Crowdsourcing: Cliches in SF, Fantasy, and Horror: Plots, Characters, Situations

For my creative writing book for Abrams Image—a definitive illustrated guide to writing speculative fiction—I’d like a running column in one of the chapters of cliches. I can’t possibly list them all, so if you’d like the chance to contribute an attributed entry, please comment here. A couple of sentences describing the cliche followed by dash and your full name. In other words:

A man in a bar meets a mysterious woman. They go back to her place. She turns out to be a werewolf/vampire/serial killer. — Jeff VanderMeer

Yes, there are lists out there and I have my own list, but this is more fun.

Thanks! I’ll take them through this upcoming Thursday.


  1. Michael R Underwood says

    Our hero has a series of life-changing adventures with high stakes, personal losses and achievements. Then, at the end, the hero wakes up and it was all a dream. – Michael R. Underwood

  2. Michael R Underwood says

    The powerful tyrant who rules the land with an iron fist is challenged by a young orphan with a great destiny. The tyrant is actually the hero’s parent. – Michael R. Underwood

  3. says

    Initially weak and unwilling protagonist must obtain/destroy ancient magical item to vanquish a powerful evil in a world populated with elves, dwarves, and a generically nasty race of humanoids. – John Nakamura Remy

  4. says

    A retired scientist is approached by his young replacement who needs help with the current crisis. The pensioner at first refuses, but eventually caves in, comes back and saves the day, resolving the dark past issues in the subplot. – Milena Benini.

  5. says

    Small/old/female/somehow seemingly harmless person beats up an entire squad of the evil ruler’s “highly trained guards.”–Megan O’Heffernan

  6. says

    An ancient evil is reawakened. A single person/small ragtag group must complete single, relatively simple task in order to stop comparatively larger, exceedingly more powerful ancient evil. – Stefen Holtrey

  7. Igor Rendi? says

    A child, who is in some way ostracized by its peers/community is taken into a magical land to fulfill an ancient prophecy and defeat the great evil using the magical power the child possesses but which is currently dormant. The power awakens, the child defeats the evil and learns lessons about friendship/tolerance/the importance of believing in yourself, after which the child returns to its world and uses its newly found self-confidence to prevent further abuse by its peers. – Igor Rendi?

  8. says

    A sexy teenager is distracted by the allure of the opposite sex, creating an opportunity for the serial killer villain to kill the teen and any who engage in intercourse with her/him. -Tucker Cummings

    The big bad enemy can only be defeated by using a special weapon, often a hand-forged sword. Alternatively, the enemy can only be defeated after the heroes destroy said weapon. In other words, the most evil and powerful an enemy is, the more likely it is that only a singular weapon can destroy it. -Tucker Cummings

    A group of people from disparate backgrounds come together to defeat a common enemy. The group drifts apart due to a combination of external forces and internal disputes, only to reunite just in time to stop evil from taking over the land. -Tucker Cummings

  9. Graham Lowther says

    Someone is contacted from “beyond the grave”. After overcoming fear of spectral manifestations and difficulties in communication, a past wrong is learned of and something is done that relieves the specter’s anxieties about it, at which point the specter disappears for good. -Graham Lowther

  10. says

    Apparently, fantasy stories set in a tavern. Uh, anyone want to buy a fantasy story set in a tavern? — Gregory Norman Bossert

    The mysterious planet on which Our Heroes have landed is finally revealed to be… Earth! — Gregory Norman Bossert

    Let’s go back in time and kill Hitler. Even the ironical meta-referential-big-wink-version of that is a cliche… — Gregory Norman Bossert

  11. says

    Our Hero is lost in the wilderness and badly injured. A local species/tribe/what-have-you takes Our Hero in and treats his wounds. Over time, he learns their ways and becomes better at their culture than they are. Eventually, he uses that to save them from some threat they could not handle by themselves. –Megan O’Heffernan

  12. says

    The hero is presented with a dilemma. Instead of picking one option and sacrificing the other, s/he chooses both, and avoids the supposed consequences of this rulebreaking through sheer strength/willpower/love. – M. J. Starling

  13. Dan Read says

    A diabolical overlord or crime boss operates an illegal and brutal pit fighting operation in an isolated locale. Our hero, a great but reluctant fighter, must fight in these tournaments for some high-stakes reason–for revenge, for loyalty, for duty, for protection a loved one in jeopardy.

    Our hero defeats a series of opponents. Bets are placed by wealthy elites mixing with underworld figures. The boss has in his or her stable a champion fighter of great strength, who appears to know no limits and who fights dirty. The champion defeats many opponents, including fellow fighters whom the hero has befriended. But the evil champion has a fatal flaw, which can be exploited by our virtuous hero.

    In a final battle, our hero at half strength or even injured, he/she finally bests the champion, satisfies the heroic mandate, and in some way upsets the established order–perhaps even destroying the overlord. Through trial and victory, our hero has learning something about him/herself that will be of use in plotting the nearly identical sequel. –Dan Read

  14. Dan Read says

    Hi Jeff – This a lot of fun, for sure, and I’m not sure of the overall context in which these cliches will be discussed, but it might be worthwhile to analyze somehow how much of the time an interesting number of people would exclaim about a given cliche, “But I LOVE stories like that!”

    My submitted pit fighting cliche, which of course goes a bit beyond your requirement of only a couple sentences, is one of my favorite kinds of stories–especially in cinema. Make a movie with that plot, and I’m there, from Enter the Dragon to Lionheart. Somewhere I think there is a line between cliche and archetype, in the sense the Joseph Campbell, or I suppose Jung, would have used that word. But did Campbell or Jung ever place a bet on a pit fight?


  15. says

    The archvillain has henchmen (usually two) who are remarkably incompetent. For some unspecified reason, the archvillain does not fire these henchmen and seek new underlings. -Willow Fagan

  16. Nick Scorza says

    Stories told in diary format chart what is either slowly dawning supernatural horror or the gradual onset of madness, and I love them every time. — Nick Scorza

  17. ML Neuman says

    A woman must (for whatever reason) assume a role that requires a strong lead, traditionally held by a man. Woman agonizes over ability to do said task/role/quest/leadership because she is a woman. She succeeds.

  18. Will says

    The hero discovers an older character (usually male) who is unattractive & living in humble circumstances possesses the skills (often pertaining to combat) that are necessary to accomplish the task or to defeat the villains who are obstacles to accomplishing the task.

  19. says

    A man in a bar meets a mysterious woman. They go back to her place. She turns out to be an alien.
    A man in a bar meets a mysterious woman. They go back to her place. She turns out to be a time traveler.
    A man in a bar meets a mysterious woman. They go back to her place. She turns out to be a robot.
    A man in a bar meets a mysterious woman. They go back to her place. She turns out to be a supervillain.
    A man in a bar meets a mysterious woman. They go back to her place. She turns out to be a time-traveling alien robot supervillain.