First Draft: Nine Simple Lessons for Writing Effective Horror Screenplays

In partnership with the blog ScreenCraft, we’re publishing “First Draft,” a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


Crafting a horror screenplay is a unique process that goes beyond just telling a story. The genre must tap into the audience’s collective fears in order to offer them that rush they seek. Story and character arcs are great, but in horror movies, the central focus is sometimes less about the story and characters, and more about leaving audiences with an unsettling feeling accompanied by an adrenaline rush.

But how do you accomplish that? We’ve explored the horror genre in two other ScreenCraft posts: 8 Ways Horror Movies Scare the S*** Out of Audiences and The Neuroscience Behind Horror Screenwriting and Filmmaking.

Here, we look to a ScreenCraft panel from a few years back, where horror experts discussed the process of crafting horror films from script to screen. We’ve pulled these nine bullet points on writing effective horror screenplays from the video and elaborated on them to showcase how to craft some amazing horror scripts. Use these nine points and perhaps you can see your own horror stories on the big or small screen one day.

1. Start With What Scares You

If you, the writer, are not experiencing any type of fear with the horror concept that you are writing, how can you possibly convey the fear of the characters within the story? Writing horror screenplays should be about exploring your own fears. The fact that millions of others likely share that fear is merely an added bonus.

The fear that you have for whatever horror concept you tackle will come through in the script, as you explore every angle of that fear. If you are scared of the dark, you should be exploring things like the loss of power during a storm, the dark closet staring back at you, the shadows of your room and what could be lurking within them, being locked in darkness by an unknown captor, etc. Start with what scares you.

2. Market-Test Your Concepts to Friends and Peers

Try bouncing the idea off of your friends and peers and observing their reactions. While this could work for any genre, it’s especially applicable for the horror concepts because you are tapping into a very personal and emotional subject: fear. Whatever the horror concept may be, test it out on those you know and observe their reactions. You will immediately know if you’re tapping into a primal fear that we all have, and perhaps have yet to explore in movies.

3. Internalize All the Structures of Your Favorite Horror Movies

This isn’t about copying horror movies that have come before. Rather, it’s about making note of how great horror movies have succeeded in scaring the living daylights out of audiences. Since that is the primary goal of any horror movie, you want to know all the tricks of the trade. Your job as a screenwriter is to take those tricks, put your own spin on them, and make them your own.

4. Respect the Feedback and Notes You Get

This rule applies to all screenwriting, but to put the focus on horror writing, it means that any feedback you get from mentors, peers, producers or executives should always be respected. When a question has been brought up regarding your script, that should be an immediate concern or point of interest. Instead of pushing against that, you should embrace it. Your job as the screenwriter is to interpret that feedback and those notes. The people giving them are just sharing their initial reactions. Chances are they don’t know the answers to the questions they raise. That’s not their job, but yours.

So when you market-test to your friends and peers, and when you receive notes from the powers that be, respect them by considering where each and every one of them is coming from. Sometimes you will discover that the feedback and notes are applicable; other times, you will not. Regardless, they will make your script better because you’re paying extra attention to the finer details that may be escaping you.

5. Find Types of Horror Movies to Shoot For

We all have those favorites that we admire and aspire to emulate in our own way. The best directors screen their favorite movies for their cast and crew to give them an idea of what they are trying to shoot for and home in on in any given scene. It’s not about remaking what you love. It’s about taking certain elements of what you love and placing them within the context of your own horror concepts.

You may want to emulate the obscure visuals from a movie like The Shining because you know that they have an undeniable impact on an audience. You may want to aspire to create an atmosphere of intrigue, mystery and horror found in movies like The Exorcist or The Omen.

It’s key to find movies to shoot for in your development and writing process. It betters your writing, especially when you’re tasked with the creative challenge of making something strong and original.

6. Keep the Empathy in Place

The key to successful horror movies is the empathy we feel towards the characters in these dire scenarios. Audiences want to feel as if they are experiencing these fears through the eyes of the characters, so you have to create characters that you empathize with. A group of unlikable characters is not going to offer the audience a chance to live vicariously through them. Instead, the audience will root against them in favor of whatever danger awaits. That takes the thrill out of the horror movie experience. Horror movies allow audiences to experience their deepest and darkest fears through the safety nets of those characters. At the end of the movie, they know that they’re not going to be eaten by zombies, stalked by a serial killer, or stuck in a hotel with a maniac, but they can’t fully step into those horror avatars without having empathy for the characters.

7. Intellectually Build an Emotional Experience

The notion of pairing intelligence and emotions is odd because emotions often supersede intellectual thought processes at first. However, as a screenwriter, it’s your job to pluck the emotional chords of the audience.

“The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing, at one moment we play this note, and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie—there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, as we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ and we’ll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won’t that be wonderful?” – Alfred Hitchcock

It’s a horror writer’s job to intellectually find a way to map out a series of emotional experiences. That’s fancy talk for “scaring the s*** out of people.” Learn what buttons there are to press and where to affix those electrodes.

8. Create an Atmosphere

Most horror movies are all about atmosphere, whether it be a secluded hotel, a dark mansion or the haunted room of a possessed child. Atmosphere is everything. It is what creates that foreboding feeling before, during and after the scares. Horror writers need to set the stage so that the audience will be waiting in anticipation for each and every scare. Look no further than the effect of waiting in line to visit The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland or Disney World. Half of the experience of that theme ride is the atmosphere that is set before the actual ride—an atmosphere created to set the stage for what is to come. It sets the emotional stage of the audience as well.

9. Don’t Worry About the “Whys”

If you watch any great horror movie, each and every one of them is full of “whys.” “Why are they answering the door?” “Why are they running up the stairs instead of out the front door screaming?” “Why are they hiding in a closet?” “Why don’t they just move out of the haunted house?”

The horror genre is perhaps the only genre given such an amount of leeway when faced with logic (or lack thereof). This isn’t to say that the script can be completely illogical, but audiences are so much more forgiving when it comes to horror movies. They just want to experience the rush. They want to be scared. They want to scream and grab the person next to them. That’s it.

There is a fine line that horror writers need to master. If you go too far, you risk being so illogical that it takes the audience out of the suspense. But in the end, with this genre, don’t obsess over the “whys.” Don’t over-explain every choice a character makes. If you were being chased by a crazed chainsaw-wielding, leather-faced freak, chances are you’d also make some bad choices in the moment.

Watch the full video on horror screenwriting here. Panelists from stage right to stage left in the video are: Drew DaywaltMisha GreenAndrew WilsonAdam SimonMickey Keating and Jimmy Loweree. MM

 

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