Two Sides of the Same Coin

The cliché of the century finds roots in human psychology.

"You and I, we're just the same." "We have so much in common." "I looked in his eyes and I saw myself." Ever heard these lines before?

Chances are, if you've been in a movie theater within the last hundred years, you've heard these words spoken. And spoken. And spoken yet again. In fact, you may have heard them so often that you've grown numb to them. The question then becomes why does this happen?

Did every filmmaker/screenwriter involved with these films read the same book? Did they all go to the same film school? More importantly, how can anyone in good conscience resort to using such clichéd dialogue? Where is the originality?

The answer lies in the fact that these words explain a very unique relationship.

The Reason for the Repetition

Clichés exist because they're based, in part, on fact. In every complete story, the Main Character shares a common emotional bond with another principal character (often referred to as the Obstacle Character). The technical reason for why this connection exists can be found in my original article, [There's a Reason We Are Both Alike]2, but the quick answer is that the Obstacle Character wouldn't have any impact if they didn't share some commonality.

This commonality revolves around the concept that the Obstacle Character explores the same issues as the Main Character, only from the opposite viewpoint. One will be dealing with issues externally, the other internally. In other words, if what the Main Character is dealing with is some internal issue like an empty heart, the Obstacle Character will be dealing with some kind of predicament. Think Scrooge and Marley from A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is heartless and Marley is forced to wear those chains. One is an internal problem, the other external.

The reverse is also true. If the Main Character is dealing with external issues, the Obstacle Character will be dealing internal versions of those issues.

The Obstacle Character exists because he or she is a catalyst for the Main Character's growth. Take away that connection between the two, and their power and role as that important character disappears as well.

Writers want their Main Characters to grow. Whether they know it intellectually or they do it naturally because of their talent, writers will write this Obstacle Character into their story in order to allow this growth to happen. In doing so, they'll find that the only way to get the Main Character to come face to face with their personal issues is to mold the Obstacle Character into a "shadowy reflection" of the Main Character.

That's when the clichés come in.

The Video

As mentioned before in my first article on this phenomenon, The Obstacle Character Video Montage, the video attached below was my first inclination that there was something special about the Dramatica theory of story. Chris Huntley, co-creator of the theory, has updated the clips with more recent examples of this often used, yet essential line of dialogue.

As you can see there are both bad and good examples of this. Even the most talented and the most critically acclaimed find they are not immune to the power of these few lines of dialogue. Why avoid it if it works?

The Future of You and I

The problem comes when eventually everyone will be incorporating the "You and I" dialogue into their stories. As mentioned in the beginning, writers risk losing influence if audiences grow numb to it.

I tell my students, or anyone I'm helping out with on their stories, to go ahead and use the cliché in the first draft. Have the Obstacle Character say to the Main Character, "You and I, we're both the same" and see where that line of thinking takes you. It will help you craft that important connection between the two characters and might even suggest some new scenes that will eventually improve your story.

Then, when you go back in to rewrite, take those lines of dialogue out. Completely. Find some other clever or subtle way to get across the same point. Maybe even find a way to get that idea of them being two sides of the same coin in a visual way (although, hopefully not as obvious as the K-Pax example above). In this way, you ensure that the meaning of the story is received by the audience without the distraction of the unnecessary and the overused.

Originally published 11-08-2009

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