Ready to write your SCREAMplay masterpiece?
What's your favorite scary movie?
No, I'm not doing a Ghostface impression—I genuinely want to know. For me, all my favorite horror and haunts come in the slasher film variety. Movies like Scream, Freaky, Happy Death Day, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Psycho are incredible looks at deep characters and exciting situations. They also have perfect logic that helps extend a bridge to an audience that might not traditionally love horror.
I can tell you that the most fun I have ever had writing a screenplay was when I attempted to write a slasher movie. I was super proud of it, even though the COVID pandemic killed our shooting plan and sent the script back to development hell. But hey, if you're a slasher fan, you know what is dead at one point might rise again. We'll see.
Slasher films are one of the most popular kinds of horror films. They're also one of the most malleable, able to take elements from thrillers, the supernatural, horror, mystery, and even fantasy at times. So today I wanted to walk you through a beat sheet where you get the ins and outs of some general slasher film beats. Let's get stabbing.
There are SPOILERS for lots of slashers if you keep reading our...
Beat Sheet Template
Before we get into the horror screenplay, let's talk generally. Writing is terrible and hard and maddening. But when you have a spark of an idea, nothing feels better than beating it out and setting up all the emotional payoffs.
I love beating out a story because it truly gives me something to clearly work toward. A great beat sheet, coupled with our story map, gets my drafts ready to go out into the world.
Here's a template we made for you to use as a guide. Now that you've seen the template, let's go through the individual beats and look at a few movie examples to hammer home a few points. And let's use some slasher movies for all of our examples.
The Slasher Movie Beat Sheet
1. The First Frame
A script reader will tell you that the first 10 pages are where they determine whether or not they want to recommend a script. So make your opening image stand out and try to link it to the theme of the story.
Think about your favorite slasher movie opening scenes. They usually involve a kill that takes us into the world and steeps us in what's to come. For example, Happy Death Day opens with what becomes the reset day for our character. While it's not a kill, it does tell us everything we need to know to figure out our killer.
2. The World Around Us
After we're hooked, steep us in the world. I want to know who inhabits these areas and what's going on in the world. Are we in the present, past, future? This is where you really set the tone as well. If you're writing a comedy, these pages should have people laughing. If it's a drama, give us some conflict.
How do we set up the world? We need to tell people about the magic involved or just the situation we're in. Think about a movie like Urban Legend, which has to set up the college campus and the legends that will inspire the killer.
3. Protagonist Introduction
At some point, we need to meet your protagonist. It would be wise to give us a character introduction and character name that are also indicative of the tone of the story. There are no Gaylord Fockers in American Beauty. When we meet your main character, we want to know them and know their story. Try to put them in a situation that makes us care about them or understand their struggle.
Who are some of your favorite slasher stars?
The final girls who capture our hearts and minds? I love the example from The Final Girls, where we meet a gal sucked into the slasher film her mom starred in. We understand she needs to get over losing her mom and see her clear goals of staying alive.
4. The Character Traits
This is another good time to point out that some of the beats can occur in the same scene, or series of scenes together. When you meet your character, we need to see what's driving them. What stands out about them? What do we think they need to change? Hint at possible arcs. Allude to who they are and how they interact with others.
So what are the traits that will help your characters get through all this? What are some possible arcs? In a movie like I Know What You Did Last Summer, we see characters who have to confront the past to move into the future—if they can survive. But in the car ride before the accident, you see each character show us who they are on the inside.
5. The Emotional Hurdle
We talk a lot about an external conflict in stories, but what about internal conflict? We want to know what's inside the character that can hold them back. What needs to come out over the journey? Slasher films are full of emotional hurdles, no one wants to die. But there are also emotional hurdles like Sidney Prescott getting over the loss of her mother. That becomes a theme inside the Scream series and carries into the other films.
6. The Physical Hurdle
This is the beginning of the external conflicts in the story. Again, these beats get repeated, but we need to know what impedes the characters. But even in act one, we need to know what will be in the way. In an adventure movie, it could be an opening set-piece that shows the world and tone. Or in a science fiction movie, it could be navigating a world you're not used to in a place where you have no allies.
I love the movie Freaky. It uses time to establish both our killer and our protagonist, and then gives us one of the most fun hurdles of all time, getting back into your own body.
7. The Reason Forward
Each protagonist's quest needs to have a reason behind it. When do we break from act one to act two? What's the driving force?
In a slasher, the reason forward is usually trying to figure out who's killing everyone. It can also be trying to escape somewhere, as well. In Psycho, it's the search for Marion that leads people to the Bates Motel.
8. The Decision to Try
As you enter the second act, your character needs to fully decide to participate in the quest. This decision to try, to put it all on the line, is the most important one of the script. This is what sets the audience off on an adventure, or even just begins to change their life. Not always for the better.
What makes your character want to be a part of this world? Again, it could be the active role of investigating, as they do in Halloween. Are they getting ready to kill Michael Meyers once and for all?
9. Why We’re Here
People who have read Save the Cat have heard of the promise of the premise... this is my version. Why would butts be in seats to watch your movie? What are those trailer moments that draw the crowds? This is where it shines!
But I think we do need a series of scenes that really give people those trailer moments. If you went to an action movie, you'd want to see huge set-pieces. If you went to a rom-com, you want to see people falling in love. And if you went to a horror movie, you want the kills.
This is where Scream racks up the body count and gives you the suspects. These scenes are the reason you chose to write the script. So have fun, be bold, and stay interesting.
10. Antics and Escapades
These are the actual events within the premise. I think it's important to look at them in two different beats. This is the first. In these, you want the payoffs to be fun and engaging. This is where things go right. Your characters could even get a bit cocky here. We often associate these pages with the genre. In heists, it's the break-in. There can be comedy set-pieces, but what about within dramas?
I love slasher films because the body count always begins to mount, even in a horror-comedy like Broken Lizard's Club Dread, we see the body count rise here as we get closer and closer to finding the killer.
11. Consequences and Casualties
One thing we need to see is a failure. Things can't go smoothly. Beats of failure are the most important part of a second act. This is where great characters deal with their actions. When you see your character fail, you can expose the character traits you want to see them fix. You can also build in the backstory to explain those failures. The more we know about the people within the world, the more we will root for them. Or against them. depending on your story.
As more people die, there have to be consequences. Are characters more alarmed or on high alert? Are your protagonists being taken to witness protection or sequestering together in a home to stay safe? Think about a movie like Child's Play where at the end you're losing beloved characters, and people are finally buying into the fact that they're being killed by a doll.
12. The Final Straw
At some point, we need to see the straw that breaks the camel's back. What's the low point? The one where people want to quit. Where the mission stops making sense.
In slasher films, there's always a sense that the killer will win in the end. Think about in Scream when the killers have Sidney cornered and it looks like everyone is dead but her...
13. Rock Bottom
After your character has found their worst failure, we need to see them wallow. Wallowing scenes can still be funny or dramatic or action-packed. When a slasher character hits rock bottom, it's when they have no hope. They just assume they'll die.
Meanwhile, the killers are confessing the how and why to the audience, making it all feel almost inevitable. Think about a movie like The Babysitter, where we get a cool reveal. The kid is trying to figure out why everyone has been trying to use him as a sacrifice. We see him fight back and lose it on the titular sitter.
14. The Bounce Back
Once you've hit rock bottom, you can only go up. When the story bounces back, it can in a big way. In a slasher, it's when your protagonist gets the upper hand and gives the killer a taste of their own medicine. We finally see them fight back and usually conquer their arc to find success.
Again, let's go back to Freaky, where we see our hero use her new body to beat her old one up, getting inner confidence and staying alive.
We all like a winner. Maybe these triumphs come at the expense of someone else, or maybe they're just minor wins. Maybe your characters lose, but thematically we should see what you want to communicate to the audience triumph here. That's the lesson, the moral, the reason you want people to tune in and watch. This is where you deliver that lesson—bitter, sweet, or somewhere in between.
This is when we see the killer finally go down. I suggest shooting them a lot, because they usually come back for more. Again, let's look at Happy Death Day, where we see a new day dawn, finally.
16. The Final Frame
We covered the first and final frames above. But this is where your story ends. What image will you leave in your reader's mind? What can sum up the story or sum up the intentions of the story and close the loop of the character's journey? How can you sum up the intention of your movie in the final frame? Is everything all right, has peace returned? Or is there more killing in the future?
I'll never forget the ending of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, where it seems like everything is back to normal...
Summing Up the Slasher Movie Beat Sheet
Slasher movies usually have killers who use knives or hooks or machetes to hack up their victims. They can be like 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. I hope this beat sheet helped inspire you to take your ideas to the next level.
Let me know what you think of all this in the comments.