A cliche is something commonplace and overly familiar. In writing it is the tropes and stereotypes that we have all seen a thousand times before.
To avoid cliches, you have to provide convincing reasons for your character’s actions. They explore a dark place because there is no time to wait. They split up because they don’t trust each other. If they are clumsy at a crucial moment, it is because they just came out of surgery.
Cliches are boring because we have heard them before.
It’s easy to use them. They say a lot with just a little because they remind us of things that have been said before. And that is the problem.
Because they are things that have been said before, there is no tension. They are not fresh and interesting, they are tired and boring.
If a reader encounters a lot of cliches their mind will switch to auto-pilot and they will lose their curiosity for the story.
Below are some of the most common cliches and some suggestions on how to fix them.
Exploring a Dark Room
It’s often tempting to write a scene where a person is investigating alone in the dark. They take only a tiny light and go into a dark basement or attic where they can hardly see.
This seems like a necessary scene in a horror story but it has been done to death. In reality, nobody does this.
Who walks into a basement where you can’t see anything? Even if it isn’t haunted, there could be power tools lying around or other junk. You could trip over and break your neck.
Most people wouldn’t investigate a dark room unless they could turn the lights on and get a clear view of the place.
How to fix
If you want to have a protagonist explore a dark room, give them a good reason to do it. One that would motivate them to walk around in the dark.
Perhaps they hear a person call for help and so immediately try to find who it was.
Or, they may be on a time limit. If they only have twenty minutes to look at a house before the police come, they may rush into a basement or some other place where they can’t see.
This is one of the most offensive cliches that appear in many low-budget horror movies.
The characters are in danger. People have died and the survivors must find their way out while avoiding a deadly killer. So, what do they do?
They decide to split up. Something that absolutely no one would ever do in real life.
This is a lazy writer trying to force some tension into the story. If they split up then they will be in more danger, never mind their motivation.
How to fix
If you want your characters to split up, you must make it more dangerous for them to stay together than separate.
For example, if the characters each believe that one of the others is the killer, then it makes sense that they would prefer to travel alone.
They would not be concerned with some threat hiding in the shadows because they believe the threat is from the people they just left.
How many times have you watched a movie where the characters are being chased and, right before the monster is about to get them, the female character stumbles and falls?
This cliche appeared in just about every movie and TV show from 1950 to 1990.
Every young man wanted to save a pretty woman from a monster, so what better way to create tension than to have her fall right in front of the monster’s jaws?
And don’t try fixing this by having a man fall at the last minute. Nobody wants to rescue a man. If he falls, then he’s a clumsy idiot. Let him die.
How to fix
It’s OK to have a woman fall. Or someone else who you would want to rescue, like a child or an elderly person. But it has to make sense.
For instance, you could have the woman be on crutches. In an earlier scene, you could show a serial killer tampers with her crutches. Then, when she is being chased and falls because the crutches break, it makes sense.
It’s only cliche if there is no explanation. The falling damsel in distress is a cheap way to create tension. A well-thought-out plot device, with some back-story, is not a cliche, even if it looks like one.
This cliche happens when your hero just barely defeats the monster.
They take a moment to relax and catch their breath.
And, just as they drop their guard, the monster attacks. It is not dead yet and the hero must fight with everything they have to kill it one more time.
This was exciting the first time it happened. But by the thousandth time, it was so predictable there was no need to even pay attention.
It has an alternate version too. In a bleak story, the monster may defeat the hero leaving everybody dead. This has not been used as much as the version where the hero defeats the monster, but it is still overused.
How to fix
The best way to fix this cliche is to just not use it. Once the monster is dead, it is dead.
If your story is compelling enough, you don’t need to create cheap thrills.
You can also create a version of this cliche that doesn’t offend by including the possibility of failure in the monster-killing plans.
For example, you have a scene where the characters believe that the monster will be killed if it is immersed in water, but they aren’t sure.
So, they make a plan to lure the monster into a trap where it will be immersed in water, only to find that the monster survives.
This is acceptable because the characters didn’t know if it would work.
The Car That Won’t Start
There was a time when cars wouldn’t always start first time. It was a long time ago.
There is no need to have a character get into a car while fleeing for their life, only to have the car make funny noises and refuse to start. When has that ever happened to you in the last thirty years?
This is cheap. It’s a source of tension that has nothing to do with the plot. It’s just thrown into the mix because the writer has planned out their story properly.
There are other versions of this cliche like the door that won’t open or the power tool/gun/device that won’t work.
These are all lazy and provide unearned tension.
How to fix
Tensions should always be set up in advance. If you must have a car that won’t start, make sure you have a scene where someone is trying to fix it.
Make sure there is dialogue where someone mentions that a part is on order, or someone says “Don’t use the car because it may not work.”
Also, include it in the plot. A scene like this will make more sense if the story is about a car monster that stops cars from working. OK, that was lame, but you get the idea.
It’s a cliche if it hasn’t been set up and is just lazily added to the story. If you properly set it up, and it is part of the plot, then it is OK.
Everything is Scary
This is a funny cliche that many enthusiastic first-time writers tend to use. This is when you describe things in a scary, tense or threatening way, even though there is no real reason for them to be that way.
For instance, a character may be driving on a lonely road that looks like many people have died on it. They see a tree that looks like a monster trying to kill them. The steam from their coffee menacingly forms the shape of a skull.
There is no reason for any of these things to happen. The horror hasn’t even started yet. If you are going to build tension, make sure it is around something relevant to the plot.
How to fix
Scenery, inanimate objects and everyday items don’t need to be scary.
If you are trying to create an unsettling mood, you should do it by revealing relevant clues to the protagonist.
For example, have your character learn about a disturbing event that happened in the house they are about to enter. This is more effective than describing the house as looking like a skull and giving off an aura of death.
Read more about Point of View in Horror here
Betrayed by one Little Sound
This cliche happens when someone is hiding from danger and suddenly their phone rings.
The character runs from a monster and manages to find a place to hide. We think they are going to be safe but then a noise gives them away and the monster finds them.
This would be a really good way to create tension if it hadn’t been done about a million times already.
There are many ways this cliche can happen. Besides a phone ringing, the sound can be from the character dropping their keys or a board creaking or a child’s wind-up toy going off.
No matter what the source of the noise is, the cliche is the same. In some cases, it can be scary, but in others, it can bring out the reader’s rage at the stupidity of the character.
Another version of this cliche is when a pet is the source of the noise, like a cat or dog. The character is hiding in the closet when their dog comes to the closet door and barks, giving them away.
How to fix
Instead of having your character find a hiding place, make it so they can’t find a hiding place. Maybe, at the last minute, someone helps them by pulling them into a safe place.
This way you change the scene from one of false safety to one of false hopelessness. The former feels a bit cheap while the latter feels more realistic.
As for the version where an animal gives the person away, animals are more in tune with danger than most people. It is unlikely that a pet would ever give someone away like that. Just avoid this cliche altogether.
Read about Horror Versus Suspense here
This list barely scratches the surface of all the cliches that appear in horror stories. But these should get you started towards writing fresh and interesting prose. Happy writing.