If you’re ready to go from watching horror films to making them, here are 7 secrets to crafting a killer screenplay you should know.
So, you love horror? Of course, you do! Have you watched so many horror films that you think you know what it takes to write one yourself?
We live in a glorious age of filmmaking where it’s possible for just about anyone with talent, drive, and passion to make great art. That’s not to say it’s easy. Be prepared to work your butt off. And making a great film is only the beginning of the journey. Getting it seen? That’s where the real hard work comes in. But no matter what path you take to bringing your vision to life — whether self-funded, crowdfunded, or produced by an independent studio — the success of your project will live or die based on the strength of the script.
If you’re looking to write a horror screenplay that will attract talent and/or investors, send chills down your audience’s spine, and set your story apart from a very crowded landscape, the following seven tips can help steer you in the right direction.
1. Start with a great ideaPhoto Credit: @reidmurphy via Twenty20
It may seem obvious, but the best horror screenplays are built on a foundation of a great idea. Before typing your first word of dialogue, introducing your first character, or establishing your first stage direction, make sure you know what kind of story you want to tell. What’s the central conflict or mystery that your story will revolve around? Is there an urban legend or folktale that you can put a unique spin on? Think about what will make your story stand out from the rest.
Here are some questions to consider:
- What is the main character’s goal?
- What is the main antagonist’s goal?
- What if the protagonist fails?
- How can you make the story personal for your audience?
Answering these questions will help you develop a strong concept for your screenplay.
To give you some examples, The Ring is built on the premise of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it seven days after viewing. A Quiet Place is set in a world where deadly creatures hunt by sound, so the protagonists must remain silent at all costs. Get Out tells the story of a black man who visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, only to find out that they have sinister plans for him.
All these movies started out as ideas and slowly transformed into credible, compelling stories.
If you’ve got an idea you think feels fresh and interesting, read on to learn how to develop that idea effectively
2. Create believable charactersPhoto Credit: @opkirilka via Twenty20
Once you have a solid concept, it’s time to start thinking about your characters. In horror, strong characterization is key. Your audience needs to be invested in the story and the characters in order to be scared. While some horror films like slashers are notorious for having disposable characters, the films you really remember — the ones that stand the test of time — have at least some characters you’re able to really relate to and care about.
- Who are the main characters and what motivates them?
- What secrets do they have?
- What do they care about? What excites them? What terrifies them?
- What are their strengths and what are their flaws?
- How will the characters change from start to end?
Flesh out your characters as much as possible and consider their arcs before you start writing.
You should have written out detailed character bios for each key player in your story before you sit down to write the actual story; this will make them feel more real to your audience and make the story more effective.
3. Build suspense slowlyPhoto Credit: @cloud_dreamers via Twenty20
Suspense is the bread and butter of horror. And while it’s tempting to start your story with a bang, it’s often more effective to take your time and build the tension gradually. Start with an ordinary situation and introduce elements of danger or unease slowly. This will make the eventual scares all the more impactful.
In The Babadook, for example, we are first introduced to the main character, Amelia, as she struggles to cope with the death of her husband and the raising of her young son. It’s not until later that we learn about the Babadook, an evil creature that terrorizes the family. By slowly introducing this element of horror, the movie is able to ramp up the suspense and create a truly frightening experience.
Think about your favorite horror films? What makes them scary or unnerving? Take note of when the horror elements are first introduced, how tension is built through mood and atmosphere, when you feel tense or on edge, and why.
While jump scares are a staple of the genre and may cause a momentary jolt, you’ll likely find the films that truly scare you rely far less on cheap gimmicks and more on slowly ramping up a feeling of foreboding dread.
4. Use setting to your advantagePhoto Credit: @SCcreative.co via Twenty20
The setting of your story can be just as important as the characters. In fact, for many films, the setting becomes a character all to itself. After all, a horror movie set in a haunted house is going to be very different from one set in outer space. Use your setting to create an atmosphere of suspense and fear. Consider what kind of environment will be most effective for your story and make sure to use it right.
Carefully considering your setting has practical implications beyond just great storytelling. It’s very likely your film will need to be made on a limited budget. Rather than viewing that as a negative, find a creative way to take those limitations and make them work to your advantage. To cut costs, you’ll probably want to keep to one main setting.
But don’t worry, with the right script and the right choice of location, you can keep the audience mesmerized and hide your small budget in plain sight.
5. Get as much objective feedback as possiblePhoto Credit: @JulieK via Twenty20
Getting feedback from others can be constructive for any writer, no matter how much experience you have or how perfect you think your project is. In fact, when it comes to writing horror, it is essential to get another set of eyes on your work, especially when it comes to proofreading. Far too many scripts suffer from “first draft syndrome”. This is when you can tell there’s a great idea, but the script is far from polished and could have benefited greatly from a rewrite — or several. This is especially disheartening when the finished product is good but falls short of great.
Most great scripts have gone through multiple rewrites. Some of the best scripts may have seen rewrites in the double or even triple digits. Good Will Hunting infamously went through somewhere between 60-100 drafts. The recent revelation from the Safdie Brothers, Uncut Gems, went through a whopping 160 drafts over a ten-year period. While that may seem excessive, the basic premise holds true. No matter how great you think your script is, it can ALWAYS be better.
Get feedback from others to see if they think your story is effective. Often, what may seem scary to you may not be as effective when read by someone else.
If you’re lucky enough to have a circle of friends or colleagues you trust to be honest with you, that’s a great place to start. It’s even better if you can have someone with experience writing and editing screenplays look at your work. If you want a more comprehensive review of your work and you have some money to invest, it’s a great idea to submit to a script scoring site that will tell you how well your script ranks among the best screenplays in the genre. Depending on your budget, you can even get detailed notes to help you improve your score.
Also, don’t forget to check plagiarism online to make sure your work is wholly original. It’s easy for ideas you’ve seen, heard, and read elsewhere to stick in your subconscious and inadvertently find their way into your original work. You may end up copying someone else’s ideas without even being aware.
While it can be argued there’s nothing truly new under the sun, it’s important you at least bring a unique perspective to your material, even if the ideas themselves are familiar.
6. Remember that often less is morePhoto Credit: @Jovanadventures via Twenty20
There are certain elements that are synonymous with horror movies. Things like jump scares, dark lighting, and foreboding music are all classic tools that you can use to make your story more effective. But be careful not to overdo it. Too much of this can make your story feel campy or clichéd. Use them only when it makes sense to the story.
And remember that horror movies often excel when they focus on suspense and fear, not gore. Unless you’re making a very specific kind of film, don’t feel like you need to include buckets of blood or graphic violence in order to make your story effective. In fact, in many cases, less is more. Use your imagination to come up with scares that will stay with your audience long after the credits have rolled.
Just as we discussed when talking about setting, budget constraints will likely make extensive CGI or practical effects difficult. But plenty of the scariest and most heralded horror films of the past and present accomplish a great deal with very little onscreen carnage.
The Exorcist is a perfect example of this. It’s one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, and yet it’s relatively tame in terms of violence. The scares in the movie come from its atmosphere and the slow build-up of tension.
Don’t feel like you need to go over-the-top in order to get your point across.
7. Stick the landingPhoto Credit: @cretunnicolae via Twenty20
The ending of your story is just as important as the beginning, perhaps even more so. After all, this is what your audience will remember most. How many horror films have you watched that started out great, building great momentum, but ended up falling flat at the end? How many horror films were awesome for 98% of the film but ended up leaving a bad taste in your mouth because the final minutes were so disappointing?
Often this happens because a writer has a great idea but fails to think about how the story should end. The conclusion ends up being an afterthought when it should be one of the most important aspects. It’s a great idea to start your story from the ending. Figure out first where you want to go, and then build the entertaining journey to get there.
Writing endings is hard, especially when it comes to horror. It’s why so many films end up being unsatisfying despite having so much potential. In fact, good endings in the genre are so rare that those films that do end with a bang really stay with you and immediately rise to the top of the heap.
Consider subverting expectations.
Maybe the good guys lose, or the last one standing is the last one you expect. Unexpected twists and surprises can really elevate the film, but you have to be smart about it. Bad twist endings can doom your story and half-assed twists that feel lazy or easy to predict will underwhelm audiences.
Learn the difference between a surprise and a twist. A twist often feels like it has to be something huge, and it puts enormous pressure on the twist to wow audiences in the final moments. A surprise can be something much smaller and less grandiose. But, if done right, a solid surprise can help end a great story on the coveted high note.
If you’ve written a story where the character’s death is almost a kindness, a release, my compliments, and if you can, think of something worse than death. Something scarier. Some way for the terror to continue, or for death to be something other than the end of horrors for the character. If death is the easy way out, you’re on the right track, and you can do better.
Be careful not to let your ending rewrite the story in such a way that it makes the first 3/4 of the film irrelevant. Nothing is more maddening for audiences.
Remember, a great ending can cause an audience to forgive a slower start when there’s a satisfying payoff. But a bad ending can erase all the goodwill you’ve built up earlier in the film with a great beginning.