I’ve seen this quote making the rounds lately…
“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …” — Stephen King
I like this quote very much and I agree with Mr. King. The issue for most horror writers is how to write those terrors without resorting to cliches and stereotypes. Tropes are too easy. The lazy writer uses tropes (unless it’s for camp, and that’s something entirely different and can be done exceedingly well).
There are many horror tropes… from settings (abandoned hospitals/mental hospitals/islands/houses) to characters (creepy kids, mad scientist, animated puppet/doll, clown) to character traits (ankle dragger, mouth stitched shut, evil hand THIS IS MY BOOMSTICK!! I digress) to manners of death (chainsaw, wood chipper, attack of the killer whatever LOOK AT THE FANGS! More digression).
See what I mean? I bet you can think of a novel or TV show or movie that relies too heavily on one or more of those tropes. I was unfortunate enough to watch Wrong Turn 3 last night. Dear god… tropes, tropes, boobs, tropes, cannibal incest West Virginia natives. More boobs. It was so bad it wasn’t even entertaining.
So what’s the best way for a writer to not fall into the trap of tropedom?
Know the tropes. Read your genre, watch your genre (but mostly read it). Recognize when an author is falling back on the tropes. If you’re writing and you find yourself using something because you know that the reader will understand the cue, don’t use it. Break out of that and keep the reader guessing. Even if you feel like you need a trope to explain something, don’t. Give your reader more credit than that, and surprise them.
What are your favorite genre tropes (all genres!)?