(List last updated 10 March 2012)
For information about what we're looking for and how to submit, see our main fiction guidelines page.
The following list is an attempt at classifying the kinds of non-horror plots and themes that we've received too frequently. We have a separate page for horror stories we've seen too often.
Main plot types are numbered; subspecies and variants receive letters.
This is not a canonical list of bad stories or story cliches. This is a list of types of stories that we at SH have seen too often; it's not intended to be a complete list of all types of bad stories, nor are all the items on the list necessarily bad.
We often receive stories that match items on this list but that have cover letters saying "This matches something on your list, but I've done something new and unique and different with it." Such stories almost always turn out to be very similar to other stories we've seen. If your story is a close match to one or more items on this list (especially if it's a close enough match that you feel the need to include a cover-letter disclaimer), you may want to consult some friends who are well-read in the genre before deciding that it's probably different from what we see all the time. (And by the way, we often don't read cover letters until after we've read the story.)
One more thing: We know it's tempting to look at this list as a challenge. Please don't. In particular, please don't send us stories that intentionally incorporate one or more of these items.
Note to bloggers and other potential reprinters: See end of page for reprint guidelines.
Here's the list:
- Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says "I want to be at point B." Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
- Creative person is having trouble creating.
- Writer has writer's block.
- Painter can't seem to paint anything good.
- Sculptor can't seem to sculpt anything good.
- Creative person's work is reviled by critics who don't understand how brilliant it is.
- Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
- Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertantly violates them, is punished.
- New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist's attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
- Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real.
- In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
- In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
- In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
- In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we've seen are part of the novel.
- An AI gets loose on the Net, but the author doesn't have a clear concept of what it means for software to be "loose on the Net." (For example, the computer it was on may not be connected to the Net.)
- Technology and/or modern life turn out to be soulless.
- Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.
- All technology is shown to be soulless; in contrast, anything "natural" is by definition good. For example, living in a weather-controlled environment is bad, because it's artificial, while dying of pneumonia is good, because it's natural.
- The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good.
- In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
- In the future, everything is soulless and electronic, until protagonist (usually a kid) is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who's lived a non-electronic life.
- Protagonist is a bad person. [We don't object to this in a story; we merely object to it being the main point of the plot.]
- Bad person is told they'll get the reward that they "deserve," which ends up being something bad.
- Terrorists (especially Osama bin Laden) discover that horrible things happen to them in the afterlife (or otherwise get their comeuppance).
- Protagonist is portrayed as really awful, but that portrayal is merely a setup for the ending, in which they see the error of their ways and are redeemed. (But reading about the awfulness is so awful that we never get to the end to see the redemption.)
- A place is described, with no plot or characters.
- A "surprise" twist ending occurs. [Note that we do like endings that we didn't expect, as long as they derive naturally from character action. But note, too, that we've seen a lot of twist endings, and we find most of them to be pretty predictable, even the ones not on this list.]
- The characters' actions are described in a way meant to fool the reader into thinking they're humans, but in the end it turns out they're not humans, as would have been obvious to anyone looking at them.
- Creatures are described as "vermin" or "pests" or "monsters," but in the end it turns out they're humans.
- The author conceals some essential piece of information from the reader that would be obvious if the reader were present at the scene, and then suddenly reveals that information at the end of the story. [This can be done well, but rarely is.]
- Person is floating in a formless void; in the end, they're born.
- Person uses time travel to achieve some particular result, but in the end something unexpected happens that thwarts their plan.
- The main point of the story is for the author to metaphorically tell the reader, "Ha, ha, I tricked you! You thought one thing was going on, but it was really something else! You sure are dumb!"
- A mysteriously-named Event is about to happen ("Today was the day Jimmy would have to report for The Procedure"), but the nature of the Event isn't revealed until the end of the story, when it turns out to involve death or other unpleasantness. [Several classic sf stories use this approach, which is one reason we're tired of seeing it. Another reason is that we can usually guess the twist well ahead of time, which makes the mysteriousness annoying.]
- In the future, an official government permit is required in order to do some particular ordinary thing, but the specific thing a permit is required for isn't (usually) revealed until the end of the story.
- Characters speculate (usually jokingly): "What if X were true of the universe?" (For example: "What if the universe is a simulation?") At the end, something happens that implies that X is true.
- Characters in the story (usually in the far future and/or on an alien planet) use phrases that are phonetic respellings or variations of modern English words or phrases, such as "Hyoo Manz" or "Pleja Legions," which the reader isn't intended to notice; in the end, a surprise twist reveals that there's a connection to 20th/21st-century English speakers.
- Someone calls technical support; wacky hijinx ensue.
- Someone calls technical support for a magical item.
- Someone calls technical support for a piece of advanced technology.
- The title of the story is 1-800-SOMETHING-CUTE.
- Scientist uses himself or herself as test subject.
- Evil unethical doctor performs medical experiments on unsuspecting patient.
- In the future, criminals are punished much more harshly than they are today.
- In the future, the punishment always fits the crime.
- The author is apparently unaware of the American constitutional amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, and so postulates that in the future, American punishment will be extra-cruel in some unusual way.
- White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.
- Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.
- A party of D&D characters (usually including a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, one of whom is a half-elf and one a dwarf) enters a dungeon (or the wilderness, or a town, or a tavern) and fights monsters (usually including orcs).
- Story is the origin story of a D&D character, culminating in their hooking up with a party of adventurers.
- A group of real-world humans who like roleplaying find themselves transported to D&D world.
- An alien or an AI/robot/android observes and comments on the peculiar habits of humans, for allegedly comic effect.
- The alien or AI is fluent in English and completely familiar with various English idioms, but is completely unfamiliar with human biology and/or with such concepts as sex or violence and/or with certain specific extremely common English words (such as "cat").
- The alien or AI takes everything literally.
- Instead of an alien or AI, it's people in the future commenting on the ridiculous things (usually including internal combustion engines) that people used to use in the unenlightened past.
- Space travel is wonderful and will solve all our problems. [We agree that space travel is pretty cool, but we'd rather that weren't the whole point of the story.]
- Man has an awful, shrewish wife; in the end he gets revenge on her, by (for example) killing her or leaving her.
- Man is entirely blameless, innocent, mild-mannered, and unobjectionable, and he kills his awful, shrewish wife entirely by accident, possibly in self-defense, so it's okay.
- Some characters are in favor of immersive VR, while others are opposed to it because it's not natural; they spend most of the story's length rehashing common arguments on both sides. [Full disclosure: one of our editors once wrote a story like this. It hasn't found a publisher yet, for some reason.]
- Person A tells a story to person B (or to a room full of people) about person C.
- In the end, it turns out that person B is really person C (or from the same organization).
- In the end, it turns out that person A is really person C (or has the same goals).
- In the end, there's some other ironic but predictable twist that would cast the whole story in a different light if the reader hadn't guessed the ending early on.
- People whose politics are different from the author's are shown to be stupid, insane, or evil, usually through satire, sarcasm, stereotyping, and wild exaggeration.
- In the future, the US or the world is ruled by politically correct liberals, leading to awful things (usually including loss of freedom of speech).
- In the future, the US or the world is ruled by fascist conservatives, leading to awful things (usually including loss of freedom of speech).
- Superpowered narrator claims that superhero stories never address the mundane problems that superheroes would run into in the real world.
- A princess has been raped or molested by her father (or stepfather), the king.
- Someone comes up with a great medical or technological breakthrough, but it turns out that it has unforeseen world-devastating consequences. [Again, this is a perfectly good plot element, but we're not thrilled when it's the whole point of the story.]
- It's immediately obvious to the reader that a mysterious character is from the future, but the other characters (usually including the protagonist) can't figure it out.
- Someone takes revenge for the wrongs done to them.
- Protagonist is put through heavy-handed humiliation after humiliation, and takes it meekly, until the end when he or she murders someone.
- The narrator and/or male characters in the story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the standard stereotypes about women: that they're mysterious, wacky, confusing, unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.
- Strange and mysterious things keep happening. And keep happening. And keep happening. For over half the story. Relentlessly. Without even a hint of explanation.
- The protagonist is surrounded by people who know the explanation but refuse to give it.
- Story consists mostly of surreal dreamlike randomness.
- Author showcases their premise of what the afterlife is like; there's little or no story, other than demonstrating that premise.
- Hell and Heaven are run like businesses.
- The afterlife is really monotonous and dull.
- The afterlife is a bureaucracy.
- The afterlife is nothingness.
- The afterlife reunites you with your loved ones.
- Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that's ostensibly about violence against women being bad.
- Man is forced by circumstances or magic to rape a woman even though he really doesn't want to, honest.
- The main reason for the main female character to be in the story, and to be female, is so that she can be raped.
- Evil people hook the protagonist on an addictive substance and then start raising the price, ruining the protagonist's life.
- Fatness is used as a signal of evil, dissolution, and/or moral decay, usually with the unspoken assumption that it's completely obvious that fat people are immoral and disgusting.
[Note: This does not mean all fat characters in stories must be good guys. We're just tired of seeing fat used as a cheap shorthand signifier of evil.]
- Someone wants to kill someone else, and that's perfectly reasonable because, after all, the victim-to-be is fat.
- The story spends a lot of time describing, over and over, just how fat a character is, and how awful that is.
- Physical contact with a fat person is understood to be obviously revolting.
- Protagonist agrees to go along with a plan or action despite not having enough information about it, and despite their worries that the thing will be bad. Then the thing turns out to be bad after all.
- Teen's family doesn't understand them.
- Twee little fairies with wings fly around being twee.
- Sentient toys, much like the ones from Toy Story, interact with each other.
- In a comedic/satirical story, vampires and/or other supernatural creatures come out publicly and demand (and/or get) the vote and other rights, but people are prejudiced against them.
- At the end of the story, one of the characters starts to write This Very Story that we're reading. (Often, some or all of the opening paragraph is repeated at the end.) [This is different from just ordinary first-person narration; this kind of story is usually in third person, and the Writing This Very Story is usually presented as a surprise.]
- An unnamed character turns out, in the end, to be God.
- The toy that the character is playing with (or the project that they've been working on) turns out to be Earth or the Universe.
- Story consists of recipes for, or descriptions of, killing and eating sentient beings (usually fantastical creatures).
- There's a machine that cryptically predicts the manner of a person's death by printing it on a slip of paper; the machine is never wrong, but often it's right in surprising or ironic ways. [There's nothing wrong with the Machine of Death anthologies, but we've seen a large number of MoD rejects, and we're extremely unlikely to buy one.]
- Story is set in a world in which some common modern Western power structure is inverted, and we're meant to sympathize with the people who are oppressed in the world of the story. [Such stories usually end up reinforcing the real-world dominant paradigm; and regardless, they rarely do anything we haven't seen many times before.]
- Women have more power than men, and it's very sad how oppressed the men are.
- Everyone in the society is gay or lesbian, and straight people are considered perverts.
- White people are oppressed by oppressive people with other skin colors.
- Kids with special abilities are kidnapped by the government and imprisoned and tested in a lab.
- Title consists entirely of a string of digits.
- Baby or child is put in danger, in a contrived way, in order to artificially boost narrative tension.
- Someone encounters some magical or otherwise apparently impossible phenomenon. In the end, it turns out that it's real!
- A character says things that the other characters consider to be irrational, paranoid, or obviously impossible, but in the end it turns out that character was right!
- The author attempts to lead the reader to think a character is going to die, but instead the character is uploaded into VR or undergoes some other transformative but non-dying process.
- Someone dies and then wanders around as a ghost.
- They meet other ghosts who've been around longer and who show them the ropes, and/or help them come to terms with being dead, and/or explain that nobody knows what happens after ghosts move on to the next stage of the afterlife.
- They're initially stuck in the place where they died or the place where their body is. In some cases, they eventually figure out how to roam the world.
- Aliens and/or far-future posthumans think, talk, and behave just like upper-middle-class Americans from the 20th or early 21st century.
- The story's main (usually only) female character doesn't have much subjectivity; we see her only (or at least primarily) through the idealizing eyes of a male character.
- Humanity's problems (such as war, mental health issues, disease, or bad political leaders) turn out to be secretly caused by aliens, demons, or other inimical non-humans.
Return to main fiction guidelines page.
Reprinting this list
Feel free to reprint as much of the list as you like, up to and including the whole thing, with the following provisions:
- If you want to reprint this in some online venue, you might consider just quoting a brief excerpt and linking to it instead of quoting the entire piece. We add to the list over time, so if you reprint a full copy of it, your readers will only get a snapshot of a particular version of the list, whereas if you link to it, they'll get to see the latest and fullest version. One great thing about the web is that if there's one copy of a work online, everyone else can link to that copy instead of having to copy it in full. But if you feel you must reprint the whole thing, then go ahead; just be sure to follow the rest of the guidelines below.
- Please format your reprint reasonably nicely—in particular, if you're reprinting online, then please use something similar (or identical) to the HTML code that we used, so that the numbering and indentation will be readable in most browsers. (Please don't just copy the text of the page as displayed in your browser; that will not retain the formatting.)
- Please provide a link back to the original.
- Please mention the name Strange Horizons, and a brief description of our magazine. For example: "This list is part of the submission guidelines for Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine."
- Please don't describe this as a canonical list of bad stories (or of story cliches) per se.
Oh, and thanks! We're glad you like the list.