Writing Horror: Cliches to Avoid (Maybe. Probably)
Updated: Jun 19
Cliches have been an ongoing debate in most fiction genres throughout time, but as somebody who reads, watches and thinks about horror a lot, I tend to notice it way more in that particular genre.
Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't play with some cliches - that really depends on the type of story you're writing, your target audience, the publication you're writing for, etc. But there are some cliches that can make your story predictable and less impactful, and many readers will spot them from a mile away.
Below is a handful of cliches that could leave your audience rolling their eyes (or worse - closing your story!).
Characters splitting up
Having characters split up in dangerous situations has become an overused trope in horror. Instead, explore different ways for your characters to face the horror together, increasing their chances of survival and creating more compelling dynamics. If your characters are struggling to survive the monsters while working together, they don't have a chance in hell of surviving it if they split up - so why would they even consider doing that?
If you insist on splitting them up during a moment of great tension, perhaps have it as an unavoidable plot point (e.g. the monster grabs one and drags them away to a place where the other characters can't follow).
Predictable plot twists
I'm talking about things like the it was all a dream plot twist, if you can even call it that. Sadly the it-was-all-a-dream trope is so overused that it's not exactly much of a twist anymore, more of an annoyance for your readers. Face it, your readers have been with the story right up to the end, they've become invested in the plot, the character's struggles and motivations, the action. To find out it was all a dream will leave them feeling cheated, and like all that tension was for nothing. Any sacrifices made during the story will lose impact. The monsters become, well, not scary.
Another one is the "Twist on the Twist" twist. In this case, the story presents an initial twist, only to subvert it later with another unexpected turn. For example, a character who appears to be the main villain is revealed to be a red herring, and the true antagonist emerges later. While this can add complexity to the narrative, it has become a common technique that some viewers may anticipate.
Don't forget the "Final Girl" twist. This involves the revelation that the seemingly weak or vulnerable female character (often the last survivor) possesses hidden strengths or supernatural abilities that help her defeat the antagonist. While this twist can still be effective when written well, its overuse has made it somewhat predictable.
Then there's the "Supernatural Explanation" twist. This one is often used in supernatural horror and it involves providing a rational explanation for the supernatural occurrences, such as hallucinations, mental illness, or scientific experimentation, etc. While this twist can be effective when done cleverly, it has become more predictable because of its regular use in the genre.
The haunted house
Haunted houses are a classic horror setting, but they have been extensively used. If you choose to include a haunted house, try to bring unique elements or a fresh perspective to make it stand out from the typical haunted house stories. These are a few typical haunted house cliches that I've seen a gazillion times:
Creepy House with a Dark History: The haunted house is usually an old, decrepit building with a sinister past. It might have been the site of a tragedy, murder, or some other horrific event, which sets the stage for the supernatural occurrences.
Malevolent Spirits or Ghosts: The presence of malevolent spirits or vengeful ghosts is a staple of haunted house cliches. These entities may have unfinished business or seek revenge, tormenting the inhabitants of the house.
Haunted Objects or Possessions: Some haunted house cliches involve specific objects within the house, like cursed artifacts or possessed items. These objects may hold a connection to the spirits or serve as conduits for their malevolent influence.
Climactic Exorcism or Cleansing Ritual: Many haunted house stories culminate in a climactic scene where an exorcism, cleansing ritual, or confrontation with the supernatural entity takes place. This cliché provides a resolution to the haunting and often offers closure.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good vampire / werewolf / zombie story! But for me, it's got to have something new, or at least something not done to death. I recently wrote a vampire story (yet to be published) where the vampire was a metaphor for school bullying taking place online.
You can also try to use lesser-known creatures to keep the reader intrigued, like goblins, mermaids or selkies (yes, they can be scary), dragons, basilisks, gorgons, chimeras, banshees, succubus and incubus. There are a lot.
While gore can be an effective tool in horror, relying solely on excessive blood and violence without proper storytelling can lead to desensitisation. If you focus on creating a sense of dread and fear through atmosphere and psychological elements, by the time your readers get to the gore they'll be primed to find it far scarier.
Again, this one depends a lot on the type of story you're writing. Sometimes people just want the stabbity-stab-stab-splatter and that's totally OK!
Avoid relying on convenient coincidences to move the plot forward or resolve conflicts. It can make the story feel contrived and undermine the tension and suspense you're trying to build. Here are just a few convenient coincidences to be aware of:
Finding Essential Information: This is where a character accidentally stumbles upon a hidden diary, an old newspaper article or a conveniently placed recording that contains vital information about the supernatural threat or reveals a solution to the conflict. These discoveries conveniently provide the characters with the knowledge they need to overcome the horror.
Conveniently Placed Tools or Weapons: The protagonists find exactly what they need in a dire situation. For example, they happen to discover a cache of weapons or tools conveniently located nearby, which enables them to defend themselves against the antagonist or supernatural threat.
Timely Interventions: Just as the main character is about to be captured or killed, a secondary character or unexpected savior appears at the right moment to rescue them. This intervention often comes out of nowhere, saving the protagonist from certain death. I'd far more likely root for somebody who can get themselves out of a hairy situation.
Coincidental Survivors: In situations where the majority of characters are killed off, a survivor or a group of survivors conveniently emerges, allowing the story to continue. The only time this is allowed is in Shawn of the Dead, because it's Shawn of the Dead. OK, OK, I joke! But seriously, this can create a sense of contrivance if their survival seems highly unlikely or if their introduction feels forced.
Conveniently Failed Powers or Abilities: If a supernatural entity or antagonist possesses powerful abilities, there may be instances where those powers suddenly fail or weaken at a crucial moment, conveniently giving the protagonist an opportunity to escape or defeat them.
Coincidental Resolutions: A random event or circumstance conveniently resolves the conflict or destroys the supernatural threat. This could include a sudden change in weather, an accidental triggering of a trap, or a deus ex machina-like intervention that eradicates the antagonist.
Predestined Connections: Characters with connections to the supernatural threat or a past event unknowingly come together in the same location, leading to the revelation or resolution of the horror. These connections can feel contrived if they rely heavily on coincidences or if they strain believability.
Lack of consequences
Not only in horror, but in all genres, it's important to establish and follow through with consequences for the characters' actions. If characters consistently escape unscathed or consequences are absent, it makes the impact of the horror elements feel weak. Here are a few reasons why:
Suspension of Belief: Stories often rely on the audience's willingness to suspend their disbelief. When there are no consequences for characters' actions or events, it can strain that suspension of belief, making it difficult for the audience to fully invest in the story.
Diminished Tension and Stakes: Consequences create tension and raise the stakes in a story. If characters face no real consequences for their choices or actions, the sense of danger and conflict is reduced. Without meaningful consequences there is little at stake for the characters, and this leads to a less compelling narrative.
Unrealistic Character Development: Consequences are essential for character growth and development. When characters face the repercussions of their actions, it gives them room to learn and explore moral and ethical dilemmas.
Lack of Emotional Resonance: Consequences can evoke a range of emotions in the audience, including tension, sadness, satisfaction, etc. When there are no consequences, the emotional impact of the story is, well, pretty much non-existent.
A Weak Narrative Structure: Consequences help shape the narrative structure by creating cause-and-effect relationships and driving the plot forward. They provide obstacles and challenges for characters to overcome, leading to character arcs and narrative progression. Without consequences, the narrative structure can become disjointed or lack direction.
Undermining Theme or Message: Consequences often play a crucial role in conveying themes or messages in fiction. They can highlight the repercussions of certain actions or explore the moral implications of choices. Without consequences, the opportunity to explore these themes or deliver a meaningful message can be lost.
And That's All I've Got (For Now)
Phew, this became a long post! Just remember that these cliches can sometimes work if used in innovative and unexpected ways. The key is to balance familiarity with originality. You don't have to avoid them completely, just use them sparingly and try to do something new with them.
If you have any other horror cliches you'd like to share, do drop me a comment. I would love to hear from you!