October 1, 2013

How to Make Your Horror Screenplay More Effective

Horror is a film genre that is much more complex than it appears to be. The violence, sex, and gore speak to our deepest fears, anxieties, cultural taboos, and suppressed emotions. So, crafting this kind of film takes a little more finesse than pouring a bucket of blood on a naked cheerleader as she gets her head chopped off. ScreenCraft recently partnered with Dread Central and The Blood List (it's like The Black List, but for horror scripts) to host a seminar on horror screenwriting and filmmaking, where filmmakers of the genre shared some tips on creating effective horror films from script to screen.

On the panel were filmmakers such as Adam Simon, Misha Green, Drew Daywalt, and Mickey Keating. Thought they talked mostly about writing for horror, they did touch on how to come up with a horror movie idea, dealing with criticism, as well as the collective experience of horror films. Here are a few chosen tips from the video to get you started:

Where to start

Maybe some of you are wondering, "How the hell do I begin this process?" You want to write a horror film, you know that's the genre you want to work with, but where do you start? Green says to "start with what scares you." Maybe for you it's as simple as something physical: spiders, clowns, ghosts, knife-wielding maniacs. For others it could be something a little less tangible: isolation, loss, insanity, the unknown. With this, you can start to form the outline of your story.

The writing process

So, you've got the germ of your idea: newlyweds vacation in cabin infested with deadly cockroaches, but -- get this -- they're also ghosts (Ghostroaches 3D: No Match for Nuclear Holocaust, the Afterlife, or the Two-Dimensional Limitations of Your Screen). It's time to start putting together an outline for your story, and Simon, who has written horror films, like The Haunting in Connecticut and Brain Deadsuggests taking notes on the structure of films you like. This might not appeal to those who crave originality, but knowing structure is the first step of rebuilding it for your own film.

Another good screenwriting tip comes from Green. She says to be sure to convey the tone and create the atmosphere you're going for on the page, because when readers, producers, directors, and actors read it, they'll be able to feel the raw emotion -- the fear, anxiety, and horror that you want your audience to feel when they see it up on-screen.

Know how to interpret criticism

A great point brought up on the panel is that knowing how to take criticism is great, but knowing how to interpret it is even better. Not everybody who reads your script is going to be able to communicate clearly what's missing in it, as if they're either taking your film in a direction you don't want to go, or just missing the point altogether.

But, before you write off their notes as complete garbage, realize that though they may not be articulating their concerns that, say, translate into the horror genre specifically, they are seeing something that may be missing in your script. Something may not be working.

The Heart of Horror

NosferatuThe unknown. The single scariest thing known to humankind. All terrifying roads lead back to what's unknown: death, the dark, being trapped, sickness, strangers -- we don't want to pull back the curtain, because we don't know what's behind it. We don't like the dark, because we don't know what's beyond our vision. We don't like strange noises, because we don't know what or who made it. We're afraid of dying, because we don't know what's on the other side.

Using that as your base, you can explore other emotional responses other than fear that work well for the horror genre, like anxiety (closed spaces, crowded rooms) and repulsion (snakes, insects, unclean/infectious environments, gore.)

Check out the panel discussion below to hear more tips that will help you as you create your horror film.

What do you think? What advice did you find most helpful? If you have any advice of your own on horror filmmaking, let us know in the comments below.

[via ScreenCraft]

Your Comment

24 Comments

Very cool stuff. I enjoy horror but never considered working in the genre. I always wondered how people come up with that stuff, I assume the writers have to be mostly well adjusted to get where they are in life. Starting with what scares you is a good springboard. Though some of the Saw stuff or Human Centipede I still think WTF is wrong with whoever came up with that.

On another note, V Renèe is taking over NFS like a boss the last few days

October 2, 2013 at 12:37AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Amy

None of us are well adjusted. Not even a little. :)

October 2, 2013 at 11:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée

i dont think so ms. sassy pants

December 3, 2013 at 11:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Well... you'll find gems in both the extreme and in the more modest classic horror.

Looking back, I remember thinking Scream was good and scary. But seeing it now, I think it's mostly corny.
Saw I was pretty damn good... I think what made it good was the premise and the twist in the end. Who doesn't fear the unknown, which in case of Saw was "Where am I? Why? Why me?". In other cases the unknown works best if it's an entity and in other cases again it's down to the lack of the main characters knowledge of what they are or where they are. (The Others was a nice little movie as well....)

I think you can also learn a lot from simply listing up all your own favourite horror movies (maybe just settle for 10 to begin with) and then analyze them as boringly and effectively as you can.
Divide them up into "chapters", anazlyse the settings of each chapter. Try to remember what mechanisms made you jump from the seat of your chair, pay attention to set design, the acting and so on.
The best of them have all of those aspects come together and form a wholeness that is missing in the worst horror movies.

In relation to Human Centipede (I actually first got to see it a couple of months ago), what made it a good movie, was that it felt like an absurd dream mixed with parts of what could be one's own life. The trip with friends... the old idea of a mad doctor, and then take that and spin it completely bonkers.
Dreams can offer a great deal of scenarios that often are outrageous or scary (at least mine can), and being able to remember them can also work as a tool to achieve absurd twists that can lead to little scary or twisted moments that could frighten your audience.

So many ways to approach it. I guess it's more or less just getting down to business and the heed the advice on learning to take criticism and use it to evolve the story.
Great things don't fall into your lap out of the blue, and even Kubrick sat during the filming of The Shining and rewrote scenes and dialogue.

Here are some of the movies in the horror genre that I would personally use to learn from:

1. The Shining - I haven't read the book. But this ranks as my personal all time favourite.
2. Eden Lake - One of the "why" / helplessness horror / thrillers.
3. A lonely place to die - A bit up the alley of Eden lake
4. Saw... what a great little twist. I still think it's a great movie ruined by franchise.
5. Funny Games US ( I haven't seen the austrian version yet)
6. The Others - Thought it was decent. Mainly because I wasn't expecting the twist.
7. The Awakening - A nice "Hollywood production" again with a little twist (...but almost expected)
8. Hostel - Man... that was one sick movie, and exploitation has its own place in my heart.
9. Maniac 2012 - Great idea of turning it into PoV, it worked. And a great example of how frightening ruthless cold slaying can be.
10. The Intruders - Another great example where everything takes place in the mind and creates the unknown that becomes the fear element.

(11). I can't remember the name, but it was a great little indie movie taking place near a tunnel where a troll came out and stole kids or people or something. I was shot on the 5D but to me a great testament of what can be achieve when you take a dedicated crew, a basic premise from kids fairy tales and work with what is possible within the budget.

Of course there are many more, but I'd like to keep it tight to start off. In fact if you are very specific about your production I'd say that you should maybe settle to make a list of horrors that has the basic premise of your idea;
ie. if you are making a zombie movie, then your list might have 28 Days (I know... infected..), Dawn of the Dead etc etc.

Well, that was just me rambling, hope I made some sense x)

October 2, 2013 at 3:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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For that 5d movie, you thinking of Absentia?

October 2, 2013 at 12:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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StephenKingRules

That's correct!

October 2, 2013 at 1:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Awesome response, Torben! Though, none of my favorite horror films have ever made me jump. 'The Exorcist', 'Suspiria', 'The Shining', 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" never startled me, but instead maintained this...terrifying environment that you couldn't escape. Like, every time you go inside Reagan's room in 'The Exorcist', you knew you were about to get your soul rocked.

I definitely have an affinity toward horror films with a really good dramatic narrative, instead of a lot of gore and loud sounds that startle rather than actually terrify. That's why 'The Exorcist' is one of my favorite films! Nice, long, ambling dramatic narrative that just so happens to have a possessed little girl in it.

That might be a good test: can your horror film work as a drama if you took out all the horror elements? I might have to investigate that...

October 2, 2013 at 11:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée

Part of what's helped THE EXORCIST age so well is that Friedkin filmed it more like a documentary - relatively restrained camera work, naturalistic line delivery, and the most importantly, we really get to know the key players and what they're dealing with in their lives (divorce, dying mother, etc) before the uncanny starts to happen in earnest.

October 3, 2013 at 2:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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So many great things about The Exorcist that have nothing to do with "the Devil". A celebrity mother who has been absent for most of her daughter's childhood and guilt-ridden about it... The daughter suddenly transformed into something unrecognizeable, her possession coinciding with the onset of puberty. Father Karras struggling with his own faith, forced to abandon his mother in a nursing home and guilt-ridden over it. "Why, Damie? Why?" The doddering, star-stricken detective who, despite his admirations, is still jaded enough to be able to see through the exterior veneer of both Karras and the mother.

I think Exorcist, Shining, Jaws and the like are instructive, in that character development is an absolute MUST if you ever hope to rise above the negative trappings of genre. As the industry learned from Raimi's treatment of Spider Man, these "comic book" stories can hold their own against more literary works if the subject matter is simply treated with some sincerity.

October 8, 2013 at 6:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Preach it.

October 8, 2013 at 5:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I think if you want to learn from horror movies, you need a wider selection. Your stuff are all basically the same torture/slasher stuff. Unless that's what you want to do, but it's pretty limited.

October 4, 2013 at 10:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Muh

Good stuff again. Im glad you provided the link to your in depth piece on zombies, i missed it the first time round. Coming from a theory background myself i thought your points were well made, naturally there are people trying to shoot down the meaning in horror films, showing an absence of any critical thinking of their own...

October 2, 2013 at 9:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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andy

The moment you open your first book about film theory is the point of no return. You'll never enjoy movies the same way again...which is good and bad, yeah?

October 2, 2013 at 11:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée

Absolutely, although the theory enriches your general knowledge of cinema, how it works and communicates. It can also put up huge barriers for progressing the practical side of things(film making). Suddenly most projects seem too intellectually lacking to be actually worth making. I'm over simplifying, of course it is more complex than this but it is something ive found, how about yourself?

October 5, 2013 at 4:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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andy

This is a really shit article on writing 'horror' in fact it's shit for writing period. Get someone who knows about writing or stick to talking about camera bodies and lenses. Any writer worth their salt will tell you this is lame.

October 3, 2013 at 1:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DANGER J

I thought that the panel brought up excellent points about screenwriting. Maybe you could explain what you thought was missing.

October 3, 2013 at 11:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Whatever you say, Danger J who I'm sure has written a ton of brilliant stuff. The article was basically there to intro the video.

October 4, 2013 at 10:10AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Muh

So I suppose you're a writer worth your salt, rather than the bitter mongoloid you're coming across as with this post?

October 4, 2013 at 3:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Alex

Write in the dark. Put on some spooky music - The soundtrack from Dracula, Woman in Black, etc.

Dave

October 7, 2013 at 6:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dave

No fans of "Rosemary's Baby"? (who, it seems, have been fathered by Frank Sinatra ... but that's another horror plot)

October 9, 2013 at 3:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Love Rosemary's Baby. In many ways Polanski does more with less than Friedkin did in Exorcist. And, of course, there's John Cassavetes! "He has his Father's eyes..."

October 14, 2013 at 4:02AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nice article that gives a good piece of advice... I fully agree with that the unknown is the essence of human fears... Alien, even Jaws (forced to keep unseen the shark due to failing animatronics...) are good examples. However, we cannot forget a very important option. On the other end is... the very well-known, the habitual object, the innocent and useful object we need and use every day.... the most nice and innocent child that, without changing a bit of apparent not dangerous beauty.... perhaps, just perhaps... or perhaps surely... IS NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.... >;D

October 13, 2013 at 7:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Carlo

Two young twin girls, talking at the same time, slightly out of sync, is what scares me.

December 3, 2013 at 12:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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My favourite horror films:

The Shining
The Orphanage
28 Weeks Later
[Rec]
The Conjuring

July 16, 2014 at 12:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Stu Mannion