Avoid Clichés Like the Plague
Updated: Dec 25, 2022
Isn’t it true that many Hollywood movies lately are remakes, sequels, or based on fifty-year-old comic books? Most pop songs on the radio sound like other songs. Aren't villains in most modern movies and literature clichéd copies of each other? Villains used to be interesting, such as,
Shere Kahn from Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling)
Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
Long John Silver from Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)
The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
The whale from Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)
Lars Thorwald from Rear Window (Cornell Woolrich)
These villains had widely varied and interesting motivations. Mrs. Danvers was obsessed with the late Rebecca DeWinter. Lars Thorwald hated his wife. What was the whale’s motivation? Isn’t it true that antagonists anymore are evil governments (including militaries), evil corporations, or evil religions? Is there an exception to this? What does Hollywood have against governments, corporations, and religions?
My wife and I recently watched the British TV series Bodyguard (2017). As the series progressed, it became progressively harder for me to watch the show because it was clear the police/security forces were stuffed with corrupt and incompetent jerks. The number of jerks increased as the episodes progressed. By the time the series ended, the Prime Minister of England resigned in disgrace.
Really? That's how conflict is created? Fill the screen with jerks? Must all cop shows make certain the public has zero faith in law enforcement?
But that wasn't as bad as the extremely popular series called 24 (beginning 2001). The sloppy work of the characters was too much for us to bear. We had to turn it off.
The Queen's Gambit
Here's a shout-out to Netflix's The Queen's Gambit, which I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone on Earth. What astonished me throughout the entire seven episodes is they are all (except for the adoptive father who has only about ten lines) entirely void of jerks. Each episode stunned me speechless from this fact alone, not to mention many other reasons why The Queen's Gambit is an exemplary show.
Accolades go to The Queen's Gambit for not succumbing to one of the most common clichés in filmmaking today.
Human = Earth's curse
Why does every science fiction story set in the future show how hateful, irresponsible, and destructive humans are? Is there even one exception? When I scan movies provided by Netflix or Amazon Prime, I skip the ones with descriptions that start with, "Earth has become uninhabitable...." Who says that's going to happen? Anyone older than fifty knows that the United States is far less polluted than it was in the '70s. The modern world is much cleaner than it used to be. The standard of living in most countries has improved greatly over the decades. Why is this never acknowledged in fiction?
Lecturing readers and viewers about how bad they are as terrible human beings has become a hardened cliché. How about offering readers some variety? It appears that lazy writers and movie producers have lost the ability to create fresh stories.
Why not write a story about how the future of mankind is better off? By that, I mean truly better, not the typical dystopian "better" that is actually worse. You're a writer. Create a way where humanity succeeds. Don't copy everyone else before you. Be creative! It's your job.
I can think of exactly one science fiction franchise that portrays a positive future of humanity that doesn't involve moving away from a dying Earth. Can you think of it? It is Star Trek.
Is that all we get for the rest of our lives?
Authors of this world, please think more positively for a change. It's more refreshing!
No more originality?
Here’s what puzzles me. Clichés are easy to spot because they're like wind-driven rain slapping against our faces. They're like your tenth hangnail for the year. You develop a real hatred for them. There are hundreds of literary clichés. Those which irritate me the most are,
Stories featuring The Chosen One.
Detectives with troubled personal lives.
Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl.
People throwing up after seeing a dead body.
Arrows always with the same whistling sound.
Protagonist struggling with keys when in a hurry.
Villains who are bad because they were abused.
The jerk boyfriend who is changed by the cute girl.
Movies that begin with the premise, "Earth is dying..."
In murder mysteries when the biggest jerk is never the killer.
When trying to resuscitate someone, the person revives only after the benefactor gives up.
Car engines that won't start on the first try when the protagonist tries to flee the antagonist.
Movies about failed writers or unemployed actors; when struggling actors perform worse during auditions than rank amateurs.
The hero who kills thousands of bad guys, only to inexplicably struggle with the morality of killing the chief villain at the end of the story.
Ninety-nine percent of what happens in every horror story (see this), especially the “stupid ending” where the antagonist in the last second doesn’t actually die.
Standard four-part romance story: 1) A couple who doesn't get along is forced to interact, 2) The couple eventually falls in love, 3) The couple breaks up because of some misunderstanding or unfairness, 4) The couple overcomes the problem and is together in the end. (This is a variation of Item 5.)
When protagonists pause while being chased to reminisce, reacquaint each other, kiss, or reevaluate motives, only to have someone killed because of the delay. A good example of this is the movie Maze Runner 3: The Death Cure (2018) where there is a lot of standing around looking at each other mid conflicts. When I see pauses like this in a movie, I know someone is going to die a needless death. I also know the director is an idiot. My supporting evidence for this claim is movies that have pauses like this don't do well commercially. Stop it, Hollywood!
When one character asks another, "Are you okay?" This question is occurring more frequently in movies and on TV. Why write an exchange of thoughtful, caring dialogue when you can print out a stiff, three-word question over and over? It's happening so often, and with the same "automatic" tone, that it bugs me and takes me out of the story.
Narration at the beginning and end of movies (see the section on narration below).
I could go on with ease. What stories nowadays do not have several of these? Is there even one?
It's like the writers who put these clichés in their stories and movies have never read a story or seen a movie before. Are there that many writers who have lived under a rock their entire lives? (I apologize for the clichéd reference.)
Regarding Item 13 above, a wonderful exception to poor-quality horror stories is the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), which I strongly recommend. See this excellent video, which explains why this horror series stands out from others.
Fortitude (Amazon Prime)
We watched the series Fortitude on Amazon Prime, which takes place in a small town on a small island the Arctic ocean. The premise for the show provides sufficient conflict and tension. The "problem" in the story is scary and dreadful! There is no need for further "conflict," certainly not artificially inserted conflict. Yet, the secondary (primary?) villains are people from an evil medical corporation. Why not have the "help" from the medical corporation be helpful instead of evil? How fresh would that be? I knew six episodes ahead of the finale what would happen simply because demonizing corporations is such a hardened trope. This is why cliché kills fiction: the viewer (or reader) knows what will happen because the same storyline is used over and over without variation.
Non cliché: Logan's Run
Of the many movies that have been remade repeatedly, there's one that has not: Logan's Run (1976). My vote is it should be the next to be remade. It's touching and has a strong pro-marriage and pro-wisdom (old age) message. Its 1970s special effects are hideous, which is why it should be remade--but only on the condition that its positive messages are not stripped from it. Has the film not been remade because of its healthy and wholesome message?
Non cliché: Ghost of New Orleans
We started watching Ghost of New Orleans (2011) because nothing else was on and we were desperate for something. The first thing we noticed was the main character was played by Josh Lucas--who is never in poorly made movies. Also starring were Terrence Howard and Cary Elwes (Westley from The Princess Bride), neither of whom I recognized until I saw the ending credits.
We soon realized that we were not watching a clichéd ghost story movie. It was wonderful and intellectual and challenging. Good for them for showing is how to not be cliché.
Worst cliché: narration
The cliché I can't stand the most is narration at the beginning of movies. I do not wish to pay money to be read to.
Hollywood, please stop adding narration
to the beginning of movies.
A particularly egregious example of the use of narration is the movie, Ready Player One (2018). Narration at the beginning of the movie extends for ten minutes! If you don't believe me, time it yourself. I would have understood the movie's plot, mood, and theme just as much without the children's-reading-time even with no change in filming or visual editing because I could see what was happening during the reading. There is an additional five minutes of narration throughout the film, making a grand total of at least fifteen minutes. That's over ten percent of the length of the movie! Why not just produce a radio show and save the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on CGI?
One of the best movies ever made is Citizen Kane (1941). It was so well done that while watching the movie I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction. It is that good! However, the movie has one drawn-out, painful, egregious flaw. The first twelve minutes of the film consists of narration that tells the entire story of Charles Foster Kane's life. Then for the next 107 minutes, we get to see his life again. Why would a film give the entire plot away, from beginning to end, at the beginning of the show?
But it gets worse.
My award for Most-Hideous-of-All-Time-Narration goes to the movie The Visit (2015), where at the beginning of the movie, the children's reading-time narration is provided to poor movie viewers in complete darkness. It was extremely difficult for me not to get up and leave the theater. I stayed only because I was with friends. The movie got worse after that. I'm sorry to say that The Visit is the worst movie I have seen in my lifetime.
What does this visceral repulsion have to do with writing fiction?
The literary equivalent of movie narration is exposition, which is when the story stops so the narrator can force-feed expository information into the reader's head because the writer thinks the reader is too stupid to get it on his/her own. Critics and readers alike don't like exposition.
One of the most famous books written in the past one hundred years is To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It is well-written except for one aspect. Every time the story introduces a new character, Mrs. Lee stops the story and provides several paragraphs of exposition about the new person.
It's an exciting story--but wait! You must hold your breath for five minutes every time Scout meets a new character.
Don't do this to your readers!
One final irritant
There is a word I often hear spoken on the radio and on TV by broadcasters, politicians, and other professional spokespersons. I also hear the word in person everywhere in my personal life.
The word is the new "Um" and "Uh," except it is worse because it attempts to give the speaker an air of superiority, as if to say, "I'm correct even before I begin speaking." It's the introduction of an argument before presenting the argument.
Person A: "The weather is hot today."
Person B: "Well, actually, last week...."
"Well" at the beginning of a sentence is a habitual crutch, a thoughtless cliché drooled from lazy lips. And it is done by a lot of people.
The word also serves as a dismissive of change of topic:
Person A: "What a fantastic lunch!"
Person B: "Well, thanks for inviting me, but I must be going."
The "well" lets the listener know something different or opposing is about to be said. Why not just speak without the weak-kneed intro? Be a man or a woman and stand up for yourself! Is being a grown-up no longer a requirement in society anymore?
"Well" is also short for "Well, well, what do we have here?" People who start a sentence with "Well" should wear reading glasses at the ends of their noses and have a downward look for the lower forms of life around them.
"Well" denotes haughty, empty, arrogant, pretentious condescension.
When I hear professional spokespersons use the word, I question their self-confidence. Who hires such people to speak on TV or the radio? Do that many professionals need a security blanket?
Don't put your reader through such misery. Instead, create characters your readers can respect and rally behind.
And don't use the four-letter word yourself. Be a grown-up.
Clichés make me want to throw the book against the wall (itself a cliché) or stand up in a movie theater and scream, “What idiot made this movie?” Oh, how I want to do this so badly! I would probably receive applause.
If clichés are as easy to spot as a pie in the face (sorry, another cliché), why are they so prevalent? Are pop music composers--who mostly copy other songs, movie-makers, and authors that dopey? I believe that they don’t care about the quality of their product so long as the money keeps coming in. Is that where we’re headed? Pablum for the dumb masses? I Googled the phrase, “Why are there so many clichés in fiction?” I could find no website that answered the question. Try it yourself. How does one of the most common problems facing literature today have no explanation? I feel like I’ve entered another universe whose lifeforms have no brain. What is my advice for you? Stand out from the hordes of morons and don’t use clichés.
Be responsible. Be cognizant. Be creative. Be committed to your talent. Stop using clichés. You know what they are. You don’t need anyone to hold your hand about it (another cliché). Maybe if writers become more mature, the rest of the world will grow up, too.
I like that idea.