A cliché is a literary device that refers to overused phrases, descriptions or plot elements that have lost their original impact through excessive repetition in literature. Using a cliché does not require creative or original thought. It’s a shorthand reference people understand. Clichés allow for easy and convenient ways to express common ideas without much elaboration. Many clichés express ideas that are obvious, trivial, or overly simplistic truisms about life. This literary device follows standard predictable formulas of expression that have become dull from overuse. The use of clichés is generally seen as lacking imagination, style or nuanced thought.
Common Examples of Cliché
Some common examples of clichés are as under :-
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
- The early bird catches the worm.
- When it rains, it pours.
- Easier said than done.
- Beat around the bush.
- Jump on the bandwagon.
- Bite off more than you can chew.
- Piece of cake.
- Break a leg.
- Costs an arm and a leg.
- Open a can of worms.
- Sleep like a baby.
- Walked on eggshells.
- Kept me in the dark.
- The last straw.
- Put your money where your mouth is.
- Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
- Turn over a new leaf.
- Made my skin crawl.
- It’s always in the last place you look.
- The early bird catches the worm.
- Seeing is believing.
- Rules are meant to be broken.
Types of Cliché
Here are some common types of clichés:
1- Character clichés
Character clichés refer to one-dimensional, predictable character archetypes that become tired tropes due to their frequent and formulaic reuse across works of fiction. Some of the most common character clichés include the heroic protagonist, the evil antagonist and the wise old mentor. The heroic protagonist embodies all the best qualities like bravery, virtue and strength with little depth or flaws. The evil antagonist exists merely to cause problems for the hero with no motivation beyond being evil.
2- Plot clichés
Plot clichés refer to predictable and formulaic storylines that have been reused so many times they have lost their ability to surprise or engage audiences. It is a underdog story where an unlikely hero rises from humble beginnings to defeat a much stronger opponent. It is taken as the love at first sight romance where two characters immediately fall for each other upon meeting without any real buildup or chemistry. Plot cliche occurs as the last minute rescue where the hero is saved from certain demise by the timely intervention of another character in the nick of time.
3- Descriptive clichés
Descriptive clichés refer to overused phrases and metaphors that were once evocative but have lost their impact due to repetitive use in literature and other creative works. Some common examples include descriptive clichés used to portray people, places, emotions and experiences. Phrases like ‘plain as day’, ‘cold as ice’ and ‘dark and stormy night’ fall into this category as their frequent appearance across genres has drained them of vivid imagery. Emotions in particular tend to attract descriptive clichés, such as referring to love as a battlefield or joy as pure as the driven snow.
4- Dialogue/word clichés
Dialogue and word clichés refer to overfamiliar phrases, sayings and expressions that were initially used to add color or rhetorical flair to conversation and prose. They have become drained of significance through repetition across works. Common culprits include stock responses like ‘easier said than done’, worn idioms like ‘when it rains it pours’ and catchphrases with no deeper meaning such as ‘in the blink of an eye’.
5- Idiomatic clichés
Idiomatic clichés refer to familiar sayings, proverbs and figures of speech that have become ingrained parts of everyday language, yet lack original meaning through habitual overuse. Common idioms like “easier said than done”, “when it rains it pours” and “bite the bullet” were originally intended as concise ways to convey ideas, but have devolved into empty placeholders devoid of significance. Because they have been deployed so ceaselessly across conversations and works, their metaphorical roots are forgotten and they fail to add new insight or color.
Examples of Cliché in literature
1- “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
The writer utilizes some elements that could be considered clichéd. The star-crossed lovers trope of two people falling in love despite their families being embroiled in a feud was already well-worn by Shakespeare’s time. Additionally, Juliet’s plea for Romeo to reject his family name and deny his father in order to be with her taps into the predictable request for a lover to abandon their lineage for the relationship. Directly questioning why one’s love must have a problematic last name, as Juliet does in asking “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, has also become a recognizable phrase through common repetition over the years.
2- “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
“She is a woman that seldom smiles, and was never seen to laugh. She is tall and proud, and there is not a trace of softness in her face or figure.”
Austen portrays the woman as “tall and proud”, which is a tired trope often used to signal that a character is unlikeable or arrogant. Additionally, saying there is “not a trace of softness” in her face or figure employs an overused literary device of making someone seem harsh or stern through their physical appearance. By the time Austen wrote this novel describing a woman as rarely smiling or laughing while being tall and proud without softness was a predictable way of making the reader perceive her negatively.
3– “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte
“I thought I must go mad with the horrors that surrounded us: the cold, the darkness, the silence of the place, and above all, the sense of remote loneliness…”
Bronte employs some familiar gothic tropes to set a gloomy scene. Describing a setting as dark, cold and silen are well-worn devices writers have relied on for evoking eeriness. Additionally, directly stating the character feels “remote loneliness” taps into the predictable technique of overtly conveying emotions through descriptive language. By Bronte’s time, listing these sorts of dreary adjectives to portray an ominous location was a tired literary device.
Examples of Cliché in Pop Culture
1- Star Wars: A New Hope
Luke says: “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”
The idea of a character wanting to visit a stereotypical location like a “power converter station” is a clichéd way to show they live an ordinary life before their adventure begins. It’s an unoriginal trope.
Rachel tells Ross “We were on a break!” after they argue about whether Ross cheating meant they were still together.
The “we were on a break” trope has been overused in sitcoms as a clichéd way to add conflict between an on-again-off-again couple. The audience knows what she’s referring to immediately due to its repetition across pop culture works.
3- The Dark Knight
When Batman first confronts the Joker, the Joker says “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
Referring to someone as having “danced with the devil” is a tired cliché used to portray a character as sinister or mysterious. While it works to set the tone in the scene, having the Joker use such an overdone line makes his introduction less impactful. The quote relies on an unoriginal turn of phrase that has lost its punch through repetition in crime films over decades.
4- “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë
“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”
This quote expresses the idea that Cathy and Heathcliff share a deep, soulful connection that transcends all else. The soulmate or two-halves-of-one-whole trope is a common romantic cliché.
5- “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…”
The writer expresses Gatsby’s relentless hope and pursuit of his impossible dream/desire, which is a very common theme or device in classic literature. The idea of a character being obsessed with an unattainable goal or ideal is a cliché that was already quite familiar when Fitzgerald wrote this in the 1920s.
Related Terms to Cliché
Here are the literary terms related to cliché:
A commonly used and somewhat predictable theme, character type or literary device that can become trite through overuse. Examples are the star-crossed lovers trope or the wise old mentor trope. Clichés fall under the category of tropes.
2- Figurative language
Expressions using figures of speech like metaphor, simile, personification, etc. Certain figurative devices can become clichéd through frequent repetition like “love is a battlefield” or describing someone as “cold as ice.”
A trite, simplistic statement or expression, often expressing a shared sentiment in an unoriginal way. Platitudes tend to be clichéd through overuse, like “laughter is the best medicine” or “the early bird gets the worm.” They lack nuance or originality.
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