Bad Dialogue Cliches: This Time It’s Not Personal

Boiling Point

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though I’ve never been one to ascribe to that notion. In Hollywood, virtually everything is, at some level, derivative. Hell, not just Hollywood. Virtually every story has been told before, whether it’s comparing the Bible to ancient Egyptian beliefs or Star Wars to The Hidden Fortress.

Telling a similar story is okay, hey, there’s only so many ways the good guy can beat the bad guy, right? The details are where the magic happens, and the devil lives. Samurai swords? No. Lightsabers. Transformers are the good guys? How about Transmorphers are the bad guys!

However, these are all broad strokes. If we travel further into the script, past plot, past character, past props, we have dialog. Dialog is where the real difference can be made – this is where the magic lives. It’s how a movie like Clerks or My Dinner with Andre or a show like Mad Men can keep you riveted without much going on other than characters talking.

But what happens when characters start using the same phrases?

Shit sucks and stuff, that’s what. Some lines are call backs – when someone says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” you immediately think of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars and all is good in the world. Then there are things that people really say all the time, that kind of make sense, so it works: what part of that don’t you understand? Feel free to exchange “that” to any other phrase on Earth.

How many times has someone screamed “Don’t you go dyin on me!” as they pounded the chest of a fallen compatriot? How many people have been told to “Go on with me” or “Get back! Get back! Get the hell out of here!”

That’s all cool – sure, it can be tiresome, but all in all, people talk like that and it makes sense. But there is one turn of phrase that is bothering me lately. It’s been around a long, long time, but it took my eleventh viewing of Taken to finally push me over the edge. Any variation of It’s not personal, it’s just business is complete and utter horseshit. You know why?

Because it always is most assuredly very fucking personal for at least one person. And the bad guy has to know that. He can’t be so warped as to think that the kidnapping of someone’s child to be sold into sex slavery is not going to affect someone on a personal level. Robbing a bank isn’t personal. Robbing a man is. Smashing the window of a department store isn’t personal. Throwing a trash can through the window of the business of the only man who ever gave you a fair shake is, Mookie, you little son of a bitch.

It may just be business for the person doing the action, but to somehow not see the personal connection on the victim’s end is ridiculous. I mean. Seriously. If I kidnapped your daughter and sold her into a slavery ring and told you it was “just business” would you be like “Oh shit. Sorry. Didn’t realize. Please, continue. I understand.” I mean, for fuck’s sake, it’s not like these guys are opening competing gyms or pizza chains across the street – they’re endorsing or committing crimes ranging from abduction to murder to rape and probably some fucked up shit we haven’t even thought up yet.

So to all you aspiring writers and especially you working writers – it’s time to ditch the it’s not personal, it’s business bullshit. It’s totally personal. It’s obviously personal to them. They have no concept of it not being personal. In fact, the entire idea that it’s not personal, that this was just some random transaction, makes the whole thing even worse. But worst of all, it’s a terrible, horrible, over-used cliche. So please, people, stop having your characters say it! Every time I hear it, I go past my boiling point. And then I have to rant about it and point out how stupid that line in your movie is. But it’s nothing personal. It’s business.

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Robert Fure is many things: horror expert, ruggedly handsome man of the world, witty prose composer, and writer of his own biography page. Beneath the bravado is a scared little boy, ready to grow into an awesome man and make lies about a scared little boy inside of him. Wait a minute...

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