Writers are often told to write what we know, which isn’t bad advice, necessarily. But one of the things we know are other stories, and when we first start out, we imitate the stories we’ve read and admired—whether consciously or not—and in the process often end up repeating what’s been done before. Shared ideas, character types, settings, and story structures within a genre are called tropes, and there’s nothing wrong with using them, provided you do so well. Unfortunately, when tropes are recycled over and over without anything different being done with them, they become clichés, boring and completely drained of life and energy. Clichés are bad for any fiction, but especially so in horror, which depends heavily on the unknown and surprise to generate fear and suspense.
Following are several of the most common clichés used in horror fiction. Avoid them like the plague (see what I did there?).
Character as prey
This trope might be as old as the human race itself: Person is scared of being killed/eaten by a fearsome predator, person tries to avoid being killed/eaten by said predator, person gets killed/eaten anyway. This story pattern can work well in movies where filmmakers can use actors’ performances, camera angles, lighting, music, and sound to create a tension-filled scene for viewers. But none of those tools are available to the writer of fiction. Sure, we can try to recreate these effects on the page, but they can never have the same impact. This trope doesn’t work at all in short stories. There’s not enough time to get to know the main character, so readers don’t care whether he or she lives or dies. There’s also no room to develop the story in much depth. The trope can work better in a novella or novel, especially if the other characters are getting killed by the predatory force, and the main character is attempting to stop it. Even then, the trope is a simple, lackluster adventure story if we don’t do more with it such as presenting well-developed characters, an interesting setting, a really cool predator, and offering some twists and turns on the basic formula. The film The Grey is a great example of a predator-prey story done well, one that would work as well on the page as on the screen.
The ghost that returns from the afterlife to torment—and then slay—its killer. The homicidal maniac who knows what you did last summer, and intends to make you pay for it with your life. This trope is a variation on the Predator-Prey pattern, with the difference that the predator isn’t seeking to satisfy its bloodlust, but rather its thirst for justice (or at least what it believes to be justice). This trope suffers from the same potential problems as Predatory-Prey: underdeveloped characters, a well-worn, simplistic plot, etc. As with Predator-Prey, putting a spin on the classic pattern can make it fresh again. ParaNorman is a good example of an original take on the trope of ghostly revenge.
The Jaws of Sex
You strike up a conversation with a very attractive person at a bar. You hit it off, and the two of you leave together. You go back to his or her place, start making love, and then he or she eats you/drains your life energy/drinks your blood/devours your soul/cuts your throat. You, my friend, have fallen victim to the Jaws of Sex. This trope is a variation of Predator-Prey, but it lacks the chase aspect, and since the victim is entirely unaware of any danger until the end, he or she doesn’t have the opportunity to fight back or attempt escape. In other words, the story is boring (and it’s never really a surprise to your readers anyway). Again, character development and a fresh spin are your defenses against this trope. The movie Spring is an excellent example of the Jaws of Sex done well.
I’ve been dead all along!
This trope is used when a writer wants to blow people’s minds with what they think is an incredible twist ending. The main character—who may be a first-person narrator—discovers at the end of the story that he was really dead the entire time. The most well-known example of this is probably M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. It’s a good movie, but after seeing a preview in which Haley Joel Osment’s character looks straight at Bruce Willis’ character and says, “I see dead people,” I knew exactly what the “big twist” was going to be. And even if the audience doesn’t guess the twist ahead of time, the problem with twists at the end of the story is that they can no longer have an effect on the story because it’s over. And like the other clichés I’ve talked about so far, there’s a danger of thinking the twist will do all the heavy lifting in a story so you don’t need to develop any other aspects, such as characterization. Better to use this trope not as a surprise ending but in ways that change the entire story. Examples of this trope done well: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, the classic film Sunset Boulevard, and the excellent ghost story movie The Others.
I’ve been a monster/killer the whole time—and I didn’t know it!
The unsuspecting person who blacks out during a full moon and doesn’t know he or she’s a werewolf. Someone who doesn’t know that they are in truth the antichrist. Used as merely another variation on the twist ending, this trope is as tired as the others on this list. The audience is usually way ahead of the character and already knows he or she is the monster/killer, and they have to keep reading and watching (with increasing impatience) until the story finally admits the truth. Like the other twists, this trope works best if it’s woven into the story much earlier. What if everyone else—including the reader—knows the character is a werewolf but he or she doesn’t? How would your story play out then? A fantastic example of an original version of this trope is the film You Might Be the Killer. An older version is the 1958 movie How to Make a Monster, in which a crazed Hollywood makeup man hypnotizes a pair of stuntmen into believing they’re real monsters who will kill for him.
A last bit of advice: Just because a trope is a cliché doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find a way to make it work for you as is. Look at the novel and movie Psycho. It’s a classic example of I’ve Been a Monster/Killer the Whole Time, and it works beautifully. But if you want to give your stories the greatest chance for success, consider taking these old tropes into new and exciting territory.
Your readers will thank you for it.
Tim Waggoner is the author of over fifty novels and seven short-story collections, Tim has won the Bram Stoker Award, and has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Scribe Award, and the Splatterpunk Award. A full-time tenured professor, he teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. Tim recently published a book on writing horror fiction called Writing in the Dark.