How to Write a Great Horror Movie
There's only one genre out there that everyone is buying. So in honor of Halloween, I want to walk you through how to write a horror movie. Get your knives ready.
The horror genre is tried and true. It's the one genre every studio and streamer is buying. Why?
Because it's the one that usually delivers the most profitable movies. Horror films come with a huge audience, and the nature of the stories usually keep them pretty cheap.
But are there tricks to writing a horror screenplay that makes the process different?
I don't know about any tricks.... but I can assure you this post is a real treat!
Okay, if that didn't chase you away or horrify you enough to stop reading, let's forge ahead into the unknown...
What's the worst that could happen?
Horror movie definition
What is a horror movie?
A horror movie is a film whose plot is designed to frighten the viewer. The story must cause some sort of existential dread and invoke our very worst fears. Horror films are roller coasters for viewers often climaxing in a shocking finale. They can be cathartic or just plain fun.
What kinds of horror movies are out there?
There are so many different kinds of horror movies in the world. This genre contains a bunch of subgenres. Before you start writing, you should pick one, or mash a few up.
I want to address something that comes up in the comments a lot. I often get people replying "This is fine, but what actually sold with this stuff?"
I know we aren't supposed to read the comments, but the comments section is my horror movie.
I usually don't address this stuff but I want to this time.
Mostly because as a professional writer, horror is where I've found most of my recent work.
Last year I wrote on a horror anthology series that was on Netflix called Don't Watch This. My episode was called Keep Out. I've done extensive work for CryptTV since then and even sold a horror spec earlier this year. It's a slasher called Chaperones. Keep your eyes out for it.
I can't legally tell you more than that. But it's cool and a real movie with a real budget and a real director.
My point is: I have worked in this space and I want to help.
I'm not calling myself "the authority" but I'm only going to give you the things I've used for my screenplay work.
So let's look at some of the horror sub-genres and see what each entails.
Horror movie sub-genres
Slasher movies usually have killers who use knives or hooks or machetes to hack up their victims. They can be like Texas Chainsaw 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 possessor in The Exorcist. They can be spirits like in The Others or a riff 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.
How to Write a Horror Movie (Free Outline)
Before you sit down to write or outline, I wanted to go over some of the tropes within these kinds of films. These tropes can be things you subvert or lean into depending on the situation. You can learn about them here or see them in action by downloading 80 Horror Screenplays for inspiration!
So let's ask the question...
What are some horror screenplay tropes?
Guys, I love a great horror screenplay. They make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and make you shake with excitement.
Common tropes of horror screenplays include:
- Action: People often creep around with little dialogue.
- Suspense: Pacing in horror is a must. Think Hitchcock!
- Jump scares: 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 dreams for years to come.
Okay, you picked your horror subgenre and found our logline and treatment pages so you did your prep work. Now it's time to jump into the outline and then in your screenwriting software to type some pages.
So what does a horror screenplay outline look like?
The Horror Screenplay Outline:
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 the 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 Poltergiest 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 its 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 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 Jaws finally blows up?
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!
Horror Movies and Comedy Movies
One last thing I wanted to address is the addition of humor to your screenplay.
So many horror movies use comedy to help bring levity to dark things. Sure, it doesn't happen all the time, but comedy helps ease people into scenes., If you're laughing, you might be more susceptible to a jump scare or a misdirect.
You can be as funny as Shaun of the Dead, or use the deadpan humor of The Dead Don't Die.
Even titles as unsettling as Midsommar contain humor that helps the audience engage.
So consider adding humor to your pages to keep them turning.
Sam Raimi, one of the best to do it, uses comedy in all his horror films.
What's next? Learn about Movie and TV genres!
Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes.