You’re watching a movie, getting invested in the characters, watching the tension build, and then boom—just as you’re about to get to the emotional payoff, a frown forms across your lips and you utter those ever so dreaded words: “That’s so cliche.”

As moviemakers and as moviegoers, we want to avoid this at all costs. But first: What is a cliche? 

Cliche MEANING AND Examples

Be clear on cliches

First, we need to properly define cliche. Then we’ll hone in on some examples so you'll know how to keep them out of your own productions.


What is a Cliche?

Derived from French, the word cliche describes something we understand to be typical or repetitive. The French cliche quite literally translates to stereotype in English. But the standard cliche definition has changed slightly in the century and a half since it was first invented. Currently, any cliche definition generally refers to something that’s overused—a phrase, an action, or a storytelling device.

3 things that will help you define cliche might be:

  1. Excessive usage
  2. Pervasiveness in culture 
  3. An unintended consequence that overpowers the intended result

Now let’s take a look at some cliche examples.

Cliche Examples

When the dam breaks

If a movie’s plot ever involves a dam, there’s a high chance that said dam will break open. Action movies particularly have used the “breaking the dam” cliche to death.

The scene below, from X2: X-Men United, is one such example:

What is a cliche? When the dam breaks in X2: X-Men United...

When we see a variation of this same device pop up in Superman, and Dante's Peak, and San Andreas, and, and, and... we become keenly aware of its repetition. So even when it takes on biblical proportions, like in the scene below from Evan Almighty, our instinct is to shrug it off: "Another dam cliche!"

...and again in Evan Almighty

Showing a dam break open is meant to thrill audiences and perhaps add metaphorical meaning to the story. But those intended effects have long been overshadowed by the cliche’s overuse.


The underdog pulls off a miracle

If, like me, you’ve seen thousands of basketball games in your lifetime, you’ll know that about two percent of them actually end with a buzzer beater. And yet, of the 10 basketball movies I’ve seen, what is a cliche that pops up in at least 75 percent of them? They all end with the underdog winning in miraculous fashion. (Those are some cliche odds.)

The underdog team triumphs in Hoosiers 

The underdog miracle triumph is one of the age-old cliche examples, from the myth of David and Goliath to the great Disney channel original movie Full Court Miracle

Of course, the plot device’s intended effect is to recreate that sense of euphoria a fan feels when watching a real last-second, game-winning shot. But once you become accustomed to watching sports teams win their big games on the big screen, the euphoria you felt as you watched two teams compete for that win on live TV loses its power.


Use cliche to your advantage

Cliches are so widespread that they're practically ingrained in our everyday lives. That's not always a bad thing: Savvy writers can actually comment on their omnipresence for dramatic and comedic effect. 

Perhaps the most influential (and imitated) examples of this is screenwriter Kevin Williamson's Scream. The film is superficially similar to standard slasher fare, but the characters' awareness of horror movie cliches allows them to stay one step ahead of the serial killer who preys upon them. 

We've uploaded Scream to StudioBinder's screenwriting software. See how much fun Williamson has commenting on cliche:

If your script's characters are as hip to cliches as audiences are, then how will they possibly predict where your script is headed. Scream proved that you can use cliche to throw viewers off your trail, and slews of similarly self-aware horror scripts followed in its wake.


Build your tropes up

Trope vs. cliche can get tricky. Just as we’ve done to define cliche, our next post will focus solely on tropes — how to spot them, how to use them, and which movies and moviemakers use them best.

Up Next: Definition and Examples of a Trope →
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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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