One of the most popular genres out there is horror. It comes with its own audience and frequently does well at the box office and on television. It delivers chills, scares, and makes the audience feel like they're on a roller coaster. The only thing I don't love about horror is actually sitting down to write it.
Horror story ideas take a lot of work. They need to feel unique and cut through the noise to stand out to producers.
Some of the best ways to get ready to write are to study other screenplays, look at horror prompts, and refine your ideas with successful writing tools.
Today, I want to guide you through some of these and allow you to try a few of these tactics out for yourself. Hopefully, we can work together to make writing horror less frightening than watching it.
Let's get going, you have scary stories to write!
'It'Credit: Warner Brothers
The Horror Genre Definition
Before we jump in, let's get a definition. Horror is a genre of film and television whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, disgust, and terror in the audience. The primary goal is to develop an atmosphere that puts the audience on edge and scares them.
Where does the word "horror" come from?
The term actually came from the Old French word "orror," which meant “to shudder or to bristle.”
Horror filmmaking has roots in religions across the world, local folktales, and history. It's a universal genre. Every culture has its scary stories and fears. These elements are meant to exploit the viewer and engage them with the possibility of death and pain.
Most importantly, to be a true horror project, your story should deal with the supernatural. Death, evil, powers, creatures, the afterlife, witchcraft, and other diabolical and unexplainable happenings must be at the story's center.
'The Exorcist'Credit: Warner Brothers
Horror Story Ideas, Prompts, and Screenplays
Got an idea of what kinds of scary stories you want to tell in the dark?
Before you get into the physical act of writing, let's trace some of the origins and reasoning behind what you're embarking on. That's a question you can answer for yourself before you start writing. Why horror? What do you have to say? Why are you using this genre to tell your story?
Themes for horror stories
The theme of your screenplay refers to the issue at the core of the story itself. This isn't mentioned in the script, but it's the emotional or spiritual driving force behind your movie's message. If you don't have a theme, then your film will feel like it lacks purpose. Think of the theme like the thesis statement of a paper. John August describes the theme as "what is true and what is real."
So what's true at the center of your story?
As you go through your ideas and the "why" you're telling them, you'll pick up on the themes. What do you want to say about the human condition, or society, or relationships?
The themes for your screenplay matter. They'll cast a shadow over every scene and should dictate how you craft characters and set up the main story beats.
When it comes time to begin to write your plot for these kinds of movies, consider writing a treatment to get started. It's basically a scary story you'll then adapt into a movie.
Horror plots really depend on the kind of subgenre you plan on using. Let's take a look at some.
Credit: Horror on Screen
Horror movie subgenres
Slasher movies usually have killers who use knives or hooks or machetes to hack up their victims. They can be like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Scream in tone. There can be one or multiple killers. They have a lot in common with the mystery genre and thrillers.
From Godzilla to The Fly, monster movies come in all shapes and sizes. Usually, these monsters terrorize a small community, like in Jaws, but they can also be a global threat, like in Cloverfield.
We don't always need a direct scientific explanation for why or how the monster exists, but that might clue everyone in on how you can defeat them.
Ghosts, demons, and Satan all exist within these worlds. Your demons can be like Freddy Kreuger or they can be like the spirit in The Exorcist. They can be ghosts like in The Others or a riff on that, like in Ghost. Or just straight-up horrific like in Poltergeist.
A few years ago it felt like every movie had a scary doll in it. Now, with the Chucky reboot and Anabelle, these dolls don't seem like they're going away.
But what about something like The Fog or Christine? They also fall into these types.
I know this is technically a way to make a movie, but I wanted to address it last. While these movies are not as popular as they once were, the staples are still the most famous.
The Blair Witch, The Visit, and Paranormal Activity changed the way we viewed cinema. You have to write for found footage for it to be found footage.
Common tropes of horror screenplays
Here are just a few of the biggest horror screenplay tropes.
- Action: People often creep around with little dialogue.
- Suspense: Pacing in horror is a must. Think Hitchcock!
- Jumpscares: Sudden noises or reveals should POP off the page.
- Gore: Gruesome death or torture scenes are commonplace in these movies.
- A memorable villain: Create someone who will haunt your dreams for years to come.
The Horror Screenplay Outline
If you're writing your own screenplay, maybe this outline will help you get started. The beats below should help jumpstart your ideas and show you where they would traditionally fall into place within the story.
1. Unraveling The Terror—Do you have an opening scare that defines the movie?
Do you like Scream? The opening scene of the screenplay sets the tone for the entire story.
2. The Entry Point—Who will be involved in these terrifying escapades, and what are they dealing with?
In a movie like Dawn of the Dead, it's a series of scenes where we meet who will inhabit the mall.
3. Before It Goes to Shit—What’s a normal day look like in this world?
Think about the way the family gets by in Poltergeist before the ghosts show up.
4. The Horror Sets In—What horrific thing sets our characters off on their journey?
Nothing is worse than realizing your daughter is possessed as the characters do in The Exorcist.
5. The Uneasy Path—Everyone is together, what keeps them moving this way?
In something like Godzilla, it's the reason why they deal with the monster at hand. What do they have to gain?
6. Walking Over Broken Glass—How do our heroes deal with the problems as they go?
In the Saw franchise, this is how people try to get out of the sick traps and hunt Jigsaw.
7. Through The Dark Cave—Do you have a B story? Set that story off on its own now too.
B-stories, like the marital tension in Rosemary's Baby, are great scenes to juxtapose against the horror at hand.
8. Reassess the Terror—You’re in the middle. Is there another way to get out alive?
In Shaun of the Dead, it's when they decide to go to the Winchester.
9. People are Going to Die—Things begin to fall apart, let the body count rise, and show how they deal with it.
In The Descent, this is when the people in the group begin to be picked off one by one.
10. The Fall—The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
In a horror movie like The Mist, it's when they are forced outside and surrounded by the actual mist.
11. The Hidden Clue—What do your characters discover that they never saw before?
Is there a way out? Something they never realized, like in the Sixth Sense when David realizes he's a ghost.
12. Race To the Final (Girl)—They’re up and running no matter what. They can make it!
This is the series of scenes that carries us toward your thrilling finale. In Alien, it's when Ripley is confronted by the Xenomorph and has to think fast.
13. The Moment of Relief—Did they make it out alive? Has life returned to normal?
What does their day feel like with the problem corrected? Think about when the shark in Jaws finally dies.
14. Where We Go From Here?—Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next. Maybe the killer or monster returns for one final scare!
In every horror movie, it feels like there's one last scare. Like in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer when it turns out the hook-handed man is under the bed!
30 Scary Horror Story Prompts and Ideas
We have lots of story prompts available for writers. If you want to use them, go for it. Check out the list below.
- A childhood doll comes to life.
- A scene from a nightmare becomes reality.
- Days go by, and your significant other never comes home.
- You're bitten by a bat and slowly become a vampire.
- You begin to suspect a family member might be a serial killer.
- You’re lost in the woods and stumble upon a cult.
- You see a ghost and no one believes you.
- You have no reflection in the mirror.
- You begin to suspect the family dog is actually a werewolf.
- You get hypnotized and begin to see past murderous lives.
- A fortune teller tells you that death is coming for you.
- You sell your soul and suffer the consequences.
- You find a diary that tells the future but you're not in it.
- The killer you see in your dreams shows up in reality.
- You begin to suspect your parents are aliens.
- You know someone is watching you day and night from the house across the street.
- You realize you are growing fangs.
- A scary board game sucks you inside it.
- You find a secret compartment inside your house where someone is watching you.
- All the pets in a small town vanish in the middle of the night…
- You're in the middle of an average day when a coworker bites someone and zombies break into your office.
- A mysterious gift from an estranged aunt arrives and it's a crystal ball.
- One of the trick-or-treaters bears an uncanny resemblance to you...
- On Halloween night, you find a box at your door that contains your own head from the future.
- Your significant other asks you to murder their ex.
- Your kids spent Halloween with your ex and were supposed to come trick-or-treating last night but never show.
- You come home to find a stranger walking through your home who says you're actually the intruder.
- Your grandfather's ghost follows you around, claiming your mom killed him.
- You're on a tour of the White House and ghosts from the past come out and threaten the President.
- You make friends with the monster in your closet and sic him on other people.
Horror short film ideas
Want to scare yourself in no time at all? Consider some horror short films that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Know that writing a short film is way different than anything else we have talked about here. So let's dig a little deeper on this one.
How Long Is a Short Film?
A short film is any film that isn't long enough to be considered a feature. The Sundance Film Festival allows its shorts to be 50 minutes or less. The Academy Awards sets the bar at 40 minutes. Technically this is what qualifies as a short film.
Don’t get too caught up in thinking about these varying lengths. Focus on what you want to do with your short, the world, the characters, the situation, and see where you land.
One of my favorite shorts of all time clocks in at 26 minutes. It’s called Six Shooter and was directed by Martin McDonagh. It's kind of a horror thriller.
How to Write a Short Film that Connects
But writing short films that actually connect with an audience and receive acclaim is hard. Short film comedy is a common route, and you can search for top short films on YouTube to see what people are connecting with currently. When you consider it, isn't an Instagram story a short film? Certainly, a skit is. Short films surround you. Which ones do you connect most with?
Start with five pages and then expand. If you expand too much, your idea may not even be right for a short film.
When you’re writing a short film, there are lots of options about length. How will you know if you’ve got the right short film ideas?
How to Brainstorm Writing Horror Short Film Ideas!
Short films are kind of a tricky path to follow. When we sit down to write, the natural inclination is to set up a huge story with a lot of characters and great stakes, but that’s not really what short films are about. A short film needs to take us on an emotional journey, but we should never feel like the story is crammed into the allotted time.
The short film has to be able to stand alone.
In my opinion, the best short films take us on a fulfilling journey that often happens "in the moment" so to speak. That means the story might play out in real-time, or close to real-time. When I’m sitting down to write a short film, I think about situations or moments that can tell a grander lesson but occur in real-time.
What are some scenarios from my own life? What are some events that happened to me that taught me lessons applicable to writing short films? Did I ever spend an afternoon with a grandparent who was already dead? Help someone change a flat tire and have a killer nearby? I know I’ve been on a ton of bad Tinder dates. Those all work for horror situations!
Chase your own life around for a bit. Do some self-reflection. Go back to your horror themes and suss out what you have to say. I like to mine my own life, and then add fantastical elements to the mix. Build your story out, accentuate the characters, find the crucial moments where we learn something. And let the idea take you where you want to go.
When I’m writing a short film I also like to think about limitations. Can I tell a story that takes place entirely in the back seat of a car?
Or even one that’s just about a game of hide and seek that goes wrong...
I think the best way to learn about screenwriting is to actually read the kinds of movies you want to write. So I pulled a few horror scripts I think can teach you a lot about worldbuilding and set pieces and scary ideas.
The Top 10 Horror Scripts to Download
You can download thousands of horror screenplays here. I wanted to list 10 I think which cover the wide variety of horror subgenres. Check them out below.
- An American Werewolf In London by John Landis
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Joss Whedon
- Dawn of the Dead 2004 by James Gunn, Rewrite by Michael Tolkin
- Hellraiser by Clive Barker
- Exorcist by William P. Blat
- Texas Chain Saw Massacre by Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper
- Scream by Kevin Williamson
- Pitch Black by David Twohy
- Sleepy Hollow by Andrew Kevin Walker and Tom Stoppard
- The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan
'Nightmare on Elm Street'Credit: New Line Cinema
Summing Up Horror Story Ideas, Prompts, and Screenplays
I hope this page got your creative juices flowing and made you even more excited to scare the crap out of your friends and family. As always, if you have any strategies, make sure you put them in the comments so everyone can get ahead.
Horror scripts are a great way to break into Hollywood and one of the only kinds of specs that really sell.
Let me know what you think of all this in the comments.
Till next time.
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