There’s no scarcity of online resources advising authors on horror tropes to avoid, so it is perhaps ironic that I’m about to add to the subject with a post that might not contribute anything original. But hey – it’s my soapbox, and I’ll say what I wanna.
Back in 2012 I posted a list of character clichés that I see too often in the slush pile. This list adds to the ever-expanding list of things I see in horror fiction that are likely to make me pull a Simon Cowell. (My apologies to any author who pioneered these tropes. Imitation is the sincerest form or flattery, or so they say.)
- The protagonist regains consciousness after a car crash.
The general advice in all types of fiction is to avoid starting a story with someone coming to or waking up. Not sure that I’d go so far as to issue a blanket warning against all such story starters (especially since I’ve had published more than one story starting this way). It’s just that, with such a common beginning, the author might want to consider if the rest of the story concept is equally derivative.
- The protagonist walks into a strangely deserted convenience store.
I don’t understand why or how this has become novice writer shorthand for “some seriously scary shit is about to go down”. If someone can explain it to me, please come forward.
- The protagonist is dead, but doesn’t know it.
Again – I have done this. Quite recently, in fact. But in my defense, my story has the protagonist – and the audience – become aware of this fact halfway through the story. It’s not a “gotcha!” ending, and the story has a different reason for being other than to reveal the protagonist’s demise. If this is the only point of your story, it’s not likely to be a strong contender for publishing.
- The protagonist goes to some version of Hell for his misdeeds.
A variation on the revenge story which is very rarely executed originally or well.
- Something bad happens to a lawyer.
- A Satanic ritual goes wrong.
Uh duh. Those things are designed to go wrong.
- A reclusive author/grieving person retreats to a cabin in the woods/by a lake/in the woods AND by a lake.
Bonus cliché points if the lake contains something eeeevil.
- Zombies in a supermarket.
See “strangely deserted convenience store”.
- Protagonist kills him/herself rather than become zombie fodder.
Zombie stories in general, much like vampire and werewolf stories, are hard to write with originality because they’re so popular in horror fiction. This is just one zombie cliché best avoided.
- A devil (or The Devil) delivers a monologue that is meant to be funny (but usually isn’t).
Usually these stories have the devil complaining about his working conditions. Because overworked demons are hilarious. And terrifying. Or something like that.
I’d love to hear your own undergarment-shredding pet peeves when it comes to horror fiction.