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Horror Tropes You Should Run From

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Planning

I admit: I live and breathe horror. I enjoy the unnerving atmospheres created with a creepy setting, terrifying villain, and domino-like series of events that push protagonists to their limits. My bookshelves are littered with Stephen King and Richard Laymon novels, and I listen to Creepypastas as I drive. Yet I often find my eyes rolling when well-meaning writers fall into some deadly horror-genre traps. This is your decrepit warning sign: don't fall prey to these spooky tropes!

Horror Only Wakes on Halloween


There are 360 days (and nights) in a year outside of leap years and there's an unequal balance of horror stories which take place on one particular day and night - 31st October. Halloween is most definitely a time our minds wander to spooky goings-on, but consider avoiding setting your story on or around that day if you want to avoid the pigeon-holing that may come from being one of the thousands of Halloween stories coming out each year. The benefit of choosing a separate time is that the best horror comes from the places (and moments) characters should be at their safest. Halloween is a night no sane character would mess with or take chances. Unless your plot revolves around the events of Halloween specifically - such as trick-or-treating - choose one of the other 359 dates on the calendar and avoid this eye-rolling, read it before trope.



The False Jump Scare


Looking at you, R.L. Stine! No reader enjoys the cliff-hanger chapter ending of something leaping out at the protagonist only to find out in the next chapter's first line that it was just their lovable-albeit-mischievous cat. The anti-climactic thud makes the reader feel cheated and drops the anticipation levels that are greatly needed in a good, gripping horror story. You do not need to end every chapter on a cliff-hanger if the plot isn't calling for a worthwhile one - and by worhtwhile, I mean a genuine risky situation is taking place and is not just for the couple of seconds it takes for your reader to realise you had nothing up your sleeve after all. If you live for cliff-hanger chapter endings, make sure that when the reader desperately turns the page that they are met with a satisfying, sinister reveal.



Investigating...In A Risky Setting


I'm talking checking out a strange noise inside a haunted house, following a creepy shadow in the forest, going deeper into an unsettling situation when they could be heading for safety or looking for help. It is important to question whether your character's actions are realistic and make sense in the context of the situation. There's no quicker way to take your reader out of full immersion by confusing them with illogical decisions. If your character is going to be in a terrifying situation, the reader should believe they have done all they reasonable could to avoid it therefore it was forced onto them. That makes for a far scarier atmosphere than simply being irritated at the character, or worse, thinking they deserve whatever horror is coming their way!



Splitting Up


The trope of shouting at the TV screen when a group decides to separate in a scary sitation is almost as old as the splitting up trope itself. Whether it is to 'cover more ground' or 'increase chances of survival, the reasons rarely justify the stupidity. The vast majority of the time, any logical person in a group that understands there is danger nearby will not agree to going it alone. It goes against human nature to feel more protected in a group and the idea that there is more strength in numbers - the Scooby gang proved that point over and over. Did you learn nothing from that show? If so, you already know that having your team of characters willingly part ways defies logic and will only irritate readers. A better idea is to force separation - for example, running in opposite directions in a panic - or have the decison made whilst there is no known immediate threat so there is no perceived danger of going solo.



Heard-It-Before Storylines


It’s hard to be purely original sometimes but try to avoid campfire plots – hitchhiker, broken down car, haunted house, escapee from an asylum – to avoid being mentally dumped in with a bunch of other stories with similar premises. Such plot points are now considered 'tired', and the scenes less engrossing. You should strive to come up with your own unique situation which the reader has no basis to make assumptions and no other author or story to liken (and devalue) it to. However, there is an exception: if you are able to turn a tired premise on its head, subverting reader's expectations and catching them off-guard - do it! Those twists are worth it if you can keep the reader on the line until your big reveal.



Caring Only for Scares


Before you cut me off, let me explain! Fear is good - no, necessary - for a horror story. Genre fans continuously search for their next hit: the heart racing of their heart, the cold sweat, the notion that there is something sinister in the mundane. Yet, the biggest mistake you could make is assuming fear alone makes for a good story. You should include a range of emotions: anger, joy, confusion, loss, relief, or stress are just some examples. Not only will this make your story multi-faceted, you will also have a fleshed-out character who comes across real and relatable connects with readers. When a reader cares for a character, they will be more engaged if they are put in danger. So lay that foundation for reader-character connection...then shove them into scares. Not the other way around.



Character Traps


Much like the over-used plot scenarios, the horror genre is overrun with carbon-copy characters that feel 2-D instead of 3-D. Readers will feel they already know the narrative will be going and mentally check out, or just plain give up on it in favour of a more original cast of characters. Not good for a horror story! Here are some dishonourable examples:


  • Idiotic authority figure, such as a parent or police officer, who doesn't listen to a protagonist's warning


  • Last girl standing, especially when her survival is based on luck over skill or the death of others


  • Old crone/man warning youths or 'city folk' of a local danger or urban legend


  • Absentee guardian, leaving a young person or persons alone to deal a horror element


  • The clearly disposable friend who will either be injured or killed off towards the end for the shock factor


An Exception...?


As before, however, if you plan to use a trope to your advantage by subverting expectations and revitalise the premise with an unexpected turn of events then by all means write it. If you pull it off, you will be remembered for doing the unexpected. In horror, that's a gold star.


I admit: I live and breathe horror. I enjoy the unnerving atmospheres created with a creepy setting, terrifying villain, and domino-like series of events that push protagonists to their limits. My bookshelves are littered with Stephen King and Richard Laymon novels, and I listen to Creepypastas as I drive. Yet I often find my eyes rolling when well-meaning writers fall into some deadly horror-genre traps. This is your decrepit warning sign: don't fall prey to these spooky tropes!

Horror Only Wakes on Halloween


There are 360 days (and nights) in a year outside of leap years and there's an unequal balance of horror stories which take place on one particular day and night - 31st October. Halloween is most definitely a time our minds wander to spooky goings-on, but consider avoiding setting your story on or around that day if you want to avoid the pigeon-holing that may come from being one of the thousands of Halloween stories coming out each year. The benefit of choosing a separate time is that the best horror comes from the places (and moments) characters should be at their safest. Halloween is a night no sane character would mess with or take chances. Unless your plot revolves around the events of Halloween specifically - such as trick-or-treating - choose one of the other 359 dates on the calendar and avoid this eye-rolling, read it before trope.



The False Jump Scare


Looking at you, R.L. Stine! No reader enjoys the cliff-hanger chapter ending of something leaping out at the protagonist only to find out in the next chapter's first line that it was just their lovable-albeit-mischievous cat. The anti-climactic thud makes the reader feel cheated and drops the anticipation levels that are greatly needed in a good, gripping horror story. You do not need to end every chapter on a cliff-hanger if the plot isn't calling for a worthwhile one - and by worhtwhile, I mean a genuine risky situation is taking place and is not just for the couple of seconds it takes for your reader to realise you had nothing up your sleeve after all. If you live for cliff-hanger chapter endings, make sure that when the reader desperately turns the page that they are met with a satisfying, sinister reveal.



Investigating...In A Risky Setting


I'm talking checking out a strange noise inside a haunted house, following a creepy shadow in the forest, going deeper into an unsettling situation when they could be heading for safety or looking for help. It is important to question whether your character's actions are realistic and make sense in the context of the situation. There's no quicker way to take your reader out of full immersion by confusing them with illogical decisions. If your character is going to be in a terrifying situation, the reader should believe they have done all they reasonable could to avoid it therefore it was forced onto them. That makes for a far scarier atmosphere than simply being irritated at the character, or worse, thinking they deserve whatever horror is coming their way!



Splitting Up


The trope of shouting at the TV screen when a group decides to separate in a scary sitation is almost as old as the splitting up trope itself. Whether it is to 'cover more ground' or 'increase chances of survival, the reasons rarely justify the stupidity. The vast majority of the time, any logical person in a group that understands there is danger nearby will not agree to going it alone. It goes against human nature to feel more protected in a group and the idea that there is more strength in numbers - the Scooby gang proved that point over and over. Did you learn nothing from that show? If so, you already know that having your team of characters willingly part ways defies logic and will only irritate readers. A better idea is to force separation - for example, running in opposite directions in a panic - or have the decison made whilst there is no known immediate threat so there is no perceived danger of going solo.



Heard-It-Before Storylines


It’s hard to be purely original sometimes but try to avoid campfire plots – hitchhiker, broken down car, haunted house, escapee from an asylum – to avoid being mentally dumped in with a bunch of other stories with similar premises. Such plot points are now considered 'tired', and the scenes less engrossing. You should strive to come up with your own unique situation which the reader has no basis to make assumptions and no other author or story to liken (and devalue) it to. However, there is an exception: if you are able to turn a tired premise on its head, subverting reader's expectations and catching them off-guard - do it! Those twists are worth it if you can keep the reader on the line until your big reveal.



Caring Only for Scares


Before you cut me off, let me explain! Fear is good - no, necessary - for a horror story. Genre fans continuously search for their next hit: the heart racing of their heart, the cold sweat, the notion that there is something sinister in the mundane. Yet, the biggest mistake you could make is assuming fear alone makes for a good story. You should include a range of emotions: anger, joy, confusion, loss, relief, or stress are just some examples. Not only will this make your story multi-faceted, you will also have a fleshed-out character who comes across real and relatable connects with readers. When a reader cares for a character, they will be more engaged if they are put in danger. So lay that foundation for reader-character connection...then shove them into scares. Not the other way around.



Character Traps


Much like the over-used plot scenarios, the horror genre is overrun with carbon-copy characters that feel 2-D instead of 3-D. Readers will feel they already know the narrative will be going and mentally check out, or just plain give up on it in favour of a more original cast of characters. Not good for a horror story! Here are some dishonourable examples:


  • Idiotic authority figure, such as a parent or police officer, who doesn't listen to a protagonist's warning


  • Last girl standing, especially when her survival is based on luck over skill or the death of others


  • Old crone/man warning youths or 'city folk' of a local danger or urban legend


  • Absentee guardian, leaving a young person or persons alone to deal a horror element


  • The clearly disposable friend who will either be injured or killed off towards the end for the shock factor


An Exception...?


As before, however, if you plan to use a trope to your advantage by subverting expectations and revitalise the premise with an unexpected turn of events then by all means write it. If you pull it off, you will be remembered for doing the unexpected. In horror, that's a gold star.


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