again be made to shine. They should not be dismissed out of hand by writers who ought to know better. And they certainly should not be condemned in ten-point lists – itself one of the ghastliest clichés of modern literary supplements – or classed with the elderly and the Muslim population as things Martin Amis is keen to wage war against (waging war against abstract concepts being another of the great clichés of our age and the defining cliché of the Junior Bush administration).
There is really only one rule for writers: collect as many lists of rules as you can, scrunch them up into a great big ball, flush it down the toilet and get on with some real work. As part of this process, be sure to violate as many of those half-remembered rules as you can. And when I say violate, I mean rip them apart, abuse them, make them sorry they were ever conceived. On which note, I commend to you Lance Boyle’s definitive ten-point advice guide for all aspiring writers. Read it, digest it and chuck it into the biggest furnace you can find. Please.

PS I’ve deliberately scattered a few clichés through this blog post. I hope you enjoyed them LOL.

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