Storyville: Avoiding Tropes in Horror
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 pap? Well, I offer up a few suggestions. Let’s take a look.
One of the reasons I tell people to read constantly is so they know what’s been done, what’s come before them, and what’s been beaten to death. It may be hard for you to avoid tropes if you haven’t read a lot of stories and novels. If you’re a horror writer, you should have read the masters, like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Jack Ketchum. There is nothing worse than sitting down and coming up with a brilliant idea only to find out it’s been done a million times already. So take the time to educate yourself on horror. And that goes beyond the obvious choices, the people I just mentioned. Look at authors like Cormac McCarthy, Dennis Lehane, or William Gay—they create terrifying environments, and narratives that aren’t your typical horror stories.
DO THE OPPOSITE
The first thing you can do when writing horror stories is to do the opposite. If you come across a character, plot, or setting that feels clichéd or too familiar—run in the opposite direction. Feel like all horror has to happen at night? Show us your story in the light of day. Feel like you have to write a vampire story? Search for a less familiar monster, like the Wendigo or Bunyip. Do you see your protagonist as a strong, fearless white man? Recast him as a shy little Hispanic girl. When you start to head in the other direction, it really changes the expectations, and allows you to write unique stories, with original characters.
So, one of the most overused characters in horror is the vampire, right? But, there is a wide range of traits and appearances when it comes to their history and behavior. That’s why you need to read the books, or watch the films. Nosferatu is different than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is different than King’s Salem’s Lot. And of course there are the more current examples such as True Blood and Twilight—or perhaps Let the Right One In. If the conventions of vampires are blood, crosses, garlic, caskets, fear of sunlight, and immortality, how can you tweak it? I wrote a short story called “Transmogrify” and my protagonist didn’t feed off of blood, she survived on the sorrow and suffering of others. She was an “energivore” and she surrounded herself with sad, lonely people, and fed off of that misery. You could find a way to bring technology into your story, maybe nanotechnology. Change the “food” they need to survive, and the ways they live and move around. Find a way to evolve your vampires, and you’ll evolve your story.
Another way to innovate and avoid a trope is to alter the form. I’ve seen some really compelling meta-fiction that tapped into classic horrors such as haunted houses and demons, in books like House of Leaves and Raw Shark Texts. Even Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted used the structure of the book to essentially showcase a short story collection, breaking it down into isolated moments with each character, where each perspective has a unique short story to tell.
Another way to break out of the standard expectations of your characters and settings is by using diverse people and environments. Obviously, if you’re a straight, white male, like myself, it may require a bit of research, but take the time to understand different cultures, languages, and people, and it could add layers of depth and originality to your stories. Take a look at how Japanese literature and film has invaded our culture. Films like The Ring and Oldboy, or authors like Haruki and Ryu Murakami provide an interesting take on history, daily life in Japan, and the Japanese culture. How would your story change if your protagonist were African-American? What if they were Pakistani? Each culture has its own rich history, something that can be tapped into, showcasing unique myths and legends that may not be common to Western audiences. If nothing else, let their cultures, myths, and legends influence your choices.
Look at the age and sex of your protagonist and secondary characters. How does the story change if the traditional role of hero is a woman or little girl? Take traditional gender roles, and flip them. Can the husband be the stay-at-home caregiver, can the nurse be a man, can the marine be a woman? Of course they can. Find new ways to mix it up instead of the same old 25-35-year-old white men and women. When was the last time you put an old man in your story? How would that change the plot, the history and experience he might be able to share with your audience?
[NOTE: I wrote this column back in 2014. So I wanted to clarify and update this for 2020. Yes, for sure look to diversify your cast, but do your research. And if you are writing as a protagonist that is not YOU, here's my advice—write ABOUT them, but never speak FOR them. What do I know about being a lesbian Muslim teenager in Bangladesh? Nothing. I can write to the experiences she might be going through, though—loneliness, abuse, addiction, the supernatural, or losing my virginity. I can write to some similar aspects, but I would never speak FOR her. I hope that makes sense. Or consider putting diversity into your secondary characters, that's an option, too.]
So, this may seem kind of obvious, but how about playing with the plot? If you’ve enjoyed a lot of books, television shows, and films, then you probably can see most plots and their twists coming a mile away. The boy? Yeah, he’s already dead. The new food source? Right, Soylent Green IS people. As you’re working your way through your story or novel, be open and prepared to end someplace differently. I’m not talking about a hard twist at the end, although that can work. The Sixth Sense, The Village, Gone Girl, Fight Club, Shutter Island, Inception—there are a million examples. Just look at your story as you’re working your way though it, and see if there’s an opportunity. Is your trope “average Joe steps up to be the hero and saves the town?” How can you twist that? Maybe he doesn’t save the town, or at least, not at first. Maybe he loses the girl, and becomes the monster he was trying so hard to defeat, filling that role and niche, for all of eternity. Just keep an open mind, and you’ll be surprised. When writing my second novel, Disintegration, as I worked my way toward the end, I kept looking at my options for the unnamed protagonist's family. Are they alive, are they dead, do they remember him, do they not know him, do they care, do they not care? I had no idea. I had one ending in mind, talked to my wife, and changed it. Then, in polishing it up with my editor, Dana Isaacson, at Penguin Random House Alibi, we changed it again. It really makes the ending feel much different, the journey worth the time and effort, and it’s not quite as bleak. See what you can do. (NOTE UPDATED FOR 2021: And also look at anime, innovative series like Black Mirror or Tales From the Loop, and trending shows like Squid Game and Midnight Mass, or films like The Green Knight or Saint Maud.)
Similar to diversity in character, how about adding some diversity to your setting? I don’t just mean set your story in Russia or Mexico or India, although that can work, too. If you are writing a haunted house story, what’s the first thing you think of? Probably an old, abandoned house, shrouded in darkness, right? What’s next? Insane asylum? Hospital? Cabin in the woods? Come on, you can do better. Come Closer by Sara Gran, one of my favorite books on possession, is mostly in the light of day, in her office, and then her home, but it’s definitely not the same classic setting. Instead of isolating your protagonist, perhaps you should make it happen surrounded by people who don’t see it, or can’t help. Mix it up. [The same goes for my co-written story, "Golden Sun," which is in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 11—daytime, beach, vacation, family, sun, sand, together. How did we make it scary? You'll have to read it to see!]
MYTHOLOGY AND HISTORY
A great way to defy expectations is to do a little research into various mythologies, histories, and urban legends. There are TONS of tales and monsters that are uncommon, whether you source Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, African, or American fairytales and archetypes. I wrote a story called, “Gandaberunda,” a bit of flash-fiction horror. I wanted a unique creature, something I hadn’t seen before, something that flew. So I started digging around and ran across this weird creature. Hell, I titled the story with its name, because I figured most people had never heard of it before. How cocky is that? From Wikipedia: “The Gandaberunda is a two-headed mythological bird of Hindu mythology thought to possess magical strength.” It was exactly the kind of weird, unique monster that allowed me to write this story. The more I studied its behavior, eating habits, and appearance, the more the story appeared to me.
There’s a great resource out there called TV Tropes. Be sure to check it out, not only for story ideas, but to find ways to tweak and alter your own narratives. You have to know the rules, before you can break them. You have to study the expected, before you can create the unexpected.
I’M NOW GOING TO CONTRADICT MYSELF
So, you should always avoid writing a trope, right? No. Not necessarily. It’s probably going to be impossible to write a story or novel that is 100% original. You are going to tap into formulas, characters, settings, and stories that have probably already been used a million times over. So why did I write this stupid article, then? Because you can still work hard to find a way to be more original, to innovate, to breathe fresh air into the same old narratives. Take a look at True Detective (Season One). Sure, it was based on a lot of other work that was already out there, in popular culture, or obscure texts, but didn’t it FEEL fresh, new and original? It did. Part of that was the voice of the characters, part of it was the acting, and part of it was the look and feel of the show. And that ending!
That’s where you come in. YOU are what’s original. YOU are the voice that nobody else has, or ever will have. When I say to avoid writing horror tropes, I think what I’m really saying here is avoid the expected, the common, and the unoriginal. Find a way to make it your own, through language, setting, plot, character, and resolution. In the end, if you push yourself, I think you’ll find that what you create will really resonate with your audience.
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