5 Storytelling Clichés That Started Out Very Different

Prepare to hear an ancient Arabian dick joke
5 Storytelling Clichés That Started Out Very Different

Every cliché starts from somewhere. Today, if the baddies in a blockbuster shoot a giant beam up into the sky, we groan because we’ve seen it a dozen times before, but back when Lord of the Rings did it 20 years ago, it looked strange and new. 

Often, these tropes don’t simply stay exactly the same until we’re all sick of them. Hunt down their debut, and you’ll see something different from what you’re now picturing. For example... 

The First Damsel Tied to Railroad Tracks Was a Man

If you’re a mustachioed villain, and you have a helpless maiden in your clutches, you know what you have to do. You tie her to the railroad tracks, and then you leave, letting the train come and smash her dead. Don’t worry — there’s no possible way a hero will show up and untie her just in the nick of time. 

Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life

Keystone Film Company

Don’t beat her to death, of course. That would sully your sledgehammer

This set piece was most common in comedies, such as in the 1913 short Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life above. This was because laying someone on tracks was always an absurd and impractical way of killing them, and it’s hard to take seriously, especially if you’re already familiar with the idea from other comedies.

The trope became famous, however, thanks to a stage play that treated the idea seriously. It was called Under the Gaslight (no connection to the 1944 film Gaslight, from which we got the word “gaslighting”), and it was first performed in 1867. We don’t have any footage of the original production, since this was decades before motion-picture recording. But here’s a modern student production of the train scene:

You’ll mostly be impressed by that train, which arrives from stage left and then leaves the tracks to terrorize the gleeful audience. You may also be surprised by who’s tied to the tracks. It’s a man (a soldier named Snorkey), and he’s rescued by a damsel (the heroine Laura, who has been locked in a shed and must escape to save him). In fact, when we analyze this death trap, the victim being male might be an essential part of how it was conceived.

Let’s accept for the moment the old assumption that a male hero is far more strong and capable than his lady love. If he must save her, we can invent all kinds of obstacles he must overcome. He can duel a dastardly villain, with his sword. He can fight off a bear with his fists. He can kick down a locked door. If the lady love must save the man, however, our 19th-century playwright can’t place her in any of those action roles. Instead, he figures perhaps the man must be incapacitated, and the woman frees him. She needn’t be stronger than him to do this; she just needs to be present. 

Under the Gaslight Scene

via Wiki Commons 

It’s like Lois Lane picking a Kryptonite rock off of Superman.

When other plays and movies did their own version of this, they invariably tied a woman to the tracks. Today, putting the man there sounds like a strange twist. Consider one scene from the show Minx, where a photo shoot places two guys on the tracks, as a feminist reinterpretation of the tied damsel idea. Also, the men have their cocks out, but it makes sense in context.

The Emperor’s New Clothes Was About Fear of Being Disinherited

“The emperor has no clothes,” you say, when everyone is praising something dumb. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the emperor walks around naked, and no one’s willing to point this out, having been told that only smart people can see the clothes. This offers lessons for everyday life. Sometimes, people are just pretending to know what they’re talking about. Sometimes, the stuff that wins awards is garbage. Also: A whole lot of people are afraid of looking stupid. 

Illustration of "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Vilhelm Pedersen

In this illustration, the king doesn’t have his cock out, which makes no sense in context. 

Andersen wrote The Emperor’s New Clothes in 1837, which is pretty recent, all considered. That was the same year Oliver Twist came out. He based it on a much older tale from Spain. This 14th-century story played out much the same way, but the tailors here didn’t say only wise people could see the clothes. They said that the clothes could only be seen by those of legitimate birth. If you could not see the silks, you were a bastard. 

So, when the emperor in the original tale pretends to see clothes when he sees nothing, he isn’t just worried about his pride. He’s worried about losing the throne. Each man in the streets who pretends to see him dressed is similarly afraid of being revealed as a pretender heir and being stripped of all property. 

Emperor’s new clothes

Hans Tegner

Even illustrators feared losing financially, if they drew the emperor’s cock.

Only some random boy, who has nothing to lose as far as he knows, is willing to call out the emperor’s nakedness. So, that’s the real lesson in this story. If you want the truth, ask someone with no financial stake in the matter.

The First Man Who Asked for Three Wishes Was a Dick Joke

A man finds a lamp, and when he rubs it, out comes a genie. “I will grant you three wishes,” says the genie. “Great,” says the man. “I will wish for two normal things, and for my third wish, I will trigger the punchline.” 

The three wishes format certainly works well for jokes. But where did it come from? Is this part of the mythology of the jinn, that they grant three wishes? 

Publicity photo of Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie.


If so, I Dream of Jeannie would be a very short show. 

The idea of three wishes comes from the story “The Three Wishes,” from One Thousand and One Nights. This larger collection of Middle Eastern stories does feature genies, but “The Three Wishes” actually does not. People just later combined the two concepts, figuring they work well together.

In the story, a man looks into the sky one day and gets a glimpse of heaven, and he realizes that Allah has granted him three wishes. He consults his wife on what to wish for. “The perfection of man and his delight is in his prickle,” she tells him. “Therefore do thou pray Allah to greaten thy yard and magnify it.”

Zawba'a or Zoba'ah, the jinn-king of Friday

Oxford Digital Library

All our earlier talk of cocks wasn’t random. It was foreshadowing. 

She meant that he should wish for a larger penis. He does so, and the penis becomes “as big as a column,” which isn’t convenient at all. He can’t stand up or sit down, and when he offers to have sex with his wife, she flees from him. “Pray Heaven to make it less,” she now tells him, and he does so. But rather than reducing it in size a little, this second wish removes the organ altogether. The wife isn’t happy with this either. “I have no occasion for thee,” she says. “Now thou art become pegless as a eunuch, shaven and shorn.” 

His wife gets him to use his final wish to simply return to how he was originally. This all sounds like a fable about being happy with what you have, but the story finds a different way to summarize it: “Thus the man lost his three wishes by the lack of wit in the woman.” Do not consult your wife when debating courses of action, this story warned, and centuries of husbands heeded the advice. 

The First Bad Boy Was Pretty Lame

We use the phrase “bad boy” to describe not just actual children but excitingly rebellious men. We consider that normal, but it’s a little odd. There are only a handful of arenas in which it’s considered okay to call a man a boy. A romantic prospect who’s in a motorcycle gang is very different from a child who ate too many sweets, but both are called bad boys.

Bad Boys 1995

Sony Pictures

Naughty children, naughty children. Whatcha gonna do? 

We call rebels “bad boys” because of an 1870 novel called The Story of a Bad Boy. The main character, Tom Bailey, is a rebel but is also very much a boy. His antics include scaring people by setting off a cannon and pushing a car into a fire. 

If that sounds exciting, we should add that he also plays in the snow with friends and goes rafting, and the story ends with him getting a job in an office. His only crimes were childish mischief, the sort people would later read in similar books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Though this Tom is described as being different from “those faultless young gentlemen who generally figure in narratives of this kind,” he doesn’t join even one motorcycle gang. In fact, the opening line of the book says, “This is the story of a bad boy. Well, not such a very bad, but a pretty bad boy.” 

Thomas Bailey Aldrich

This led to the creation of the first truth in advertising laws.

“The Butler Did It” Wasn’t a Cliché But a Cheat

If you watch a murder mystery and the culprit is the butler, you’ll demand a refund. How could they possibly resort to that cliché? It’s a cliché that’s so cliché, no one should ever dare try it now — unless the story’s a parody of course, and even then, they’d better throw in some further twist.

Tim Curry Clue

Paramount Pictures

For example, the story could include Communism, as a red herring.

You might think that The Butler Did It became an unforgivable trope after tons of murder mysteries pulled that trick, until it got old. That’s not really what happened. Instead, in 1928, an author of detective novels published a set of rules that he claimed mysteries should follow, and among them was a rule saying the culprit must not be a servant. Shortly after this, one single famous mystery story ended by revealing the culprit was the butler. People noted that this had broken the rule, and “the butler did it” was how they mockingly dismissed the solution.

That set of rules was written by S.S. Van Dine, who went by “Willard Huntington Wright” when he wasn’t writing detective fiction. The rules start out reasonable enough, talking about how the author must play fair and provide all necessary clues. Then it makes some questionable blanket statements about what all mysteries must do — there must be just one detective, the crime must always be murder and “there must be no love interest.” By Rule 16, Dine is insisting that mysteries must have “no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations.” 

It comes off more like a nerd complaining about stories he dislikes than as a professional guide. 

Willard H. Wright, literary editor of the Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

“Rule number 21 is to RESPECT THE FANS.”

Rule number 11 says, “A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.” Imagine a mystery about the murder of a family patriarch. We spend the story with various family members, learning their motives and puzzling over where each of them were at the time of the murder. Then at the end, the detective points his finger at a footman, who had access to the room but whom the story spent no time on. It’s not a very satisfying solution. 

Two years after Dine published that list of rules in a magazine, Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote The Door. In this book, the butler did it, and people who’d read Dine’s list noted the violation of Rule 11. However, this was an unfair charge against the book. In pinning the crime on the butler, The Door did nothing wrong. 

The Door Mary Roberts Rinehart


Spoilers, for a 1930 book you otherwise would not have read.

The butler is the murderer in this book, but he’s not just “the butler.” He’s Joseph, a significant character. He kills people outdoors and in homes other than the one where he works, so being the butler isn’t some magic solution that makes everything easy. 

At one point, the narrator destroys evidence implicating a suspect, and Joseph catches her, then conspires with her. Also, after four people turn up dead, some unseen attacker shoots Joseph. He plays such a big role in the book that he’s as worthy a culprit as anyone else. 

The Door Mary Roberts Rinehart

Farrar & Rinehart

They even stick him in a list of suspects. They played fair here.

If you want to poke fun at this book, it does some other weird stuff, which you might say “breaks the rules.” For starters, there’s the title, which means nothing in particular until the characters discuss a door roughly 10 pages before the ending of the story. Then there’s how the murderer’s identity is revealed in the second-to-last sentence of the whole book. The detective explains the entire case while using a pseudonym for the murderer, then he finally reveals that this killer is Joseph, the narrator faints, and the book ends. 

The Door Mary Roberts Rinehart

Farrar & Rinehart

No long descriptive passages. S.S. Dine would be proud. 

But the simple fact that this murder was a servant, that the murderer was the butler? That’s not a flaw in the story. 

Dine’s rules laid out a few other solutions that he says stories should never use. The death should never be revealed to be an accident, he said, or a suicide. The detective must never be the culprit. There must never be multiple culprits. The solution must not involve the killer committing the murder after the police have broken into the crime scene. In reality, great detective stories have used all these solutions after Dine forbade them. Maybe we needn’t be so scared of turning to clichés, just because one guy a hundred years ago said they’re bad. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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