Ugly trends: The survey says…
I’m going to touch on a few subjects here. As always, I’d ask you to remember that what I say is my opinion based on my experience and should never, ever be taken as the gospel.
The Cop Out:
How many times have you read a horror novel where our hero author comes back to his home town and looks into his roots, only to meet up with an unspeakable horror, or a ghost or demon from his past that he had been haunted by since he was a child?
Let’s not kid ourselves here, folks, it’s the basic start for at least two dozen or so novels in the horror genre to date. It was only original the first time. These days, it’s that deadliest of pitfalls (well, okay, plagiarism is the deadliest, but it’s still up there) the cliché.
It’s easy to do, you know. Hell, it’s exceedingly easy. You read a book and it leaves a mark on you and sometime later, five years or fifteen, you decide to write a book of your own and the set up that you were so enthralled with comes around again, only this time, you’re the one playing with that set up. The odds are good that it’s not even a conscious decision in a lot of cases.
It’s happened to me on several occasions, and most recently, it happened on a novel of mine that’s coming out later this year called DEEPER. I was so fascinated with the main narrator of Lee Thomas’s excellent PARISH DAMNED, that I took the occupation of the character and used it in part for the main character of a novel I was getting ready to write. That simple change in vocation opened up the book for me, and allowed me to put together all the jumbled pieces that I had floating around in my head. Aside from their job similarities, there’s nothing else the two have in common, just for the record, but it also isn’t the sort of job you normally run across in a horror novel, or at least I haven’t. Of course, being that I wanted to make sure I didn’t rip off Lee, I then sent him the manuscript when it was done and let him know that I had just finished ripping him off. The two characters/narrators are very different when it’s all said and done, but damn, I just HAD to write that novel at that time and truth be told, if Lee had screamed foul, the novel would likely never have been sold. Just because I feel the need to write it, that doesn’t mean I ever intend to tread on someone else’s territory deliberately.
I mention the above simply to explain that I can understand the temptation. Hell, I’ve even given into it once or twice. It’s not a sin, but it’s a great way to force comparisons to another writer, and sometimes that doesn’t work in your benefit. In the aforementioned case, it’s almost a running gag between Lee Thomas and me by the way: We seem to run into similar ideas a lot on our writing. Weird how that works, isn’t it?
I recently posted on a couple of bulletin boards and asked the locals there what they considered the top five most clichéd aspects of the horror novel. The answers were definitely diverse. I’ll get to some of them a little later, but for now, what I want to focus on is originality. Now, don’t go into a panic. I don’t mean the amazingly innovative new plot line that has never been done. According to some sources, there are only seventeen or so plotlines available, and they’ve all been done to death. Personally, I’ve never bothered to count them, so I’ll have to trust the statistics and keep writing anyway.
No, what I’m talking about is the clichés that pop up during the establishing shot of your novel. You know, all that introductory stuff, where we learn a little something about the characters, the town, the world that you have created for our amusement. Before you can properly destroy any and all of that, you have to let us know what they are all about, right? The establishing shot.
There are a lot of clichés that run through the establishing shots. Some of them are inevitable, and some of them, well, some of them just seem like cop outs to me. That opinion does not make me right, mind you, but I felt it was something I should point out.
That first paragraph up above? Well, the first time I ran across that particular scenario was in Stephen King’s ‘SALEM’S LOT. It was a great concept and to me at least, completely original. The novel, by the way, remains one of my favorites and the development of writer Ben Mears and all of the other characters is exemplary. I could probably dig through my collection of novels and find an even twenty or so more examples of other writers who liked Mr. King’s set up so much that they couldn’t resist using it themselves.
Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Well, it shouldn’t. I’d guess a lot of them weren’t even consciously aware that they were imitating someone else. Some of them might have been, I mean, let’s be honest here, it happens all the time and imitation is allegedly the purest form of flattery, but not all of them. Here’s the thing: Every one of those novels will likely be compared by every reader who comes across it, to ‘SALEM’S LOT and unless the writer is AMAZING, the comparison will not go favorably. It won’t matter if the story involves Space Newts from Swamp Planet Alpha, the set up of the writer coming home to revisit old nightmares is going to work as a reminder of the novel by Mr. King. What’s that? The reader might not have ever read the book in question? True enough. But the odds are they’ve read the book or at least seen one of the two movies based off of the same.
So really, why not take a chance and come up with something different. Sure, you can still go with the writer if you must, but instead of flattering the hell out of an author who’s been flattered almost as many times as he’s sold a copy of a book, change things up and give your main character a different motivation. If you want to be a writer, and you want to be considered an original writer, you’re going to have to stretch your muscles sooner of later. Go for sooner.
Not just with ‘SALEM’S LOT, either. Go out on a limb and try to come up with something completely original.
That’s really the gist of this particular article. Whatever you’re going to do, make it something that is yours and yours alone if at all possible. There are a lot of rehashes going on out there and really, there shouldn’t be.
There are certain aspects of the genre novels in particular that are overused and there’s even good reason for a lot of them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best choices. They aren’t exactly cheats, but they’re easier ways to introduce characters.
Moving to a new town (as opposed to coming back to your old home town). It works because, frankly, moving to a new place means a great chance to introduce the town and allow forward motion of both the story and your main character(s) simultaneously. There’s also the added bonus of putting someone into a strange new environment.
It has also been done approximately five million times, give or take. It’s okay as a subplot, but there should be more to the tale in most cases. The same is true with starting a new job, going to a new school, etc. They all amount to simple fear of the unknown, which is perfectly suitable for a horror novel especially, but if every novel revolves around that fear as it applies to moving, you might lose a little of the impact.
Burnt out cops seem to be another one. Not just in horror novels, but in crime novels, detective stories, and I’m sure a few romances that have popped up along the way. Well, it’s a high stress job, I have no doubt, and the level of people who burn out is probably massive. But does EVERY cop have to be burnt out? Couldn’t we run across a few who were at least moderately enthusiastic about their lives? Another one that seems to tick people off: The cop who’s stuck with the case is about to retire and then Monster X shows up. Same goes with cops on the take, by the way. In several books, it seemed that every police officer in the precinct was guilty of taking street level bonuses, except, of course, for Our Hero.
Yes, I’m rambling. I do that a lot. That’s because I often want to cover a lot of territory. Let’s get back to the establishing shots, shall we? There’s probably a lot to be said for writing what you know. I seldom follow that rule, because what I know is often painfully boring. Unless my main character lives his daily life as a customer service specialist, food services manager, construction worker, house painter or salesperson, I’m winging a lot of it. To date, none of my main characters have been writers. A few of them wanted to be and maybe a secondary character or two, but none of them have been writers. Why? Because it’s a cheat as far as I’m concerned, and because, statistically speaking, I figure the average fictitious writer is already screwed beyond all repair.
I have not, to date, become the screamingly successful megastar writer who lives a life of ease and uses writer’s block as a subplot for a part of his life. First, I don’t get writer’s block (I can’t afford that particular luxury, thanks) and second, I still have a day job. If I’m going to imagine a life beyond what I already know, I’m not going to waste my time with a writer as a main character. I don’t want to live my life as a writer vicariously; I’d rather just live it. I may as well have fun with it and have characters that actually have lives and the occasional interaction with the rest of the world.
But that’s not why it’s a cop out to me. No, the problem is that writers can dictate their own lives in a lot of ways, and that means they don’t have to go to a wage earning job while they hunt for the monsters or try to avoid being hunted. It’s far more interesting to me to see how a college kid with finals on the horizon is going to handle the shambling nightmare than it is to consider how a writer will take care of it. It’s more fun to experiment with a local politician’s take on the fourteen unsolved murders than it is to contemplate the novelist who thinks he might have written this very scenario in a previous novel. I like, in other words, to put a little more reality and stress on the characters. Why make their lives too easy before I start the mangling? If I do, I’ve lost out on a chance to explore a part of the characters’ potential depth.
The other cop out given in the original scenario offered in this article is simply this: While there’s certainly nothing wrong with having your character explore something that went wrong in the past, it’s seldom enough to actually make a full novel that is worth noticing. You don’t agree? That’s fine. But let me point out to you that Ben Mears of ‘Salem’s Lot fame did a lot more than merely examine the home of Hubie Marsh. That was just an excuse (and an original one back then) for having him show up in town. The secrets of Hubie and his house were secondary or even tertiary to everything else going on in the novel.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have no actual problem with the same ideas being used in the establishing shots. As I have said about stereotypes, I can also say about clichés: they exist for a reason. A haunted house novel as a general rule must have a house in it and probably a few ghosts. That’s the way these things work. But while the monsters might often be the same or similar, the characters and settings shouldn’t be interchangeable. The idea is to make a story your own, not to borrow so heavily from someone else that you are basically telling their story.
There are writers who have done the same basic story a hundred times and become extremely successful with it and there are writers who have stretched their writing wings and tried to do new things regularly. I try not to write the same novel twice. Why? Because I find the notion boring. Oh, I’ve slipped a few times, but not as much as a few others I could name (but won’t). It’s not that one way or the other makes you a better writer. It’s a matter of preference. I would rather challenge myself to come up with new concepts than fall back on something I remember reading when I was just starting up.
Let me put it another way: How many fantasy novels are out there where the main character is an orphan who lives in a war torn land and is destined to be the future champion and/or king of said land as soon as he fulfils the vague prophecy uttered about him and finds the sacred relic that will seal the deal? Well, I don’t read much fantasy these days, but a while back it was every other novel I ran across. Change the name of the land, the name of the character and the Object of Power in question and easily half of the fantasy novels I read growing up fall into the same category. Seemed like everyone set their sites on knocking THE LORD OF THE RINGS/The story of King Arthur and Camelot down a few pegs by telling the exact same story. As a rule, they all failed, too.
And now, the complaint department. A few of these are actually quoted and some are just general complaints that were listed multiple times. You want to know what seems to be bothering a lot of the readers out there according to the bulletin boards I went to? Here ya go.
There are certain aspects of the genre novels in particular that are overused and there’s even good reason for a lot of them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best choices. They aren’t exactly cheats, but they’re…easier.
The Great Ancient Evil Resurfaces is another tried and true cliché and one that was referred to several times in the course of my queries. Now, frankly, I can never get enough of the evil resurfacing, but when said evil is a mindless thing that comes around every hundred years or so and does nothing new, it gets boring. If you must bring back an historical evil to a town or city or family, please at least come up with interesting reasons for why it keeps coming back. That’s just me, of course.
One of the more recent trends that several expressed disgust with is the army of zombies surrounding the structure of your choice. Really, I think it’s the zombies in this case. It’s not that zombies haven’t been around for a while, so much as a lack of good reasons for said flesh eating corpses to a) come back from the dead and b) follow all of the rules as established by George Romero. I mean, there’s something more than a little creepy about the idea of the dead rising from their graves, but in most cases, they immediately run off to eat the flesh of the living and to leave bits and pieces of themselves all over the place. While I haven’t read nearly all of the new wave of zombie novels, or even seen all of the movies, I’ve only seen a few cases where the authors tried to add something new to the old scenario. Brian Keene did it with THE RISING and Mark Justice and David T. Wilbanks did it with DEAD EARTH: THE GREEN DAWN, but aside from that a lot of what I’ve encountered and heard about was more shambling messes that don’t do anything more than munch on the living. Again, not a bad thing in and of itself, but also not the best way to dazzle people with your originality. (You can add Jonathan Maberry to the list, by the way. Rot & Ruin was amazing and the things he’s doing are just deliciously wrong.
When Anne Rice wrote THE INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, it was new and fresh. That was back when I was in junior high school. These days the romantic vampires have become their own subgenre, and while that’s not a bad thing (frankly, anything that increases awareness of the horror genre in a positive light is a good thing to me) it’s not original anymore. I point this out because that, too, is one of the clichés a lot of people were tired of. Vampires as heroes, detectives, eternally beautiful and ever-so-depressed-about-it creatures of the night…they are likely all here to stay, but apparently a lot of die hard monster lovers prefer the vampires that actually drink blood and kill things more than they lament their perfection.
And now, a sampling of the answers to my query. Believe me, there were a lot more, but the ones listed below (and credited when I knew a real name to give credit) all struck me as interesting responses and good indicators of the general feelings shown. Consider these a primer in what you might want to avoid. a break. They’re supposed to be blood-sucking monsters for crying out loud!1. The “tragically lonely” Euro trash vampire. Give me a break. They’re supposed to be blood-sucking monsters for crying out loud!2. The search for the magic talisman only to find out that the “talisman” is in fact either the main character or a supporting character in the story.3. Any time a character discovers that the bad guy is his/her brother/sister who is evil to take revenge.4. Any character who actually says “because I’m evil.” Evil people don’t know they’re evil. They function from their own moral universe and point of view that makes everything seem like the right thing to do. 5. Convenient knowledge. A person is in the midst of terrible danger when they miraculously escape because of some convenient knowledge. “Fortunately, when he was in high-school, Bob studied Karate and advanced chemistry, allowing him to defuse the bomb and kick the bad guys in the head.” If he has that knowledge, great. Set it up from the beginning. Don’t just throw it down like you wrote yourself into a corner and figured this was the only way to get out. –Scott Johnson
1) The couple who lost a child and starts experiencing paranormal phenomenon.2) The psychic who refuses to do readings anymore because it is too draining and painful.3) The car that won’t start when the characters need to escape.—“Sharkguy”
1)The heroes are bailed out in the final chapter/reel by an act of God because they’ve spent the book or film demonstrating that they’re in the right and so are entitled to a deus ex machina if their fat needs pulling out of the fire.2)Anybody with a rationalistic viewpoint is likely to turn out to be evil because they’re divorced from the true wonder and mystery of life. They will almost certainly end up working for the bad guys, even if no real reason is ever given for this.3)Histrionic of sentimental displays of hysterical false emotion are inarguable proof that somebody is a real human being, rather than (as many would suspect) proof that the tantrum thrower stopped maturing emotionally and intellectually somewhere around the age of six.4)Archaic and obsolete methodology (of whatever type) proving superior to decadent modern approaches. (I doubt that most of the writers who come out with this crap write longhand with a quill pen or would fancy having an arm amputated without anaesthetic, somehow.)5) Rare elements that cannot (for reasons that are rarely made clear) be created or transmuted by replication technologies that exist in defiance of most of the laws of physics, and which would seem to exist purely so that the author can offer some sort of flimsy pretext for why they haven’t created a post scarcity society. –“DogPoet”
a different group of heroes band together for a quest. Usually, they bring along a Boris Vallejo wet dream and no one nails her. I hate when that happens. 2. Characters that are supposed to be savages and never drink nor do they get laid. 3. Dumb rednecks. They are all inbred of course…4. Serial killers (heard it all before)5. bad priests (there really are good men of the cloth out there)—Steve Shrewsbury
I’ve only got one driving me crazy lately: The cop who’s on his last night of duty before retirement.—Lisa Morton
1. Female vampire slayer types who fall in love with a vampire (we are talking beyond Buffy here)2. Vampires who are altruistic and have found an alternative way to get their blood fix.3. Characters(PIs, Mercs, etc.) that are supposedly in it for the money but tend to go on quixotic crusades.4. Supernaturally gifted children5. The person who sacrifices himself/herself so that the hero can escape the evil so that he can defeat it later.—Dylan: MonsterLibrarian.com
1. Writer as protag. Writers are boring. Except for Hemingway, and we all know what happened to him.2. Chicks in dark fantasy vampire novels who resist the vampire, but who really don’t want to resist the vampire (but we need the tension or it’s just a pornfest). Let’s have the chick tell the buster to drop undead for once.3. Vampire as romantic hero. Not.4. Haunted house, created by act of violence. Been there, seen that, got the T-shirt. Next!5. Psychic investigators who never fuck up, make a bad prediction, etc.6. Happy, happy ending where protag falls in love with hot chick who’s been spurring his advances all along, while hot chick discovers it truly is better to be a dowdy housewife with no life than be out there kicking monster-butt. Because, y’know, a woman isn’t really a woman unless she’s married and has procreated. That’s six, so sue me. –Karen Koehler
Super Rain Man Syndrome: Mentally challenged character who is Divine and has all the answers, but is vastly misunderstood. It was cute for 10 minutes in the 80s. Now let’s get back to reality. — Also Karen Koehler
1. The Magic Trinket- that talisman from a character’s youth (often given to them by a departed parent/grandparent/sibling) which is the ONLY thing in the world that can defeat the evil.2. “I know you’re still in there, Bobby. Fight him!”3. Characters who are referenced only in dialogue, or in flashbacks, or telephone calls, who show up in the last scene to play a pivotal role.4. Characters who ponder how everything is just like a bad horror movie. They’re right, but I immediately put the book down at that point.5. The word “suddenly” used for some kind of jump scare- uh, it just doesn’t work that way. Suddenly, a decayed hand broke through the door.—Lorne Dixon
1) Autistic kids who mumble strings of numbers that hold the solution to the mystery at hand. –Bev Vincent
1) Any instance where an innocent person walks in and finds a corpse…then immediately picks up the knife/gun/other murder weapon as a witness/police officer/security guard enters. 2) The other four clichés I hate include the above happening in any other four genres. –William A. Veselik
1) The last three small press horror books I’ve read opened with rape scenes. Not only am I sick of that particular cliché, but I’ll expand it even further to say I’m sick of the general cliché of using violence against women in horror, especially when these scenes go on for pages and become positively dull in their over-description. –Lisa Morton
1) It certainly seems that people tend to imitate the obvious aspects of someone’s writing, rather than the underlying, more difficult, and more important underpinnings.–John Goodrich
1)The Protagonist is a writer2) Ex-military heroes3) Women are weak or uber-powerful4) Going home again [stop!! just move out of town and stay out!!]5) Hauntings in obvious places [old house, graveyard, etc.--let's have a haunted school or police station or abortion clinic or something...ok, sorry, that last one was just wrong] –Kelli Dunlap.
Cops/Priests/Any authority figure that rolls over everything they believe in when confronted with just a hint of the ‘woogie-woogie’.2) The weak girl that suddenly discovers her inner strength, while losing her bra, panties and moral ethics.3) Sex between survivors when they’ve only know each other for less than 24 hours. (excluding any character based on Jay and Silent Bob – that would just be funny)—Kelly Perry
See? Lots and lots of things at least a small sampling of the readers out there would like to see avoided for a while. There were more, many, many more…
James A. Moore