Friday, June 25, 2010

10 cliches horror writers should try to avoid

  • The unstoppable serial killer: Or maybe all serial killers altogether. Really, it's been done. A billion times. Both onscreen and in novels and short stories. If you believe your serial killer is unique and interesting, you're probably wrong. If you don't believe me, ask an editor at just about any horror magazine that accepts fiction, because they'll likely tell you've they've read tons upon tons of stories featuring serial killers, each more boring or banal than the one before. Serial killers have become so common in fiction they've actually become the good guys in some tales; Thomas Harris' Hannibal and Jeff Lindsay's Dexter are tribute to that. Of course it's not impossible some author out there could come up with some new, interesting serial killer, but it's not likely any time soon. Think outside the box on this one if you decide to go the serial killer route in your fiction.

  • Vampires: Much like serial killers, and maybe even more so, vampires have been overdone. In fact, vampires have been so overdone that they're no longer scary. They've become fantasy creatures that offer us immortality at a price many of us seem willing to accept, drinking the blood of our enemies. Vampires have become to horror what elves have become to fantasy: Boring. Again, it's not impossible some writer out there could come up with a great vampire story, but I'm not going to put money on it.

  • Zombies: I love zombies. Really, I do. But they've been done. Zombies haven't quite yet become as common or boring as vampires or serial killers in fiction, but they're getting darn close. If you believe you've got a unique zombie story, you probably don't. But that doesn't mean you have to give up. As always, think outside of the box. Try something new. Don't go over the same ground a thousand other writers have already tred.

  • The thingie won't work!: This one is more common in cinema, but I've seen it in fiction also. What am I talking about? It's the cell phone that doesn't work. Or the car that won't start. Or the gun that won't operate. It's some device that somehow, for some reason, won't work just when the good guys need it. It's been done. To the point of straining the readers' believability. Try something else.

  • It's dead. No it's not!: This is another one you see in horror movies all the time, but it's cropped up more than a few times in horror stories. I'm talking about the bad guy who gets whacked by the good guys, then rises up again, usually immediately or soon after being whacked. Save the bad guy's return for the sequel, if there's going to be one. Otherwise, this is another element that strains the believability of the reader. We've all seen it done. We know it's going to happen. Surprise us by not letting it happen.

  • The cop or the soldier: Here I'm talking about the good guys, or at least one of the good guys. In way, way too many horror tales, especially ones involving a stranded group besieged by some monster or other, one of the good guys always seems to be an ex-cop or an army vet or at least a security guard. He (and yes, it's always a he) is the one who knows how to use the gun. He's the one who takes action while the others are frightened. He's also the one who usually ends up getting whacked, often by sacrificing himself, just so the writer can show how tough his or her bad guy really is. This character is also the one who usually, suddenly turns out to be an expert in explosives, firearms, hand-to-hand combat or whatever, even though they've only had basic training or had a class one semester. It comes off as silly and sloppy writing. Find another character, please, preferably one that's more believable.

  • Guns: There are all kinds of cliches concerning firearms in horror writing. There are the guns that always jam at the most important times. The guns that run out of ammo too soon. The guns that never seem to run out of ammo. Then, often, there's the lack of guns in a horror novel or short story. I'm sorry, but if some big, bad monster is ripping apart my neighbors in my town, I'm probably going to arm myself and not wait around for the cops or army or local hero to show up. Yes, some people don't like guns, but I'd bet many of them would suddenly like guns if a werewolf were kicking in their door. Please be realistic about this one. Guns shouldn't be overlooked, but they also shouldn't populate a horror story so much it becomes a Rambo tale.

  • Lack of religion: Religion is a touchy subject, so it's common many writers shy away from it. I'm not talking about religious horror tales here, because they are out there. What I'm talking about are your traditional, mainly secular, horror tales. There's hardly ever any mention of religion in them, unless there's a demon from a hell, a religious person who has become a fanatic or some nice, trite little mention of religion. The truth is, when people get really, really scared, they often turn to God or faith or whatever they were taught to believe in their younger days. It might be nothing more than a quick prayer, but I often feel religion is an aspect of horror fiction that's way overlooked in any believable manner.

  • Weather and time of day: Fog. Storms. Dark clouds. Midnight. Darkness. How about a monster that shows up in the bright of a summer day and rips you a new one? I guess zombies might qualify. Still, bad things don't always happen at night and far too much horror doesn't reflect this. There's always some killer or monster slurking around at night, but you don't see nearly as many terrors chopping off heads and chomping on body parts at noon time. It might be nice to see, mainly because it would be more believable.

  • Insanity: This one is right up there, especially since it's related to serial killers who often are portrayed as insane. But do we really need another short story where in the end it turns out the protagonist was just crazy? Hitchcock did it with Psycho half a century ago, and since then every horror writer has been trying to emulate it. It's been done. Get over it. Check, please? Time to move on.


    C. Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

    I saw your posts on Joe's blog, and I had to come over and take a peek. What a wonderful, well designed blog.

    The 10 cliches you wrote about could apply to most genres-- I just read the entire Inheritance saga by Christopher Paolini (yes, I know-- it's juvenile and I read the series like a crackhead-- three books in a week, up until midnight).

    All the cliches you mentioned in this blog post were in ALL those books-- repeatedly. And I still enjoyed them. Yes, I knew they were cliches when I was reading them, but I still thought the books were fun to read.

    The real question is-- does the public LIKE cliches? It seems like this list is a recipe for a bestseller. Sad, isn't it?

    Ty Johnston said...

    Thanks for the comments. And I've read the first two of Paolini's books, and will eventually get around to the third. They were okay, though admittedly not great literature. I wish him success. Too many are jealous of the fact he struck it big at such a young age and had help from his parents.

    And yep, the public likes cliches, as long as those cliches are done well, or at least are marketed well. That's why vampires keep cropping up again every few years.

    Anonymous said...

    H̶i̶t̶c̶h̶c̶o̶c̶k̶ did it with Psycho half a century ago, and since then every horror writer has been trying to emulate it.

    *Robert Bloch

    Joseph Stefano would also be passable.