In honor of Halloween, here are three tips to writing effective horror screenplays!
(Spoilers: Alien, The Sixth Sense, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, The Others)
1. Make us care. This is one many bad horror movies fail to do. The more we care about the characters in jeopardy, the more we will fear something bad happening to them. The characters need to feel like real people. To achieve that, give each character specific details and personality traits. Avoid clichéd stereotypes. Make them complex, with strengths and flaws, hopes and fears.
In Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon), we get to see the crew interact with each other before the horror starts. We learn about their interpersonal dynamics – how the two engine mechanics feel underappreciated by the officers, for example. The initial dinner scene shows the group talking about getting home, complaining about the food, and sharing in-jokes. As a result, they feel like real people once the alien starts picking them off.
In The Others (written by Alejandro Amenabar) we meet Grace as she is showing new servants around. We see that she’s strict and cold – brushing off sympathy for her recently deceased husband. She is no-nonsense, not believing in the supernatural. And she has two children with a rare disease, a sensitivity to light. Though she is brusque, she clearly loves her children. These details make her unique and real. When strange things start happening, we identify with her desperation to protect her children.
2. Establish the Supernatural Early. You can divide horror films into two camps: those that contain supernatural elements and those that don’t. Psycho killer stories like Saw (story by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, written by Leigh Whannell) or Last House on the Left (written by Wes Craven) don’t have supernatural elements. If you’re writing something like that, you can skip this tip. Movies like The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan), Nightmare on Elm Street (written by Wes Craven), and The Others do.
In these latter types of films, you should set up the supernatural elements early in the film. The audience is willing to suspend their disbelief when they watch a movie, but they demand internal consistency. So they look to understand the rules of the story world early on. Once they think then know what the world is, they usually won’t tolerate major variations. You don’t have to explain everything right off the bat, but you need to at least keep the possibilities open.
In The Others, nothing clearly supernatural happens until well into the film, but ghosts are mentioned frequently from the opening scenes, usually so that Grace can tell someone they shouldn't believe in such nonsense. But odd things do happen and other characters, such as Nicholas, believe ghosts are around. Similarly, in The Sixth Sense, Cole doesn’t say he sees dead people until halfway through the film, but there is a scene early on where something weird happens in the kitchen – all the cupboards and drawers are mysteriously opened while Cole’s mother is out of the room. The audience learns that something strange is afoot in this world. We don’t know that it’s ghosts yet, but we remain open to the possibility.
It’s usually a good idea to establish the rules that govern your supernatural elements clearly. If you’re doing a vampire story, we need to know if your vampires are afraid of crosses and can turn into bats or not. The rules may not be laid out right up front – some stories like Nightmare on Elm Street or Paranormal Activity (written by Oren Peli) are about the characters figuring out the rules. But if the writer is just introducing new rules as they’re needed for the story, it will feel like cheating to the audience. In Nightmare on Elm Street, the characters have to uncover Freddy Krueger’s history and figure out the rules of his powers. Only then can Nancy use those rules to attempt to defeat him in the end.
3. Build suspense. Suspense is the key to a good scare. Even a jump-scare – the kind of surprise that causes the audience to jump in their seat – works better if it is embedded within suspense. The key to building suspense is to establish the danger and then draw out the scene to build tension. You have to slow the pace to allow the suspense to build. You can then ratchet up the tension by introducing increasing obstacles to avoiding the impending danger. Often using a ticking clock – an approaching deadline – will help suspense stories and scenes.
In Act III of Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy has a deadline. She has to trap Freddy before her alarm goes off to bring him into the real world where he can be killed. This ticking clock creates suspense as she searches for him in the dream world. Then once she brings him back, things don’t go as planned, again increasing tension. She’s unable to get her father’s attention, and then later Freddy escapes her attempts to burn him.
Saw is often remembered for its gore, but it was actually a movie built around suspense. In the main story line, two people are chained in a room. Each has a saw that isn’t strong enough to cut the chains, and there’s a body with a gun just out of reach. One man is told if he doesn’t kill the other by 6 pm, then his family will die. Tension ratchets up as the deadline approaches. Will one of them saw off their own extremity to escape the chains and get to the gun? Will they be able to find another way out? The emotional impact of the movie is built on the suspense, not the gory conclusion.
So when writing a horror movie, create characters we care about, set up the rules of the world, and then amp up the suspense.
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