(Featured Image – from Warm Bodies. I love that movie #sorrynotsorry. The book is pretty good too, pick it up here.)
Like any other body of work, horror has clichés. The most lampooned are the movie ones, but there are over-used tropes in horror writing as well.
All of them can be done, so write away, but unless you want your readers to predict each and every plot twist before it happens you’ll have to work hard to think up some new angles.
Each trope is accompanied by a book that defies the cliché for your reading pleasure. Let’s have some fun diving into them, slippery guts and all.
1.Don’t Do The Thing!
Before you even crack the cover you know they’re going to do the thing. Without the innocent lambs doing stupid things to start the whole bloody chain of events there would be no book. This is so ingrained in the public psyche now that it’s trickier than ever to write it and not let the reader spot it coming from miles away.
What sort of cut-rate demon leaves a blood-stained book detailing exactly how to summon it out in the middle of a creepy, deserted house anyway?
disposable crewmen main characters could find it it would be chewed up by mice, infested with earwigs, rained on, gone moldy with pages rotted out and pretty much useless to summon anything but a bad virus.
Perhaps instead of suspiciously convenient methods to summon trouble the bloodthirsty monster could just show up because they’re in the mood for guts. It might be scarier if the main characters were in the middle of it all without doing anything to bring it on themselves.
Book recommendation: find the creepy masterpiece that is Hex (by Thomas Olde Heuvelt) for a fresh take on this trope.
I’m sorry to have to type this one because Zombies are scary. Straight-up unstoppable with built-in gore and extreme tension story drivers. Unfortunately, everyone and their sweet little grandma jumped on this gravy train after they came roaring back out of the ground and into cultural awareness in the early 2000’s.
Now it’s been done so much that it has become a hamster-wheel of a plot and the only reason to read the books is to find out if you can predict who will make it with any accuracy. I will never say that no more authors should touch this plot, but it’s going to take some serious fancy word work to avoid all of the ways this has already been done.
Book recommendation: zombies in space Star Wars mashup – Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber. Reviewers said it was a unique, genuinely scary take on the genre. Our resident horror fan and fellow blog author Jer recommends the prequel novel Red Harvest as well.
3. Because Reasons.
The killer is evil. Why? Because they’re psychotic. But . . . why are they psychotic? Because they’re evil. Alrighty then. No backstory it is. Evil must be an all-purpose verb and noun wrapped into one gore-drenched package that requires no explanation.
The Evil will come and do its thing, the helpless characters in the book will get picked off in approved target fashion, because this is a horror novel and that’s all you need to know.
Book recommendation: in his novel “The Terror“, Dan Simmons does this so well you don’t even question the lack of backstory for the demon. Plus, it’s based on actual historical events so that it seems like there’s a reason for the monster and by the time you realize the Evil is just evil for no reason other than the body count, it’s too late. You’ve been sucked in and can’t stop reading.
4. Don’t Kill Us, We’ll Kill You.
At least once you’ve stabbed the Evil right in the heart with the special blessed blade and then beheaded it and then burned it and then chugged some holy water and then stomped on the ashes a little bit it’s gone. Right?
Making it so Evil that it can’t ever be killed, just so you can pump out sequels, would be totally unfair and transparent. I mean, the Halloween movies have turned this trope into a predictable franchise. So no writer would ever do that, right? *Hits you over the head with your own keyboard so you won’t do that with your series*
Book recommendation: “Reincarnage” by Ryan Harding and Jason Taverner. It got great reviews and might be worth a try if you’re into a celebration of 80’s slasher films meets cabin in the woods with a killer who can’t be finished off.
5. The Consequences-are-for-other-people Science Experiment.
Extra points if the stupid science lover behind it all says something like, “Morals are for lesser beings. Today, I am God!” followed by being proven 100% wrong as their creation kills off dozens before chomping them down in as lingering a death as possible so they have time to reflect on things like hubris.
Frankenstein is coming up on its 200th birthday. Michael Crichton made an entire writing career off of this trope in the 1980s, and it turned into multiple blockbuster movies. By now we should all be aware of what happens when you start messing with things beyond your ken, especially when you’re an amoral money-grubber just doing it for the payout.
It is super satisfying to read about the creator of all the mayhem getting what they deserve, though, I admit I’d like to find more of these. I just don’t envy the writer who has to add their own twist to this.
Book recommendation: “Invasive” by Chuck Wendig. Full disclosure; I follow and love Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terribleminds, and totally recommend his books for horror fans.
6. Authority Knows Nothing. Children and Crazy People Know Everything.
The walls could be gushing blood but you know Mr. Sturdy and Sensible Father Figure will keep insisting it’s nothing a good plumber couldn’t fix. And monsters apparently have mommy issues, because the instant mom comes in the room they will disappear until it’s time to pop up and eat her disbelieving ass.
As for running to Mr. Policeman for help, forget it. That’s just a good way to let the Evil find your whiny self faster because they have super special senses that tingle whenever Authority is present and you just got Mr. Policeman killed by doing that.
On the other hand, the poor kid who didn’t choose to move into the haunted house knows precisely what’s going on. If they say they’ve got an imaginary friend run-don’t-walk and scatter that salt like you’re at a Ke$ha concert, man.
And the local wild-eyed hermit knows the exact origin story of the haunting, don’t let his toothless recital close your ears to his life-saving mumbles. Ever read about murderous Evil haunting something outdoors, like a rhododendron bush? No, you have not, and that’s why he’s homeless in the first place.
Book recommendation: “The Sentinel” by Jeffrey Konvitz. Read this 1970s classic and remember that the old ones are the good ones for a reason.
Special Extra Bonus Round
Getting Stephen King to write a blurb for your book. On the one hand, I totally understand the need for validation from the master himself. It must be the most amazing feeling. On the other hand, 6 out of every 10 books I looked at for this article had a blurb from the King. It’s now a trope.