The most basic definition of a cliché that I can give you is this: A cliché is any phrase that is so overused, hackneyed, and tossed about carelessly that it has lost all the power its meaning once had. Like I said, that’s a basic definition. Entire situations, settings, and plots can be cliché as well.
Give it the cliché test–When you read it, try to imagine the profundity and impact it made the very first time it was ever put on paper. If it doesn’t seem all that special anymore, it’s probably a cliché. If you groan when you hear it, it’s probably a cliché. If you lose faith in the originality of an author simply for its inclusion in the text, it’s probably a cliché. Or, you could also just go to this website and see if the phrase is on the list.
- “All over the map”
- “Axe to grind”
- “Fan the flames”
- “Nice guys finish last.”
- “Pay the piper”
- “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
There are an abundance of clichés, but don’t forget that it’s not just what is said, but where it takes place and how that can make a reader want to put the text away.
- Love triangle
- Supernatural/fantasy creatures
- Think about how innovative Tolkien’s creations were. He was on of the first true fantasy writers. Now think about what you see as soon as you walk into the book store—hundreds of teen fantasy books that differ only slightly. Even the covers look the same (check out BuzzFeed’s 19 Book Cover Cliches).
- Bad guy change of heart
- Break-up aftermath
This list could get extensive as well. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s hard to be totally original in plot creation, and there’s a good reason for it. We all write from and about the human condition and experience (whether our characters are human or not). Because we are human, these are the ideas that inform our creative process. In addition, there are only a fixed number of character interactions possible to create a plot. Carlo Gozzi and Georges Polti were creators of the list of 36 Dramatic Situations. So, most plots are cliché because there really is not a way to be totally original in our time. If you take something that is written about countless times, it might be boring, or it might not. It’s up to you. What makes it cliché is that the plot follows the same predictable path of unfolding events. Change things up and you’re set.
Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast