Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Holly Lisle's Vision

Halloween: Breaking Down the Cliché

by Ron Brown
                                   Suspense & Mystery  Moderator

©2001, By Ron Brown

Though it is now a full year away, it is not too early to begin considering Halloween oriented pieces.  In fact, when you consider response times and publishing delay, starting now could help in getting a story ready in time for Halloween theme deadlines.  The most important aspect, however, of a Halloween horror story is to avoid clichés.

Everyone has seen the stories about magical occurrences on the fabled night, and the doubly powerful evil if there is also a full moon.  The stories where the barrier between this world and next weakens, and both good and evil spirits visit us, has been done.  It is not a bad story idea, and can still lead to many good narratives, but originality is at a premium, and starting with a stock plot makes that difficult.  If you doubt this, try making an amazingly original story about a vampire that falls in love and struggles with his decision to curse his fair lady with eternal life.

Now, this does not mean that the holiday cannot be used in original ways.  The key to good horror fiction is the creation of a sense of dread and fear.  Different writers use different methods to develop that within the reader, but that is the primary goal of a horror piece.  To avoid a setting that assists in placing the reader in the proper state of mind would be foolish.

Halloween makes people think of clichés.  When the reader sees a story set on October 31st, he or she will be awaiting the appearance of ghosts, spells, demons, etc.  An original story will use those thoughts, but will not satisfy them the way the reader expects.  Another item needed for the horror story is surprise.  Showing the reader what is expected is not surprising and therefore not startling.

If the reader is expecting ghosts, then hint at their existence.  The protagonists in the story can have the same feelings toward Halloween cliché's as the reader.  This will also make the reader connect with the characters.  They will share the fear and the anticipation.  However, when the evil is revealed, change the direction.  The reader should share the protagonist's surprise and revulsion at learning the truth.

Imagine a traditional werewolf story.  The protagonist has uncovered a series of gruesome murders that have taken place on full moon nights.  He has removed his own disbelief in the existence of lycanthropes while uncovering the evidence.  In time, the protagonist has learned what he can about stopping the creature he had assumed was myth.  Then, when the hunt is nearing completion, he discovers that he is dealing with a normal man who has developed a love of the taste of humans, but has been using the full moon to disguise his activities.

If executed properly, this would be an original interpretation of the traditional werewolf tale.  Similarly, changes can be made to the Halloween clichés to make the story fresh. 

One note of caution: the twist must be believable.  Readers will be annoyed if the clues of magic or supernatural entity were too strong and never explained.  This type of story may take more work to create the believable twist, but the payoff will be a taut, frightening, original story -- precisely what publishers are seeking.