The truth about clichés.
If any of your friends are aspiring film critics, you might be used to hearing this phrase; “I didn’t like it, it was too cliché.”
Clichés – ideas and stories that are considered overused – are a common criticism of any book, movie, video game, or anime. After all, a story’s no fun if you’ve basically heard it before and can predict how it ends. That said, does this mean all clichés are bad?
Well, the short answer is no. Clichés on their own can actually be used very intelligently. It’s just a matter of how the author utilizes them.
How clichés can be good.
Here’s the hard truth about storytelling; it’s impossible to write a completely new story anymore. No matter how crazy and out there your idea is, there’s probably someone who has written a similar story once upon a time. I mean, as long as it’s at least mildly coherent anyway.
However, there’s a fine line between a cliché and a tradition. See, a superhero story is technically unoriginal by the dictionary definition. And if you judge superhero stories on the surface level, it would be easy to dismiss them as all the same. However, by working with the knowledge that a superhero story is cliché, a writer can create new and provocative stories.
The Killing Joke – controversy aside – was particularly notable because of how self-aware it was. There’s nothing original about Batman and Joker fighting by now, but by working this concept into the plot, we get a more creative story that dives deeper into these characters. Are they eternally destined to fight, just because that’s what Batman and Joker do?
Luring audiences into a false sense of security with clichés can make decidedly original reveals later on have more impact because of how they were built up.
Familiar stories can be comforting.
This brings us to the other benefit of clichés: sometimes, we as audiences are hungry for them.
There are certain stories and motifs we see pop up over and over again, but many viewers might not even realize these moments are technically cliché. Some clichés pop up over and over because they just make for great stories.
For example, you know how hype it is when a band of heroes decides to finally work together near the end of a film to stop a seemingly impossible foe? Or in an anime, when the hero utilizes the power of friendship to realize they’re not alone and can pierce through the eternal darkness? You’ve seen these tropes a thousand times before, but when a great story makes proper use of them, you don’t think of these moments as cliché. You’re invested in the story, and less invested in the minutia of storytelling techniques.
In other words, clichés are like salt. You need it in a lot of dishes, but too much salt will ruin everything on the plate. This doesn’t mean salt is bad, but an inexperienced chef can easily misuse it.
At the end of the day, media is subjective. No story is objectively good or bad, and the same goes for clichés. You are allowed to like the most cliché story that has ever been created, and you’re allowed to dislike the most original story ever conceived. What’s important is that we analyze the stories we like and discern why we like them.
If you don’t like stories for being cliché, you are absolutely allowed to believe that. But just like salt, it’s important that we know why writers use clichés to begin with – and why even the most critical of us all might secretly like the taste sometimes.