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Fiction - Ten Cliches to Avoid
By William Meikle
For anyone thinking about writing in the horror genre,
there are certain situations that, over the years, have
been done so often that the audience knows exactly what
to expect. Using any of these is fine if you're being
post-modern and ironic as in the Scream series, because
you can get the audience laughing as they jump. But if
you're trying for the big scare, here are some situations
to avoid, and alternative scenarios to consider.
woman alone in the old dark house
She's usually blonde, big breasted and not very bright.
She shouts things like "Who's there?" or
"Is that you Joe?" Then she goes into dark
rooms to see what's in them. Tippi Hedren plays a fine
example in The Birds, as does Jamie Lee Curtis in
Halloween. This scene has been so successfully lampooned
by the Scream series that its going to be hard for anyone
to do it again; but if you must, you'll need to find a
new way of raising the tension. Making the woman blind
has been done, as has having a man being stalked by a
woman. But how about having the stalker existing inside
mirrors, and only able to reach out at arms length. What
happens if he gets a knife?
kid who's Mom isn't Mom any more
The kid says "That isn't my mom" A smug doctor
says, "It's all in your mind kid: The Mom leads the
kid off, and the next day both Mom and the kid give the
doctors far-away stares. This was a staple in 1950's
paranoia flicks like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and
Invaders from Mars, and was given a new lease of life in
Dark Skies. Serious thought is needed to give a new
slant. How about if its the pets that are getting taken
over, and only the kids notice?
experiment gone wrong
They say things like "Morals are for lesser
mortals" and "The ends justify the means"
Then their creation jumps up and bites them. Think of all
the movie versions of Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll and Mr
Hyde and you can't go far wrong. A more recent example
was Beau Bridges in Sandkings, the pilot for the modern
Outer Limits. Anyone planning on using this scenario
should really meet some scientists. Many of them are
weirder than their fictional equivalents, and they
provide great material for stories.
mob of villagers
Sometimes there's a ringleader, such as an old woman
whose grandchild has been killed. Other times there's
just an angry mob shouting "Rhubarb" and waving
torches. Perhaps the best example is actually in a spoof,
Young Frankenstein. How about trying a calm mob? I can't
think of a new way of doing this that would be scary, but
maybe you can do better?
priest who's lost his faith
There are two ways this can go. The creature says
"Your feeble god means nothing to me" and kills
the priest in particularly gory fashion. Or the creature
says "Your feeble god means nothing to me" and
the priest steps up to the base and drives the creature
away. There are fine examples of the first in Stephen
King's Salem's Lot, and John Carpenter's The Fog. You
could try having the creature banishing the priest to
hell? I haven't seen that one... yet.
through woods in the dark
People run around in the dark, shouting things like
"Mulder, where are you?" and waving
flashlights, followed all the time by a malevolent
presence in the trees. This is otherwise known as The
Blair Witch Project. The idea was taken to extremes in
Pitch Black where there wasn't even hope of daybreak to
come. A variation would be to do it in daylight, but Big
Arnie covered that in Predator. How about having the
monster as an urban creature that is actually afraid of
the woods when chased into them? Time for that angry mob
with dark forces
Somebody says "Let's play with Grannie's Ouija
board" The next thing you know a planchette is
flying around the room on its own. This idea has turned
up a lot on TV recently, and usually involves scantily
clad girls, in shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire
Slayer.The way to use this scenario without looking tired
is to find a new way of calling up the evil. How about a
character who mouths the words as he reads them, thus
calling up the beast by accident?
love of a good woman
The monster dies an inglorious death and somebody says
"T' was beauty that killed the beast" Our
cavemen ancestors probably told this one round the
campfires. On film it dates back to at least 1933 and
King Kong. More recently there was a variation in the
Beauty and The Beast TV series and even the Disney movie
of the same name. Why not try having the beauty fall in
love first while the beast never succumbs? You'd need to
find a neat resolution to the story, but then again,
you're a writer, so that'll be easy :)
Everybody knows that the monster is around somewhere, but
someone says, "We're off to explore that dark place.
You go the other way and we'll meet up later." Why
does everybody always think this is a great idea? Just
watch Buffy TVS and count how often the gang lose each
other. Or go back to the original Scooby gang and watch
Shaggy and Scooby get split up in every episode. Why not
have them stay together for a change? Or maybe they keep
in contact via cell phones to foil the bad guys. Or,
better still, what about a monster that can split up and
be in two places at once?
The monster has been vanquished, the victor turns back to
the other survivors to take the acclaim, and the suddenly
resurgent monster chomps him to pieces. There are nice
examples in Starship Troopers and Deep Rising. One way to
subvert this would be to have another monster save your
victim? Or how about doing something brave and have your
monster die first time?
I'm off to write my new script "Chomp!" It
starts as a mob of angry villagers storm the lab of a mad
scientist who has been dabbling in powers man is not
meant to understand. The priest with the mob is killed by
a "creature" that escapes into the forest.
A year later 10 nubile teens are shipwrecked on the
island. They split up to search the area and find
themselves being chased by a mutated man-beast, half-man,
half Komodo Dragon. Soon there's a lot of running through
forests at night, and a tense scene where a blonde is
trapped in the ruins of the lab.
The big climax comes when the last two of the teens
confront the monster. The boy thinks he's killed it, and
turns back in triumph, only for the beast to rear up and
In a poignant final scene the last girl cradles the
monster's head in her lap and weeps as it dies.
Do you think it will sell? If your answer is
"No", what would you do to make it work?
William Meikle is a Scottish writer, with seven novels
published in the States and three more coming in 2007/8,
all in the independent fantasy and horror press. His
short work and articles have appeared in the UK, Ireland,
USA, Canada, Greece, Saudi Arabia and India.
Read free fiction at his web site http://www.williammeikle.com
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