One of the criticisms of genre fiction is that it primarily copies other authors’ work, and there’s some degree of truth to this. Every genre has its major writers who paved the way for the rest of us, writers whose work is original and influential. Some are sui generis, and some work within a chosen genre and transcend it. To mention a few . . . Horror: Shelley, Poe, Stoker, Lovecraft, Jackson, du Maurier, Bradbury, Bloch, Matheson, King, Rice, Straub, Barker, Campbell, Ketchum, and Ligotti. Mystery: Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers, Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane, Stout, Gardner, Highsmith, Rendell, and Block. Science Fiction: Verne, Wells, Burroughs, Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Herbert, Clarke, Dick, and Gibson. Fantasy: Baum, Howard, Tolkien, Le Guin, Lewis, Pratchett, Gaiman, and Martin. Romance: Austen, Radcliffe, the Brontes, Steel, Roberts, Jenkins, and Sparks. Western: Grey, L’Amour, Cather, Portis, and McMurtry.
(Don’t yell at me if your favorite author isn’t listed, especially for Romance and Western, since I’m not as well read in those genres as I am the others.)
These writers employ individual styles, tropes, and themes in their writing, and if the tropes are shared ones – such as first contact with an alien civilization – they do something different with them, something that’s an expression of their own creativity and not merely echoes of others’ work. But that’s the main tension in genre writing: individual work vs generic, especially when it comes to commercial fiction. Be too individual and your sales suffer, be too generic and your work will have little impact (and probably not sell very well either). The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, of course, producing work that no one else but you could write but which also clearly belongs to a recognizable genre. It would take me an entire book to talk about how a writer can accomplish that (seemingly) miraculous feat. (And for Christ’s sake, don’t tell John Edward Lawson and Jennifer Barnes at Raw Dog Screaming Press I said that! If you do, next thing I know, I’ll be signing a contract for Writing Original Horror in the Dark.)
But I can choose one element of horror writing that I think will have the most immediate impact on your fiction to talk about – and that’s avoiding and reworking clichés.
A genre has a collective group of character types (both protagonist and antagonist), setting types, story types, etc. These elements are called tropes, and they’re the shared tools genre writers use in their work. In Horror, an abandoned graveyard is a setting trope. A curious, naïve, and ultimately doomed scholar is a character trope. You get the idea. Tropes are effective when they’re first created/used in a story, but the 3000th time? Not so much. (This is one of the reasons readers can get sick of a genre. When they first start reading in it, all the tropes are new to them, and thus interesting and exciting. But after they read a number of books in the genre, they start to realize that the same old tropes are used all the time, and they get bored.) There’s a word for an overused trope that has lost its power and impact.
This is the reason that old pros like me advise new writers to read widely in their chosen genre and seek out the best, most original work via reviews and word of mouth. (This is one of the most useful functions social media serves – it makes you aware of some really cool shit to check out.)
A word of warning: Know your chosen genre for what it is – and isn’t. Readers of genre fiction often read for the comfort of familiarity. Romance readers expect certain things from a Romance story, especially an HEA (Happy Ever After). Same for Mystery readers. There must be a murder and a solution to that murder in a category Mystery novel. A Western must take place in the Old West (whether a realistic or mythic version). So trying to be super creative and innovative in those genres (at least regarding certain expected elements) is going to be a big fail with publishers and readers. Fantasy should be freer, as the presence of some kind of magic is the only element necessary for a story to be Fantasy, but market-wise, most Fantasy novels are still based on Medieval European culture and myths. Science Fiction and Horror are the genres that allow for the most innovation and originality (which is why I think they often work well when blended together).
Moving on . . .
Once you’ve identified overused tropes, you can avoid including them in your work. Better yet, you can transform them into something new and powerful. Allow me to elucidate.
Choose a New Signifier
One of the most common tropes in horror is darkness/shadows as a signifier of evil or a threat. It makes sense, since not being able to use one of our strongest senses puts us at a huge disadvantage in a dangerous situation. But darkness has been used so often in horror that it doesn’t have much power anymore. Maybe you could choose a different sense to indicate evil in your story. How about cicada song? Or a slight stickiness on surfaces in a place tainted by evil? (A stickiness that gets worse the closer you get to the source of the evil.) Corvids are used as harbingers or servants of evil in horror. What if you used hummingbirds instead?
Reverse a Trope
Haunted houses are often portrayed as old and abandoned. Let’s reverse this trope. Older houses are safe from hauntings/demonic infestations because they gain psychic shielding from the long-term presence of living beings inside them. So only new structures are susceptible to hauntings/demonic infestations. In Frankenstein, a living being is fashioned from parts of the dead. Reverse this: an immortal being who can instantly heal any injury seeks death by trying to find a way to permanently disassemble their body.
Make a Trope Smaller or Bigger
Stephen King goes bigger in Salem’s Lot. Instead of one vampire (as in Dracula) being the threat, we get an entire town of vampires. Go smaller: A man believes there’s a mosquito in his house who drains a significant portion of his blood every night, which is why he’s so tired all the time. Instead of a worldwide apocalypse, what if you wrote about an individual apocalypse, one that affects only a single person (and perhaps anyone connected to that person)?
Use a Trope from Another Genre
One trope from Romance is Enemies to Lovers, a story where the two leads go from . . . well, you get the idea. You can use that trope in any genre. (And you can also reverse that trope, make it smaller or bigger, etc.) Red herrings are a trope in mystery, but they can work great in horror too. (Just don’t write a version of a Scooby Doo mystery where the audience is led to believe the threat is a supernatural being, but it’s always just Old Man Jenkins in a mask.) Horror already does this well. The SF trope of a rogue robot is used in the horror film M3gan, the Horror trope of a ghost/haunting is used in the film Transcendence. This latter example can also work well to illustrate the next technique . . .
Put a Fresh Coat of Paint on an Old Trope
I’ve mentioned this technique before in articles and workshops. Take a trope, distill it down to its core, then create a new “shell” for the trope to make it feel fresh and original. For example, Freddy Krueger is the archetype of a Devil. He’s associated with fire, has a demonic/monstrous appearance, wields a trident in the form of his famous glove, and torments his victims in nightmarish scenarios in another hellish dimension. His original motivation was to punish Elm Street’s children for their parents’ “sin” (burning him to death). Freddy works because he has all the power of a Devil archetype without any of the baggage. Did Wes Craven purposely build Freddy on a Devil archetype or was it just a lucky happenstance? Who knows? Who cares? The point is that Freddy works, and we can learn from his example. Duel takes the human vs monster trope (or, if you prefer, knight vs dragon) and uses a semi truck (with an unseen driver) for the monster and an everyman driver battling it on desert highways. Ricard Matheson created a powerful story (and Spielberg created a powerful film) by stripping the human vs monster trope down to its essence and modernizing it.
Use Elements from Your Life to Create Tropes
I do this a lot. My thinking is that if I use something personal to create a trope, I’ll write a story that no one else on Earth but me could. I almost drowned when I was nine, and water is a common trope in my horror fiction. I don’t consciously plan to use it; it just shows up in my stories from time to time. I try not to rely on it too much, though. I don’t want my own trope to become my own cliché. I also use strange things I observe to create new tropes. One chilly October morning a few weeks ago, I saw someone walking down the street in front of my house in a suburban neighborhood. I went to the window to get a better look, and I saw a person wrapped in a large blue blanket, walking barefoot, toeing leaves in the gutter as they went, sometimes pausing to look down at them motionlessly for a few moments before slowly moving on. The blanket was over their head, and I only saw them from behind, so I have no idea what gender or age the person was. The odds are I was the only horror writer on the planet who saw that. I haven’t used the Blanket Walker in a story yet, but it will make a great version of a mysterious, sinister figure trope – maybe a ghost, maybe an alien, maybe something from another dimension, maybe something else entirely. But however I use it, it will be original (or at least appear original).
Combine Elements from Different Tropes
George Romero’s zombies are a perfect example of this technique. Romero and his writing partner John Russo took several tropes – the classic voodoo zombie, the flesh-eating ghoul, vampiric contagion (passing on the infection to victims), and the monster apocalypse from Matheson’s I Am Legend – and created one of the most powerful and successful horror tropes of the 20th Century. You can do the same. Reduce some tropes to their core essence, throw them in your mental Mixmaster, hit the ON button, and see what you get.
List of Horror Clichés
Following is a list of Horror clichés from fiction and film. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and there’s no order to it. I wrote them down as they came to me or as I found them while researching. These are clichés you should avoid using in your fiction (at least not without putting a fresh, interesting spin on them), but you can use the techniques above to transform these clichés into original ideas to write some kick-ass horror.
If you think of any more Horror clichés, feel free to put them in the comments!
· The priest who’s lost his faith.
· The creepy child.
· Creepy parents.
· The cabin in the woods.
· Hostile locals.
· Occult reference book.
· Not calling the police.
· Stupid reason cell phones don’t work.
· Evil twin.
· The jaws of sex (sex partner kills you).
· Ghost seeking revenge on its killer.
· I’ve been dead all along.
· I’ve been the monster/killer the whole time – and didn’t know it.
· Old haunted house.
· Abandoned asylum/hospital.
· Evil medical professional (doctor, nurse, dentist, etc.).
· Evil psychologist.
· Evil scientist.
· Evil clergy.
· Magic mirrors.
· Evil/dangerous forest.
· The Apocalypse.
· Standard monsters (vampires, werewolves, mummies, etc.)
· Serial killers.
· The sentient animated severed appendage.
· Creepy/killer doll.
· Animals attack.
· Creepy family.
· Mental illness as evil.
· Someone’s physical form, appearance, disability shows evil.
· Evil inanimate object.
· Evil machine.
· The Bad Place.
· Let’s play a game.
· Memory loss.
· Country people are scary.
· Educated people are scary.
· Rich/Upper class people are scary.
· Poor people are scary.
· Homeless people are scary.
· Old people are scary.
· Living shadow.
· Scary town.
· Occult detective.
· Behind the scary door.
· Angels and demons.
· Dark secret.
· Time and/or space loop.
· Last person/people on Earth.
· The one magic (or scientific) weapon that will defeat the evil.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
Let Me Tell You a Story
In Let Me Tell You a Story, I present stories from my own publishing career and use them to illustrate writing techniques and discuss ways writers can improve their own work. It’s a how-to book, but it’s also a career-retrospective short story collection, and a memoir as well.
You can order Let Me Tell You a Story directly from Raw Dog Screaming Press here:
But if you’d prefer to order from Amazon or B&N . . .
Amazon Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Let-Tell-Story-Writing-Dark/dp/1947879642/ref=sr_1_3?crid=2Y27YWQGQQ6QW&keywords=tim+waggoner&qid=1693058194&s=books&sprefix=tim+waggoner%2Cstripbooks%2C140&sr=1-3
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Barnes and Noble Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books/1143990468?ean=9781947879645
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My novel Alien: Prototype appears in The Complete Alien Collection: Symphony of Death alongside two of Alex White’s Alien novels: The Cold Forge and Into Charybdis. This is your chance to get three great Alien stories in one book!
The Atrocity Engine up for Preorder
The Atrocity Engine, the first volume in my new series for Aethon Books, will be out April 30th, 2024, and it’s currently available to preorder. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Men in Black meets Hellraiser in this rollicking mash-up of urban fantasy and cosmic horror from four-time Bram Stoker Award-Winning author Tim Waggoner.
Creatures from dark dimensions infesting your home? Demonic beings trying to drive you insane? Alien gods attempting to destroy your universe?
Just call Maintenance.
This underpaid and overworked secret organization is dedicated to battling forces that seek to speed up Entropy and hasten the Omniverse’s inevitable death.
Neal Hudson is a twenty-year veteran of Maintenance. A surveyor who drives through the streets of Ash Creek, Ohio constantly scanning for the deadly energy known as Corruption. Since the death of his previous partner, Neal prefers to work alone, and he’s not happy when he’s assigned to mentor a rookie.
But they better learn to get along fast.
The Multitude, a group of godlike beings who seek to increase Entropy at every opportunity, are creating an Atrocity Engine. This foul magical device can destroy the Earth, and they don’t care how many innocent lives it takes to build it. (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot!)
Just another day on the job. . .
I don’t believe all the order links are up yet, but here’s what’s available so far:
Lord of the Feast
My new horror novel is available for preorder. It’s due out April 16th, 2024.
On of my main goals for Lord of the Feast was to do a dark magic take on a Frankenstein story. The book does connect to many of my other novels via the mythos I’ve created over the years, but you don’t need to have read any other books of mine to enjoy this one.
Twenty years ago, a cult attempted to create their own god: The Lord of the Feast. The god was a horrible, misbegotten thing, however, and the cultists killed the creature before it could come into its full power. The cultists trapped the pieces of their god inside mystic nightstones then went their separate ways. Now Kate, one of the cultists’ children, seeks out her long-lost relatives, hoping to learn the truth of what really happened on that fateful night. Unknown to Kate, her cousin Ethan is following her, hoping she’ll lead him to the nightstones so that he might resurrect the Lord of the Feast – and this time, Ethan plans to do the job right.
Flame Tree Press Paperback and eBook: https://www.flametreepublishing.com/lord-of-the-feast-isbn-9781787586369.html
Barnes & Noble Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lord-of-the-feast-tim-waggoner/1143636012?ean=9781787586369
Scarelastic Book Fair 2: March 2nd. 12pm – 6pm. Scarlet Lane Brewing. 7724 Depot Street, McCordsville, Indiana.
StokerCon 2024. May 30th to June 2nd. San Diego, California.
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