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The Damage of the Cliche


The words cliché and stereotype both derive originally from the printing tradition. Movable type was traditionally set in place one metal character at a time to print pages. With the invention of the cliché/stereotype phrases, sections, and whole pages were created on a single slug or plate. This made reprinting much easier but fused certain concepts into indivisible and unchangeable single units.

The metaphor of the cliché is still apt and its origin is a key to understanding the precise mechanism by which clichés dissrupt engagement in stories.

Just like the origin of the cliché, in which individual characters were fused into a single block, the modern media cliché acts much the same way. For the purposes of this discussion, we can define a cliché as a storytelling pattern or element that has fused into a single indivisible entity.



A common test to identify a cliché follows this logic. Since clichés are fused together as one concept if we know one part of the cliché we should also know the rest. This is a test of its "fused-ness" So for instance the phrase "curiosity killed..." could be completed easily by most with "...the cat" and is therefore likely a cliché. "A stitch in time..." "... saves nine." "don't count your chickens..." "...until they're hatched." etc.

clichés in stories and fiction are not simple sentences, and yet the concept still works rather well. Here are some examples of movie clichés where the plots and characters have become fused together so that in knowing one part of the cliché the experienced viewer will likely know the rest.

When we find out the hero needs to save the world we know...
the hero will save the world.

Once we know that cranky old millionaire is going to have to take care of that adorable little orphan we also know...
that their heart will open wide and they will become happy again.

When five teenagers sneak into a deserted summer camp to party on the anniversary of a mass murder that occurred there last year...
well you get the idea.

If we see a saliva-dripping alien with the large teeth creeping through a dimly lit metal corridor for instance, if we have experience in this genre, we know almost exactly how it will act for the whole movie. In fact the more cliché the movie and the more experienced the viewer, just seeing the alien will reveal almost the whole plot of the movie and much much more including characters, setting, ending, etc. What should be experienced as a series of actions, possibilities and choices fuse together into one inevitability. This fusing is the essential quality of the cliché. Of course there are many movies that do not follow these patterns and they are probably not clichés.



The actual formation of the cliché is a process of personal, repeated, exposure. This repeated exposure binds certain storytelling techniques into a single identifiable pattern.

Since in modern society many of us have an almost unlimited access to an equally vast variety of stories and story forms, repetition is often seated in personal desire. We generally chose what we want to be exposed to. So if something is to be repeated with the frequency required to be a cliché, there is a good chance that it started as something more like a revelation to us. It started as something that took hold of us and made us crave more of what we got from it originally. Their inherent successful qualities are what cause the repetition that starts the cliché process.

Of course there are also clichés from media that are forced upon us in repetitive ways through vehicles such as propaganda, advertising, and broadcast media. But the majority of modern media clichés start, just as other clichés do, as very satisfying storytelling patterns.

It is important to note that cliché formation only occurs through repeated personal exposure. This is often confused with the idea that clichés are caused by "over-use". They are not and this small difference can cause large and costly mistakes.

It might seem obvious, but take a look at PIXAR's Cars 2. Pixar is a company that more than understands children's fiction but they still got it wrong by attempting to create a movie that involved parodying spy movie clichés. The children watching Cars 2 are not even old enough to be exposed to the original spy material at all never mind having been exposed to it enough times for it to become clichéd to them. In order to parody a cliché, the cliché must exist to the viewer. In one scene a car is tortured to death for information (in a G rated movie no less). Yes, to an adult, a spy being tortured to death for information is a cliché and often has very little emotional impact (we'll see why presently). But to a naive viewer, like a child, torture is just torture. So then Pixar was not parodying a cliché, but torture itself with jokes and cute cars. Very confusing for kids and disturbing for parents. More on Cars 2 here. In fact by the time children are finally exposed to any form of adult literature they have probably already been exposed to multiple (baffling) parodies of it.

You can almost assume that by now children are viewing media patterns that will become clichés to them in a kind of "reverse order". For example the first time a child is exposed to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it is probably in the form of something akin to a made for video/download Barbie animation. And it will probably be very affecting to them. It's Shakespeare after all! Then maybe they'll see the patterns again in a Disney TV sitcom episode, then a romantic comedy, then another, a reboot, etc. By the time they get to high school and try to read the original it has become completely cliché to them. They have seen every single variation of that plot in every conceivable genre (children's lit, romantic comedy, sci-fi, drama, vampire, etc.) and have probably heard many of the memorable lines both straight and parodied.

The misunderstanding about the origin of the cliché is a common problem adults have in understanding juvenile fiction which they may perceive as being full of meaningless clichés and repetitive genre patterns. This may cause it to seem shallow and without emotion or depth. But is isn't a cliché for the child and so therefore may have tremendous meaning and depth. Remember that this rerun episode of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, or The Brady Bunch, might be your child's first exposure to Cyrano de Bergerac. (here to see more about "playing Cyrano" with many examples )

Another way to say this is that when a child sees someone get hit in the face with a pie for the first time... it's probably still going to be funny to them. The first time the protagonist's best friend turns out to be the bad guy it still has the potential to be astounding to those who are experiencing it for the first time. "Fresh clichés" includes things that are considered clichés in other cultures. Once culturally translated they continue to astound like the first time because it is for this new audience.

The misunderstanding of the origin of the cliché is also a mistake that causes young and/or inexperienced artists much confusion. They often rely on using techniques and symbols that have had great personal impact on them not realizing that this is one clue that to a more experienced audience it is now a cliché.  In other words even slightly more veteran audiences also thought those ideas were effective and sought them out until they quickly became cliched.  In fact most early attempts at writing, poetry, etc. start this way. This includes the ranks of more experienced and successful artists and storytellers that move in a transmedia way from one media to another or even one genre to another.

So personal exposure is the prerequisite to create the cliché, but what is the cliché exactly? What is the specific mechanism by which clichés damage the story experience?


The damage of a cliché does not come from over-use, nor does it come from repetition either. Repetition creates the cliché, but the cliché causes its damage through disengagement. It exfiltrates the viewer from the story.

Stories are experiential and to experience a story is to be in the story's point of view (POV). You might say to experience a story you must be "inside the story". It's like the difference between watching a roller coaster from the line and experiencing it from the front seat. Inside the story we experience something very different from an observer or critic. In the story, events appears to be "happening" just like they do in our life. The characters appear to be making decisions based on the fictional world we are in. What happens next is based on their motivations, environments, past actions, etc. Just like us. Narratives and stories move through time. They are in a way one dimensional, moving from beginning to end and just like our own experiences, we can only guess what will happen next.

Clichés must, by their nature, destroy that cause and effect. With a cliché, we see the whole thing at once. Once we see what will happen with inevitability, we begin to realize that what is happening is not happening because of the characters and their choices and the actions of the fiction, but because of the pattern which we can not ignore any more. It doesn't matter what the characters think or feel or do... X will happen now, then Y, then Z. No matter what. It takes away all cause and effect. Then we are outside of the movie, not experiencing it as we do life, in the now, but seeing it as a whole. We see that the movie is on tracks. And this destroys the magic of fiction. We have lost immersion. We can not be outside the movie and inside it at the same time usually.

The damage of the cliché is that it disrupts immersion. There can be no experience and so no psychological effect without immersion.

Let's take the example of a young woman who loves zombie movies. At first they seem wonderful and new and they give her something psychologically that is very pleasurable/important for her. She can't get enough of them and watches them repetitively. Here the pleasure causes the repetition. But then she becomes familiar with the patterns of the genre. She probably doesn't want it to, but soon, she knows what's going to happen next. It becomes, at first obvious and then inevitable. She has been exposed enough to see the pattern of the genre... and now... many zombie movies as a whole, and many things in them, become clichés. Which is to say, that the pattern has become conscious to her. More than that, what happens seems to be happening, not because of the cause and effect of the point of view (POV) of the story, but because of the innevitablity of the pattern. She can see that the story is on tracks. It is not unknown at all. It is this very specific pattern that will not be deviated from. Now she is not "in" the movie, she is outside the movie. She is an unwilling critic. The zombies will act like this, the effects will look like this, the survivors must turn on each other like this, they must be menaced in such a way, they must end the movie in this fashion with these people as the survivors... etc. There can be no story without cause and effect. Without the belief that the action is happening because of the chronological unfolding of events, cause and effect, the character's special qualities, desires, motivations, and choices.. there is no fiction. Immersion is lost and so is the "magic" of story telling...

So soon our naive zombie movie viewer is an experienced zombie movie viewer consciously aware of the genre patterns, the scare tactics, the special effects... and more and more becomes cliché to him. If the psychological desire to experience zombie movies has not dimmed, then she will start to become choosy. She will begin to seek out only movies that expand the genre in some way. Movies that make her feel sutured back into the movie, that leave her guessing, that make her really believe that what is happening is happening because of the individual situation and characters, not the genre norms.

Even though she may still desire the psychological process of the zombie movie with its symbols and patterns, she must be convinced again and again that what is happening is NOT happening because it is pre-ordained by the genre cliché, but because of events and motivations within the story itself. Even though she hopes it will give him the same things the others did. It is a fight for immersion.

Even small clichés can pull viewers away from the fiction because clichés always depend on awareness of a body of previous work outside of the story. So using "bullet time" in a movie might be a very functional technique, but it also points the experience away from the movie to The Matrix (usually) and/or many other movies, video games, etc. Again, clichés cause the danger of disengagement. If it is a larger cliché, such as a major character "the sassy gay sidekick/friend" for instance, the danger is increased. If the viewer feels that they know this character through past personal exposure, and that their behavior and actions are prescribed by patterns outside the movie, then there is a (probably correct) sense that whatever they do is predestined. On rails. And therefore inconsequential. They cease to be "real" in the context of the movie and become an artifact found outside the movie world.



Since the main problem is immersion then movies, games, stories, are constantly trying to battle loss of immersion. Disengagement can be battled with external tools like special effects, bigger screens, 3D graphics, etc. but the most important element is to create stories that feel real within the story and not externally.

We can't really avoid the cliché from occuring. We just are exposed to too much media for that.

But the key to avoiding disengagement is storytelling that focuses on character development and unique perspectives that make the actions feel as if they really come from within the world of the movie rather than outside of it. This is but one of the reasons why independent productions and new voices will ALWAYS be able to break into any storytelling industry. Keeping something "fresh" often comes from the story and the point of view. If the writing gives the sense of reality and presence, then even if the cliché patterns are used, it makes no difference because it feels as if the characters and plot have arrived at their destination because of their own qualities and not that of the pattern. To battle losing the point of view, we need a powerful point of view to carry the participants onwards. One of the subtle yet powerful differences between engagement and dis-engagement is this: Did it happen because of the pattern, or did it happen because of the story? It doesn't matter that the story element repeats. We want the boy to get the girl, but more specifically we want to believe that this specific boy should be with that specific girl and that they face a challenge unique to them that we hope they overcome, are worried that they might not, but eventually do in a way unique to them.



On some level, the battle against clichés is a losing battle. The current population is exposed to massive amounts of media. One might argue that disengagement is natural and even healthy. It may be how people grow psychologically. Media isn't meant to replace our real lives... You could think of the process of cliché creation as the natural feeling of "being full" of something you've indulged in too much. Something you "already know". There might even be some evidence to suggest that we only see the clichés when we're "done" with something. Even though repetition is necessary for the formation of clichés maybe the conscious awareness only occurs once we don't need the story or element any more. Maybe the zombie movie lover in the example above sees the cliché patterns because it's time to move on. Maybe the cliché has much more effect on people who don't need the message any more?

If that is the case then the fight on both sides, as consumer and producer, to extend immersion might be seen as a struggle against growing up or expected psychological development?

Chime in on the comment section below.