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3 Keys To Write A Killer Horror Script

Write a Killer Horror Script

By Armaan Uplekar

Horror is a hot commodity. It’s a one-of-a-kind genre with a built-in fanbase. It’s led to countless quotable classics from “The Exorcist” to “The Thing” to “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Sixth Sense” to “The Silence of Lambs”. For decades, horror has been wowing and repelling crowds with its willingness to scare, provoke and shock audiences.

Some might say that horror films are more popular than ever. Recent years have found films like “Get Out” burrow their way into the collective conscious of moviegoers around the world, while movies like “Hereditary” and “Mandy” have captured twisted imaginations and ensnared devoted fanbases. You might be able to say that public appreciation for horror films has never been higher. There’s so much conversation around what constitutes the idea of a “cinematic experience,” but what’s more cinematic than being held in thrall by the kind of surprises and thrills that horror movies have consistently offered up?

That’s not to say that making horror films is an easy undertaking – quite the contrary. Like all genres, horror has its conventions and its mainstays. With that in mind, you probably can’t help but ask yourself: how do you make your horror screenplay standout?

Contain the Concept

One of the greatest virtues of the horror genre is a practical one – they are, by and large, considered to be a cheap way to attract audiences to the movies. There are very successful production outfits who have built their brand by telling interesting stories on a low budget. The economics of horror filmmaking is part of what makes the genre so attractive to producers. If you can tell an exciting story while spending a very low amount of money, it stands to reason that you can also reap the rewards at the box office while mitigating up-front risk.

“Saw”, “Paranormal Activity”, “The Blair-Witch Project” are just some examples of runaway, horror genre box office successes that have gone on to spawn incredibly successful sequels and prequels. These films are notorious for having been produced cheaply – but what makes a film both cheap and worthwhile to produce? Contained concepts are a great way to hit all of the above criteria. In the case of “Saw,” most of the action is limited to two men, trapped in a room by an unseen serial killer, forced to play a sadistic game that taps into their physical and mental willpower. The entire conceit of “Paranormal Activity” relies on the prospect of homemade footage capturing supernatural imagery. Both these films embrace the limitations of their relatively contained concepts to great effect and undeniable success.

When writing your next horror screenplay, consider what aspect of your script’s concept might make the story really stand-out to producers. By crafting a contained, well thought-out concept that manages to embrace budgetary limitations, you can really make your screenplay feel all the more attractive.

Get Your Readers to “Love to Hate” Your Antagonist

Freddy Kreuger. Jason Vorhees. Michael Meyers. Leatherface. The Ghostface Killer. Pinhead. Jigsaw. Dracula. Frankenstein’s Monster. The Wolfman. Need I go on? Horror movies are infamous for their antagonists – in many ways, the villains of horror films can sometimes be the biggest attraction for an audience looking for a good scare on a Friday night. What other genre has assembled such a memorable collection of cold-blooded murderers who command this much name recognition? Whole franchises are built off the simple promise that a dream-invading, blade-fingered Freddy Kreuger or a speechless, machine-like Michael Meyers will return to terrorize audiences and unsuspecting civilians alike.

That’s why one of the most important keys to writing an exceptional horror screenplay is to provide the story with a memorable antagonist. A good horror movie antagonist is a character who is feared and respected. You don’t want the bad guy to be a target of ridicule – you want him or her to be a commanding, terrifying presence. Your readers need to be shocked by the evil that your antagonist brings to the story, while also being floored by the eager anticipation of what your villain might do next.

It’s a tricky balance to pull off, but an important one. If you don’t make your horror antagonist into a credible threat, it’s very possible that you might put off and bore readers. Likewise, if you don’t give your horror antagonist an interesting-enough edge, it’s possible that your readers might find the story to be too banal or clichéd. The goal is to give your antagonist a stand-out story – whether it be a dark past (Jason Vorhees) or a unique method that they implement in order to dispatch their vulnerable victims (The Ghostface Killer, Jigsaw), lending your bad guy a one-of-a-kind quality will definitely help distinguish your horror screenplay.

Keep It Simple

When you think of your favorite horror movies, what scenes tend to come to mind? Is it the elaborate backstory of how a monster gets defeated? The summoning rituals that bring a demon forth from the netherworlds? Or is it the line – “what’s your favorite scary movie?” Or the image of a young woman, covered in pig’s blood, silhouetted against flames?

When I think of classic horror films like “Carrie,” I don’t recall a bit of the titular character’s origin story. To be honest, I’m not even sure if Carrie’s character has an origin story. What I do remember, however, is how raw her character felt. The stakes were straightforward, the plotting was clear, and the characters were complex but relatable. The story behind “Carrie” was simple and elegant – easy to understand, easy to follow, but the emotional payoff landed with shocking resonance.

When crafting a horror film, it might be tempting to delve into the intricate aspects of the story. It’s understandable – getting the opportunity to craft a hefty mythology that explains away the origins of an ancient evil can be exciting. Before you do that, however, consider this – simple just tends to play better. Most audiences are looking for an emotional connection; the particulars of a ritual or an in-depth backstory don’t stick in their mind, unless something about those details manage to scare or provoke them. There’s a reason why the backstory of “The Exorcist” has been largely relegated to the script’s extended cut on DVD and was excised from the theatrical version. You don’t want to weigh audiences down with excessive information – you want to get straight to the heart of the story and your characters. That’s why it might be wise to cut down on elaborate mythology. Getting caught up in backstory or complicated explanations is an easy way to lose your audiences.

I know that there are very notable exceptions to the rule: there are films, of course, that have managed to sneak significant amounts of backstory into the plot while still commanding a great deal of respect and admiration from filmgoers. But understand that those stories are few and far between, and that their mileage varies. At the end of the day, the simpler the story, the better the chance that you have with connecting with your audience and making your killer horror screenplay stand out.