Today we’re going to be talking about tropes, and how to avoid them while writing horror stories. What exactly is a trope? Wikipedia says a trope can be described as “…commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.” These are the standard expectations and formulas, and while they aren’t inherently bad, what we’re looking to do here is avoid the common, the normal, the expected, and the bland. How can you change and innovate your writing? How can you write horror stories that are not the same old regurgitated junk? Well, that’s what I’m here to tell you!
The horror genre is something that I’ve always been fascinated with. Luckily, I don’t think I’m the only one. People like to be frightened. If they didn’t, Stephen King wouldn’t have a thousand novels and you wouldn’t find every horror film ever made running on AMC at this time, every year. Seriously. Click over to AMC, I can almost guarantee Halloween, or one of its sequels, is on right now.
For anyone thinking about writing in the horror genre, there are certain situations that, over the years, have been done so often that the audience knows exactly what to expect. Using any of these is fine if you’re being post-modern and ironic as in the Scream series, because you can get the audience laughing as they jump. But if you’re trying for the big scare, here are some situations to avoid, and alternative scenarios to consider.
Pop quiz: how many horror genre climaxes happen in broad daylight? I don’t know the precise answer, but it’s pretty damned low. The same is true for horror in prose or role-playing games. Even though we can’t see the light levels in those stories, the author is usually careful to let us know it’s dark.
This makes sense. Humans can’t see well at night, while many predators can. It’s an environment where we’re at a natural disadvantage. If we had better night vision, this trope probably wouldn’t exist.
While there’s nothing wrong with playing on a biological quirk to create horror, our fear of the dark has clearly crossed into cliche territory. The audience can tell if something scary is going to happen based on the time of day. Stories tie themselves in knots making sure important events only happen at night. Worse, we feel safe in the daytime. We should never feel safe in horror stories!
Humans are also good at creating light, and we’re getting better. Any story set in the modern day has to break a lot of technology to credibly create darkness. It’s doable but doesn’t work for every story.
So, what’s the alternative? A horror that’s most dangerous in the light. Perhaps a creature so twisted that seeing it clearly is a death sentence. A creeping plant menace that needs photosynthesis to snare its prey. A vengeful spirit that was killed at night but manifests in the daylight.
The key is to make the horror too strong to defeat in the light. In order to take it on, characters must cloak themselves in darkness. They’re forced to rely on senses other than sight. This creates its own kind of horror. Even if the monster isn’t as powerful, a character trying to home in on it by the sound of its rasping breath is still pretty damned scared.
Holidays with a difference
Why go on holiday to Disneyland or the Costa del Sol when you can head off to the creepiest, nastiest, most dangerous place imaginable instead? All right, Demon’s Creek or Mass Murder Canyon probably didn’t get their names by chance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a perfectly relaxing stay there! Hilariously, this is often especially true when the holiday in question is meant to be an opportunity to mend a fractured marriage or get over a crushing personal tragedy. “It’ll be a chance to start again,” is sometimes said. No, it won’t. It’ll be a chance to pit your wits against supernatural forces and/or serial killers, with death the certain price if you lose.
Ghosts and ghouls are truly the vainest of entities. They certainly spend enough time staring at themselves in mirrors. You know the score: the unsuspecting protagonist, bumbling around in a seemingly empty room, just happens to glance into a mirror, only to see a ghost staring back at him. Quite why the spirits of the restless dead would want to do this is unclear, but why let logic ruin a striking image?
Many children have imaginary friends, of course, but really, if your kid’s new invisible chum is a seventeenth century tobacco merchant called Josiah, it’s time to move.
Never, ever rely on authority figures
There’s a strong anti-authoritarian streak in the horror genre. Authority figures – be they teachers, doctors, policemen, priests or parents – are at best incompetent and at worst malign.
Out of the mouths of babes
If educated, level-headed professionals are doomed to be humiliated in horror stories, then the reverse is true for the people you’re least likely to trust in real life, especially children and eccentrics. Children will cotton on to the truth long before their dullard parents, but the local eccentric is the person you really need to listen to. He/she is not deranged after all, you see. In fact, he/she knows exactly what is going on. If he/she tells you not to go near that house in the woods, then man, you’d better pay attention.
“I’m going to investigate!”
Closely related to those other horror tropes, “Let’s split up!” (let’s not; there’s safety in numbers), and “I’ll be right back!” (er, no you won’t). Yes, those weird sounds in your cellar or outside your lonely cabin in the woods could be a monster or an axe-wielding maniac, but why barricade yourself in your bedroom or call the police when you can grab a torch and go to take a look yourself? Happy hunting, feeble human!
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 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.
The thingie won't work
This is more common in the movies, 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.
Well, that’s all I have for you. Horror is better when it’s not predictable. Even leaving aside how many of these clichés are harmful, the fact that they’re clichés is enough to ditch them. Audiences are more terrified when they don’t know what’s going to happen next. Ultimately, Horror stories are filled with clichés that you have to be careful to avoid. While it's easy to make the story feel creepy by having a car break down or a key that won't fit into a lock, those situations have been overdone. There are plenty of things in the world that are more terrifying than getting stranded on the side of the road or locked out of the house (trust me I know) --you just have to think of them. If you like what you see be sure to subscribe to my blog. If you have any questions or writing topics you’d like me to talk about in a future blog post, drop me a line on my FaceBook page or Twitter @d_vanalst. Until next time, happy writing everyone.