What Makes a Story Cliche?

As always happens at my writer’s group, we had an interesting conversation. One of our members worried that her submission was cliche.

She’d seen particular elements of her story in others: an alien returning to his own world, a teenage love triangle, an oppressive, autocratic government. She wondered if that made the story as a whole cliche.

The funny thing was, the group couldn’t come to a consensus. And it made me wonder: does quality affect perceptions of cliche? Does recency factor into the discussion? And is cliche as bad as some people seem to think? Let’s talk.

Quality Excuses All

One thing I’ve noticed: Audiences forgive cliche if they deem the art “really good.”

Take Netflix’s Stranger Thingsfor example. It’s one of the most popular shows on TV, yet seems to retread familiar tropes. A short list: shadowy government organizations, psychic children, monsters invading small towns from alternate dimensions, heavy synth soundtracks.

When separated from the whole, we get some cliches. Yet the show’s production quality, attention to detail, and nice guy Bob Newby mask these flaws. If the successful elements weren’t so successful, we might not forgive the cliches.

Popularity and Recency Magnify Perceptions of Cliche

People are more likely to label stories derivative if similar stories are already popular.

Take vampire fiction. I can’t tell you how many online fiction markets strictly forbid vampire fiction. Any of it. This is, of course, thanks to the Twilight series, which has single-handedly ruined vampire fiction for the next decade or so, I’d guess. Just say the word “vampire” and wait for the groans.

This works both ways. When we haven’t seen a particular idea explored in a while, it might feel fresh, even if it really is cliche. Take La La Landfor example. A fun movie. Singing, dancing, mean J.K. Simmons. All good fun. But remove the musical elements and you’ll find cliche. Struggling artists in Los Angeles get together, break up, reconnect again after one of them gets married. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Imagine if this came out in the thirties, when Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire made dancing cheek to cheek famous. People loved it because they hadn’t seen it in a long time.

A Little Cliche is Good

Imagine a story that you’ve never seen before. Its structure, characters, settings, and themes are all unique.

First of all, such a story does not exist. No work of art is completely original; everyone’s working off a predecessor’s template, whether they know it or not. Second, this probably wouldn’t be a very good story. Fact is, conventions and tropes exist for a reason. They give us familiar handholds to grasp. If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t get far off the ground.

So what makes a story cliche? Lots or little, depending on whom you ask. But if you ask me, I think cliche gets a bum rap. Treat it like salt: use a little, but not too much.

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