Story Cliches That Must Die

I wanted to take a break from writing about my boat and sailing for a bit to discuss an epidemic: story cliches. There are a number of cliches that are so overused, the moment I read/see one or more, my stomach considers rejecting my latest meal. Some are from books, some from movies, but all need to go.  

All stories follow a certain formula–that is, characters are going about their lives, something (usually bad for a character) happens, a struggle ensues, the protagonist tries to make something right, the antagonist is against him/her, etc. I’m not criticizing the formula, just overly common devices used within the context of a story. Is it possible to never use a cliche? Maybe not, but the following have been used too many times, and it’s time for them to retire.

Mother Dying in Childbirth

Main characters require independence, resourcefulness, and a certain degree of savviness to be respected by a reader or viewer, and to have the necessary tools to accomplish their goals and overcome their struggles. Superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and other popular protagonists, like Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, and many others, are orphans. Separating the main character from his or her parents at an early age is critical to developing a character’s sense of self-reliance. Sadly, many writers use the mother dying in childbirth to eliminate one parent, and either ignore the father of the character, or simply write him off as a deadbeat. More annoyingly, a writer will make the father angry toward the child for killing the mother (this is irritating because even a sub-intelligent being would recognize that a newborn infant does not mean to kill his or her own mother…). There are too many stories that use the Mother Dying in Childbirth cliche to name here. Not only is it tired, it also makes labor seem like a fatal endeavor, with so many heroes losing their mothers to their birth. Death has no limits, and neither should an imagination.

The Alcohol Made Me Do It

I remember one of my high school teachers explain that for our college entry essays we had to write about a struggle we’d overcome, and that, due to it being so common, dealing with an alcoholic parent would no longer be accepted. Alcoholism is a real problem, and as college admission staff could tell you, a popular one. Alcohol can turn a decent person into a villain, or it could have the opposite effect, transforming a stern individual into the delight of the day. In novels and movies, alcohol is used as it is in real life: to change a character’s demeanor, either positive or negative. The issue is the same with the essays: it’s written about too much. The Alcohol Made Me Do It has become a cliche. Whenever I start reading a book, and I come across a passage in the first chapter or so that describes how the character was a slave to the drink, I have to put it down. Maybe it’s just me being overly sensitive or snobbish, but altering a character’s mood with alcohol, when there are many other substances to do so, is lazy. It also seems cowardly: why not just make the character crazy/wicked/delightful on his own, without a substance?

Independent Women Against Tight Clothing and/or Manners

In period pieces, to show that a woman is modern, independent, or a “free spirit” she complains about a corset, insists she must unbutton her collar, or something else to do with loosening her clothing. And if she’s not trying to modify her dress, she’s complaining about her mother expecting her to be “proper.” This cliche is most often used in movies, where it’s difficult to get inside the character’s head to hear what she’s thinking. Making the character against her traditional attire and classical etiquette, seems the easiest way to show she’s a forward thinker. Many movies come right to my mind: Alice in Wonderland (the new Tim Burton film), Far and Away, and Titanic. There are sure to be more. Lots more.

I Care About You, So Please Take My Necklace

If you’re in a movie, there’s no better way to say “I care” than by giving a necklace. In both The Client and Contact the item on the end of a chain is a compass. In Stargate it’s an ancient artifact. And of course Titanic (James Cameron is an abuser of cliches) the story gets started and big sections revolve around a giant heart-shaped necklace. Those are just the films that I remember. There must be countless more, where characters give up their necklaces to prove their emotions.

Humans (especially the white ones) are Bad

James Cameron fits into this category several times, but he’s not the only offender (he’s just a repeat with Terminator, The Abyss, Aliens, and Avatar). The Humans are Bad cliche (especially the white humans) takes many forms, but the story will always come to the conclusion that humans are so destructive, mean-spirited, greedy, selfish, and more equal to locusts, that we really don’t deserve to live and it should be okay for the machines we’ve created (Terminator, Battlestar Gallactica), or a less technologically developed (in the case of white humans) tribe/group of people (Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai) to destroy humans/white people. Of course despite us humans and/or white people being the worst thing that ever happened to the world, there’s always the plucky hero from the horrible humans to come through and be the good guy (Ripley in Aliens, Jake in Avatar). But the rest of those humans? Worthless!

A note on this cliche: you have to have an antagonist, who’s usually human, but this cliche applies when humanity as a whole is somehow criticized for their pesky, nasty ways.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. So…what do you think? Am I way off? Being too critical? Can you think of some movie/book cliches that I’ve missed?


  1. Isaac Anderson August 25, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I think Avatar is the worst offender of them all. What cliche was not worn threadbare in that movie?

    1. Courtney August 25, 2011 at 7:03 pm

      James Cameron might have a book of cliches handy, which he pulls from his shelf whenever he needs to write a new story. His movies are successful because he’s a great visual storyteller, and his movies bend the laws of special effects. Avatar was fun to watch, because it was a visual delight. But the story line was unoriginal. Someone online described it as Pocahontas in Space.

  2. Jaye August 25, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Interesting set of thoughts here! I was waiting for the inevitable “bad boy or enigmatic loner tamed by the love of a good woman” – how could you have missed that old standby? (cough cough gag choke)

  3. chris August 26, 2011 at 6:16 am

    Great – so I have to throw away every single story I wrote because I used all those? 🙂 But you are right. You see those same cliches all over the place. I don’t know if people are lazy or just can’t figure out a new way to get their ideas across.