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How to Avoid Clichés When Writing Horror

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Horror is a popular genre for novels, short stories, and film, due in part to masterful horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and Stephen King. While it may feel like every horror story has already been done, there are plenty of ways to play with the genre that can give it new and refreshing ways to scare audiences.



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7 Common Horror Tropes

Good horror stories can still follow a formula, but great horror stories make it their own. Common horror tropes include:

  1. Nightmare on Halloween. The one day of the year where the dead walk the earth is a prime set up for any ghost story.
  2. Conjuring evil. A demon or evil spirit is summoned via a game (like a Ouija Board) or reading of an incantation, leading to a possession or haunting that wreaks havoc on the lives of all who played or dare get involved.
  3. Found footage. Movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, which feel like regular people recording unexplainable real-life events from a handheld camera, giving the audience an up-close and personal account of a terrifying ordeal from the main character’s own point of view.
  4. Alone in a dark house. Abandoned or haunted houses are an extremely popular subgenre of horror. Fear of the unknown—what lurks around when the lights go out—is one of the most commonly used tropes in horror. We’ve all seen a character make the bad choice and go down a darkened staircase in a house they’ve never been in. We don’t know what’s down there, but we assume only bad things, and we feel that same pang of anticipation and anxiety.
  5. The bad guy who won’t die. Like Michael Myers in Halloween or the serial killer in Scream, it’s scary to audiences when there’s no way to stop a bad guy, or the false relief of having vanquished them, only to see them come back in the final scene (or next installment in the franchise). Persistent danger and evil leaves your audience on edge, removing the idea that no one is safe, not even after the story ends.
  6. Dead cell phones. They never used to be a problem in the horror world, however, it’s not all that scary when something is chasing a character and they suddenly call 9-1-1 with full bars and are saved by the police. Getting rid of the easy way out allows readers and viewers to come along on the ride with the character, and experience the panic they feel.
  7. Splitting up. Writers love to do this in horror because it’s a chance to get their characters alone. Even against better judgment, characters will venture off to investigate a sound or mysterious presence alone, tapping into a great anxiety for viewers and readers who would most likely not want to be by themselves in a similar situation.

4 Tips for Avoiding Clichés in Your Horror Writing

The horror genre may be riddled with clichés, and using them too frequently can make your readers or audience disinterested with a predictable story.

  1. Read a lot of horror. It’s easy to list all the different kinds of horror tropes you can think of, but in order to get a full picture of all the various spooky stories out there, it’s better to read as much as you can. Diversify your library of horror: if your arsenal of books or movies is mostly gross-out horror or jump-scares, try reading or watching books and movies that deal with paranormal activity or more psychological horrors.
  2. Be true to your own horrors. An aspiring horror writer may try to emulate their own favorite authors of the genre, but oftentimes, scariness only truly reaches it potential when it becomes personal. Like most writing, events or instances that feel real to the creator hit harder than just trying to come up with the next vampire, werewolf, or zombie book.
  3. Change direction. If you feel yourself heading down a familiar path of horror and your twists are too predictable, try going the opposite way. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s horror film Cabin in the Woods uses all the famous horror cliches, but takes them in a completely different direction by introducing a deep, underlying mythology and combining it with parody. Behind the horror movie cliches is clever structure and plot twists that give way to a newer take on a multitude of old ideas, while still maintaining a level of scariness that feels satisfying to many fans of the genre.
  4. Do research. Aside from reading or watching more horror examples, look up old and ancient mythologies. Horror is more than just writing about murdered teens at a summer camp or a new family in a haunted house—research the stories or urban legends behind the trope. Where did they come from? Did it originate in a specific culture? What are other aspects of this trope that you haven’t seen done a lot in other forms of horror media?
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