Horror! It's a genre that, when it's great it's great, but when it's bad, wow, it can be painfully bad. So how does one write a good scary movie? What are some things a horror writer should keep an eye out for? How do you know if your horror story is scary to anyone else? Here are some tips to help you get your Stephen King on and write your next terrifying screenplay!
What is the horror genre?
The horror genre has been around since ancient times. The first known example of this type of storytelling was found in Greek mythology where there were stories about monsters such as Cyclops or Gorgons who would attack people at night. These myths have evolved into modern-day tales like "It" by Stephen King.
Who's your favorite horror writer?
Find an author or screenwriter whose horror stories you admire. What is it about their style that appeals to you, scares you, and draws you in? If you don't already own any books written by them, buy them now so you'll always have something new to read. You could also check out movies based off these authors' work. For instance, I love watching films made from Stephen King novels because they're often very suspenseful and creepy. There are many other writers with amazing works of fiction including Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, and Jonathan Maberry. For horror screenwriters, I turn to Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Matheson, Dan O'Bannon, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter.
6 tips to make sure your horror script stands apart from others
If you're writing a horror story, chances are you won't be alone. In fact, most successful horror scripts will share certain characteristics. One thing all good horror scripts have in common is tension. Tension comes from conflict between characters, which makes us care what happens to them. We see ourselves in those characters, and we root for them to succeed.
1) Know the horror screenplay structure
Is your horror film a slasher movie? A psychological horror? A monster movie? A supernatural horror? Science fiction? Familiarize yourself with other horror scripts like it. The more familiar you become with the horror genre, the better you'll understand an audience's expectations and be able to work those to your advantage.
Take “Scream,” for example, a horror story written by Kevin Williamson, a movie that is very much a slasher film. “Scream” is a self-aware film that acknowledges the genre and type of movie it is. It's then able to poke fun at things that commonly happen in slasher movies, or turn genre tropes on their head, doing the unexpected. The film is only able to do these things because the horror writer is acutely aware of the slashers that came before it.
2) What scares you? What's your favorite horror story?
It's always a good idea to work from personal experience and true stories, and the odds are very high that whatever gives you the heebie-jeebies gives other people the creeps, too! Plus, people respond to authenticity. If you're terrified of enclosed spaces and you explore that in your story, audiences are likely to pick up on the real fear you've imbued in your script.
The realization that we aren't in control brings about horror. Good horror writers remind their readers that everyday life is always on the edge of dissolving into chaos, they don't just go for gore and shock value.
Below, I've added some famous horror film screenplays, but there are a ton more available online.
A Nightmare on Elm Street, written by Wes Craven
Aliens, written by James Cameron, David Giler, and Walter Hill (based on characters by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett)
Get Out, written by Jordan Peele
I Know What You Did Last Summer, written by Kevin Williamson (based on a novel by Lois Duncan)
Saw, written by Leigh Wannell and James Wan
The Ring, written by Ethren Kruger, based on the novel by Kôji Suzuki
The Shining, written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King
3) Empathy for the characters
Feeling for and through the characters is one of the most important aspects of a horror movie. The audience can feel and experience something scary and horrible at a safe distance through the characters. Nothing makes for a more satisfying horror movie experience than when the audience feels empathy for the main character and is rooting for them.
It's essential to a scary movie for the audience to care whether our characters live or die. Be sure to flesh out your characters well enough, so that the audience will identify with and root for them!
4) Pay attention to your antagonist in your horror movie
Pay attention to your antagonist The antagonist in a horror movie is everything! A horror movie can live and die (in the box office) based on the strength of its antagonist. There's much to consider for your bad guy: Do you reveal details or leave the audience in the dark about them? Are they continually lurking in the shadows, or do we get shots of them in all their gory glory?
Are they based on something that already exists, or is this an original creature?
Put in the work and craft the most memorable bad guy possible.
The atmosphere can do so much work in terms of creating tension for the audience. There aren't many other genres where the payoff is so high just for having a palpable atmosphere.
You want to use the atmosphere to set the stage for scares! Build a world in which the audience feels nervous, uneasy, and ready for a fright. Take the time to craft the type of environment that will allow for scares to pay off later.
6) Test it out on friends and family!
This is a great genre to try out on friends and family. While they may not be screenwriting experts, they should be able to feel a level of terror just by reading your script. Almost all of these tips work for writing horror novels, too!
May your words be creepy and full of scares!