It is no secret that literature and cinema often use common themes and devices to propel a story. Some of these are very useful for opening doors for your characters or building drama. Indeed, Joseph Campbell’s entire career was based on the idea that the literature of the world, myth, repeats certain key elements and structures across cultures, geography, and time. They represent the human mind seeking answers to unanswerable questions through the use of imagery and symbol. If you’ve never read any of Campbell’s work, I highly recommend you do. It’s fascinating stuff.

But those are not what I want to write about here. Instead, I want to discuss a common dramatic device so lazy, so dastardly, so woefully incompetent that I cringe and immediately lose my ability to enjoy said film or show. I’ve never heard it referred to by anyone else so I have come to call it “The Overheard Conversation”. You’ve seen it before.

How about a quick example? Here’s the premise: GEEKY GUY has spent the entire film trying to woo the most popular, most beautiful BABE in school. He had been successful for a while, but then they got into a fight over whatever the hell reason and he stormed off at the big homecoming party. Later, feeling stupid, GEEKY GUY tries to find BABE who has been approached by her ex-boyfriend HOTSHOT GUY. But because he’s so shy, GEEKY GUY doesn’t approach them and instead hears a snippet of their conversation that he takes completely out of context. Like this.

EXT PARTY NIGHT – HOTSHOT GUY and BABE are on the edge of the party by the pool. He is drunk and making physical advances. She is rejecting him, but he is much stronger.

BABE
Get off me HOTSHOT GUY. I’m with GEEKY GUY now.

HOTSHOT GUY
What do you see in that dork?

BABE
More than I see in you, jerk.

GEEKY GUY approaches HOTSHOT GUY and BABE where they are arguing by the pool, but he cannot hear them. He comes up toward them quietly and in the shadows and they do not see him.

HOTSHOT GUY
Don’t you still care about me?

BABE
Of course I care about you, but…

HOTSHOT GUY kisses BABE forcefully and she is not strong enough to resist. Enter slow motion. Close shot of GEEKY GUY with tears welling in his eyes, and then rage blossoms. He runs off.

BABE pushes HOTSHOT GUY off and slaps him in the face.

BABE
I told you already we’re done! I never want to see you again!

Stop me if you’ve seen this film before. Oh, you can’t stop me? Well, then I’ll continue.

From here, GEEKY GUY goes on a self-destructive/depressed/whatever bend. Eventually they reconcile when he confronts her about the night by the pool and she tells him the truth of what happened and he suddenly feels foolish and she forgives him for not just being forthright with her in the beginning and they live happily ever after through high school graduation. How romantic!

How many films can you name where some permutation of this has happened? Five? One hundred? A billion? It’s basically the plot device used in every stupid rom-com piece of trash spit out by Hollywood 50 times a year. Whenever I see this used, I imagine this conversation.

“Gosh! I can’t think of how to drag this Jennifer Anniston vehicle out to the bare minimum 90 minutes. Whatever shall I do?!” one writer says.

“Why not just have her walk into the room when her boyfriend is on the phone with his sister saying something she’ll take completely out of context because this is the only way to inject some ‘drama’ into this horrid piece of trash?” the other says.

“Brilliant!” the first one says. “I’ll get another Oscar for this one!”

It really must be the laziest cop out to burden the state of modern drama. It’s the Deus Ex Machina of modern cinema. How do we drag this out? Add some fake tension? Perfect.

What’s worse is that I cannot think of even a single time that this has happened to me or anyone I know in real life. Now, I’m not saying that all drama in films has to be absolutely realistic. Of course it doesn’t. I have zero issues with the Eye of Sauron being able to see Hobbits when Frodo puts on the ring. That’s awesome. Great. But if you’re going to be basing your drama on real life, then at least make it believable. Are you really expecting me to believe that GEEKY GUY, after spending the whole film fantasizing and eventually attaining BABE, would not just step in and be all, “What the fuck?” He would run off without, at the very least, waiting in the shadows to see how their conversation turned out? Pathetic. He doesn’t even need to be forceful, just, you know, let it play out a little. How about giving your girlfriend the benefit of the doubt? Has she betrayed you before? Do you have ANY reason to think that she’d not be faithful to you? How about asking her about it? Nah, instead you should just assume a bunch of untrue crap and then spend the next 35 minutes of screen time moping around being an all around asshole. Good plan.

Here’s how the scene should have gone.

EXT PARTY NIGHT – HOTSHOT GUY and BABE are on the edge of the party by the pool. He is drunk and making physical advances. She is rejecting him, but he is much stronger.

BABE
Get off me HOTSHOT GUY. I’m with GEEKY GUY now.

HOTSHOT GUY
What do you see in that dork?

BABE
More than I see in you, jerk.

GEEKY GUY approaches HOTSHOT GUY and BABE where they are arguing by the pool, but he cannot hear them. He comes up toward them quietly and in the shadows and they do not see him.

HOTSHOT GUY
Don’t you still care about me?

BABE
Of course I care about you, but…

HOTSHOT GUY kisses BABE forcefully and she is not strong enough to resist. Enter slow motion. Close shot of GEEKY GUY with tears welling in his eyes, and then rage blossoms. He steps out into the light startling the other two.

GEEKY GUY
What the fucking fuck?!

BABE
Geeky Guy! This isn’t…

HOTSHOT GUY (interrupting)
Get the hell out of here, Geeky Guy. She’s my girl.

BABE
It’s not what you think! I didn’t mean to kiss…

GEEKY GUY hold up his hand to stop her.

GEEKY GUY
It’s all right, Babe. I trust you.

BABE runs over and gives GEEKY GUY a big hug. HOTSHOT GUY fumes.

GEEKY GUY
Now, I must deal with you.

HOTSHOT GUY
What are you going to do, World of Warcraft me to death?

HOTSHOT GUY laughs. GEEKY GUY pulls out his lightsabre, but HOTSHOT GUY begins to mutate into a giant beast, like a cross between a lizard and a slug and a spider, all fangs and teeth and eyes, more than 10 feet tall.

See? Wasn’t that better? Doesn’t that sound like a better movie? It makes you wonder how many completely awful films could have been saved from their fate as utterly forgettable pieces of fluff if the writers had just spent another 40 seconds and avoided The Overheard Conversation. Truly sad.

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