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How to Write a Horror Movie

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Posted on February 11, 2018

1.Finding Your Frightful Idea

1.Find the core idea — a villain, setting, or gimmick– that will make your film unique. Horror films are largely formulaic when it comes to structure, but the best horror movies have an element that sets it apart from the rest. This core idea will be the foundation of your entire script, but it is also the hardest thing to come up with. However, you do not need to reinvent the entire genre — one little thing to make your movie enough is often more than enough:

Paranormal Activity is a classic haunted house movie, but it is fully shot by webcams and security footage, giving it a unique look and feel.

You’re Next turns a basic serial killer movie on its head by making one of the “victims” a better killer than the supposed villains.

Scream would be a basic slasher film, but the characters’ unique knowledge of horror film “rules” was so inventive it spawned four sequels and endless imitators.

Even changing the setting alone can be enough to make a movie unique. 30 Days of Night is a basic vampire movie, but it’s set in Alaska, where night lasts a whole month.

2.Tap into your own fears for inspiration. There are many possible reasons why we love being scared, but one of them is the communal connection people have over their deepest fears. The fear of the dark, fear of death, and fear of losing our loved ones are deep, universal fears that will naturally work into your script. However, the king of all of these fears, and of all fear, is the fear of the unknown. What times in your own life have you been confused and terrified? The things that scare you will scare other people, so feel free to tap into your own life and fears for inspiration.

 

3.Watch horror movies and read horror movie scripts. Just like any other artist, you need to study from the best to learn from the best. Take time to watch horror movies regularly, then read the screenplays (found online with a quick search) of your favorite movies. While you’re studying, take notes on the following:

How does the writer create tension on the page without music or actors?

Is the screenplay itself scary?

How do you format scares and different, tense scenes?

At what page or minute does each scare occur?

What parts fail, and how would you fix them? What parts succeed, and why?

4.Understand script-writing format. Luckily, there are hundreds of resources and programs that will automatically format your script into the right format for you. Still, you need to know how to create a professional looking script if you ever want your movie to be made. The format is not arbitrary — it is made to make shooting and planning the movie easy for everyone, and you’ll find it comes naturally after some practice.

Celtx and Writer Duets are free programs with auto-formatting for scripts. If you want to write professionally, you should consider buying Final Draft Pro, the industry standard scriptwriter.

 

2.Writing Horror Structure

1.Kick the script off with a scare or significant moment of tension. This is the classic way to open up a horror film, as it preps the audience for what is to come and unsettles them early on. The best horror movies scare viewers even when nothing bad is happening because the opening scene makes them aware of the evil lurking around the corner. Use this first scene to prime the audience for future scares. It shouldn’t be the most terrifying moment in the movie — just enough to make them curious or worried.

The Exorcist’s opening isn’t the scariest thing in the world, but the odd, primordial location hints at the ancient, malevolent demon that lurks underneath the surface throughout the movie.

Scream boasts one of the most famous, and chilling, openings in horror history. It is basically a short film showcasing the killer’s first villain. Writer Kevin Williamson gives us everything — tone, gore, humor, and terror — while showing us that no one is safe.[10]

There are exceptions to this rule. Cabin in the Woods starts mundanely in an effort to lure the viewer into a false sense of security, for example.

2.Build sympathy for at least one character for the first 10-20 pages. For maximum frights, you need the audience to care about the characters and their fate. If they don’t then the eventual deaths will ring hollow and you won’t get great scares as a result. All of the best horror movies have the best characters, not just a good villain. Take some time to let your characters converse and hang out before the evil really takes hold — it will pay off later.

The Poltergeist takes its time making you feel for the “average American family” at the core of it, making their later terrors feel like they could happen in anyone’s home, anywhere.

Nightmare on Elm Street spends a good 15-20 minutes at the kid’s school, then another few minutes at a standard slumber party, building up sympathy for the main characters.

You’re Next goes the opposite direction, setting up the dysfunctional, annoying, manipulative family at the heart of the movie so that you root for the killers (who are being hunted) by the ending.

3.Unleash the horror halfway through the movie. Your first big kill is going to kick the last two-thirds of the movie into high gear. This almost always needs to be a major character, and the death indicates to the characters, and the viewer, that there is no turning back now. Everyone is in grave danger, and all of the audience’s worst fears have come to fruition. This scene needs to be scary, a big payoff from the prior minutes of tension building, so work on making this scene stand out.

It is often best to imagine this moment as a mini-movie with a beginning, middle, and ending. Think of one specific scare and then work backward to make the scene shine.

 

3.Improving Your Script

  1. Let the atmosphere, tension, and fear come through on the page. You cannot just say, “It will be scary when it is on a screen.” A terrifying scene must be terrifying on the page as well, building suspense that helps the directors, producers, and actors see where the scene is coming. Make the screenplay scary, tense, and atmospheric and the movie will be full of frights.

Read horror writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King to learn about creating tension through words alone.

You may have to bend some screenplay conventions to build a tense, terrifying scene on the page. Remember, however, that your first goal is to write a script that accurately portrays the movie that is eventually made.

  1. Keep things as real as possible. Horror already pushes the limits of “suspension of disbelief,” so don’t give your viewers any additional reasons to push the script away. Characters should act realistically, meaning they are afraid for their lives and don’t make obviously dumb mistakes like following the killer or ignoring warning signs. The killer should be overpowering, but not so much so that you can’t root for the protagonists to ultimately win (even if they don’t). Finding realism in horror is mostly about writing realistic characters, but a generally consistent, realistic world, even if it is clearly fictional, will help your scares hit harder.
  2. Spend time on 1-2 big, original, showstopping scenes, usually deaths. Horror movies live and die based on their signature scenes. Scream is a great movie, but even if it wasn’t the opening death would be enough to keep it famous. A great, memorable death will be the signature scene of your movie, and what helps readers remember it for years to come.

The entire Final Destination series is built on 4-5 of these moments each movie. While the don’t always work, each one has at least one death that viewers will never forget.

Psycho is a great movie, but without the shower scene it likely would have fallen out of collective memory years ago. The scene was so jarring, so surprising, that it is still discussed and satirized today.

 

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