Show – Don’t Tell. This should be every writer’s rule. To showcase this, I’ve made a visual breakdown of the scene from “The Shining” where Danny Torrence meets those scary dead twins.
No talking head syndrome.
No over the top action.
Simple, visual cues.
Every writer should be telling a story with pictures. Not telling a story with special effects, dialogue, crappy voice-over narration, etc.
Exercise: Try storyboarding a short film or short story where there is no dialogue, and simple action. You’d be surprised how this can improve your writing.
Given the current spooky atmosphere, I thought it prudent to share with you my outline to an effective horror screenplay. I’ve come to understand these things over a great deal of time, and I hope they prove useful for you.
1) Suspense is a must:
Take a look at every classical horror movie that has lasted the test of time. You have psychological thrillers like The Shining (1980) or Psycho (1960). The audience is continuously left to guess the intentions of the killer or monster. Leaving things to the imagination, the audience is left baffled why Danny Torrence keeps saying “REDRUM”, or when the central protagonist is suddenly murdered halfway through the movie.
Keep the audience guessing. Keep the action moving. When everything is revealed in the final act, this acts as a reward for your audience having sat through the entirety of the movie.
The best example of this is through Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). For those who haven’t seen it, I’m not about to spoil the end for you. Just know, that for those who know what I’m talking about, Dr. Malcolm’s discovery is not only horrifying, it creates a further sense of disbelief causing the audience to want to go back and watch it again.
Keeping things a secret in your script is NOT a bad thing. Save the best MINDF*@# for last!
2) Have a memorable monster:
The Blair Witch, Norman Bates/Mother, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Overlook Hotel, Room # 1408, Jason, Freddy Kruger, Hellraiser, Aliens, Ghosts, Zombies, Demonic Possession, Those we do not speak of… All these monsters have carved their way into cult-classic history.
Monsters like “Jigsaw” from the recent Saw saga, are memorable enough that even if your movie isn’t particularly well done, people go JUST to see the monster/villain at work.
The best monsters are creatures that can tell an ongoing tale, and have quite a great deal of mystery behind them. We doubt their intentions, and don’t fully understand their powers.
3) Creating characters the audience cares about:
Horror movies about characters that I absolutely can’t stand are never scary for me. Horror movies about characters that I grow to love or understand are 10x scarier, because I care what happens to the character. Take Katie and Micah from Paranormal Activity (2007) for example, or the Freeling family in Poltergeist (1982).
The first act, and parts of the second act, are set up in a way that you grow to care for the characters. We care as an audience when poor little Carol-Anne is sucked into her closet, and cries out helplessly to her family. “Moooommy? Mommy where are you? I can’t see you?”.
We become emotionally attached to the characters. Therefore, when scary things happen to them, we feel their pain and terror.
4) Writing the unexpected:
This is sooo important. How many horror movies have you seen that the characters do the most OBVIOUS things? “I better go into this room without turning on the lights” … “I wonder what that strange noise was on the back porch?”
One recent horror movie that excels in the unexpected is Insideous (2010). This is probably one of the scariest horror movies I’ve seen in a while, as a great deal of the action varies from being very subtle, to in your face shocking.
The movie keeps you guessing what may happen next, and just when you THINK you know what will happen, the opposite occurs. People jump when things pop out at them, but the audience will scream when you truly surprise them.
5) A good story is far better than a cheap scare:
Horror movies that withstand the test of time are movies with fantastic stories. Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Psycho (1960) are two old movies that have proven their worth as good stories. They are continuously watched and purchased throughout the world.
The rules of good suspense and thriller writing apply to any horror screenplay. The proper tools and quality of your craft will determine if your movie with be the next Sixth Sense or the next Troll 2 (1990).
You can write an excellent story by remembering some essentials: Have a great location and setting. Rural or Urban. Have memorable, living characters, and never forget that conflict is the key to everything. Without conflict you have no story. No one wants to watch a movie about nothing happening.
Don’t think for a second that writing a horror screenplay is an easy endeavour. It takes practice, and dedication. If you skip the tools necessary to effective storytelling you’ll be insulting to your audience, and be terribly predictable.
I hope this was of some use to all of us aspiring writers. Have a happy and safe Halloween everyone!