Learn key elements of story structure from one of the masters of horror.
Films which make the strongest impression on us make that impression for a reason. Sometimes that reason might be a slight one: you were in the right mood, you had nothing else to watch, everyone else liked the film and you can see exactly why. However, as you continue to study films, you will soon discover that the movies you remember the most typically have one thing in common: the story structure is solid.
As this thorough video essay by Cristobal Olguin points out, Wes Craven's films are perfect to study for their structure. His films teach us that within any scene that truly frightens you, there are numerous relationships and correspondences that produce that feeling of fear. If one is missing, the entire effect might be lost.
Many of these elements are bound up in storytelling, in the little tricks Craven uses to move his tale along. This video takes a close look at a couple of the techniques Craven uses in Scream, written by Kevin Williamson, two of which we highlight below. [Spoiler alert twenty-one years later: this video reveals whodunnit in Scream.]
Manipulate audience expectations by upending the conventions of foreshadowing
Craven, here and in other films, likes to use foreshadowing to build up the impact of a particular scene. Take the closet door Drew Barrymore's Casey passes several times in the film's indelible "cold open." We see her walking towards the door, the camera stays near the door as she walks away, we wonder if someone or something is going to jump out at her, and yet nothing happens. Because of the way Craven has staged the scene, we can't help but think that something could happen there.
When the victim's sister walks past the same door later in the film, we quiet the butterflies in our stomachs: nothing can happen here, obviously. We've been through this before. And then what happens? Exactly what we thought was going to happen two hours ago! The moment here is rendered all the more scary because viewer reaction and response to foreshadowing has been manipulated, some would say cruelly, I would say deftly and effectively.
Use red herrings to misdirect your audience and keep them guessing
In a story, a red herring is an element an author throws in to steer you off the through line of the plot. This might be done for a number of reasons. It could be used to complicate a murder mystery, for instance. You think Character X committed the crime because... look, look: here's the evidence. How could I question it? Oh, wait. That piece of evidence proves nothing. What was I thinking?
A red herring could be added for humorous reasons, or it could be added to give depth to a story. In Scream, the red herrings—and there are plenty—serve all of these purposes. Because Craven sets the film up as a lecture in horror movie clichés, in a sense, everything and everyone becomes a red herring. Every character becomes a potential murderer, every detail a potential clue, pointing to... what? More jokes, more fake suspense.
By the time you find out who the real killer is in Scream, you might not care. The movie has become less about suspense and more about how to tell a story. Using traditional story techniques in new and interesting ways can give your story a unique structure, such as Craven achieved from Williamson's script for Scream.