The horror screenplay requires an understanding of the genre. Screenwriters are taught to give a protagonist an arc. In horror, a hero’s arc might be non-existent. If a flaw is present, the hero might be killed off long before he achieves change. The killer may be the only one left standing.
There are many standard screenwriting rules that Horror turns upside down, making it all the more important to understand how Horror works. The first thing a screenwriter needs to do when considering writing a Horror is to determine what type of Horror. Is it a slasher? A monster flick? A supernatural horror?
A slasher tends to have a high body count, gore, shock moments and usually doesn’t have a central protagonist. If there is one, he’ll likely be killed off by the slasher. The slasher can be a killer with a big knife or a killer virus. They key is that the killer has no bounds. Watch movies like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Cabin Fever.
A monster flick involves a physical creature who presents a threat to the story’s characters. This type of horror usually has a protagonist who defeats the monster. There are high stakes and the hero has an arc. See films like Godzilla and Lake Placid.
The supernatural horror involves ghosts, demons, witches, and other things that go bump in the night. It may or may not have a protagonist, who may or may not have an arc. However, this type of horror is more psychologically demanding and works best if the protagonist has an arc. See films like Mama, The Haunting and Boogeyman.
Next, be sure to consider the rules for the specific types of horror you’re writing.
In most stories we’re presented with a mystery, then the rest of the story is spent unraveling the mystery. In the supernatural horror, one mystery leads to another mystery. This keeps the story in the dark until the last possible moment.
Slashers tend to open by introducing a cast of characters who will soon become statistics. Monster flicks and supernatural horrors work best when they open with a teaser. A teaser involves seeing a ‘glimpse’ of the monster, a shadowy figure in the night or something can drag someone into a closet, like in the film Boogeyman.
Screenwriters have been taught to establish the hero’s ordinary world. Not in Horror! In Horror, it’s best, if possible, to remove the character from his ordinary world and create a loss of free will, which stimulates fear.
In slashers, monster flicks or supernatural horrors, anyone who helps the characters or who the characters ask for help are killed. There is no help in a Horror! Keep the helpers. Just kill them before they succeed in getting the characters out of danger!
Horror has more films under its belt that any other genre! This makes it exceptionally difficult to come up with fresh material. If the screenwriter has an idea for a Horror, the writer should study every possible movie made, especially the more popular ones to make sure their material is different! Putting a fresh spin on an old fear is the secret to selling a Horror.
Screenwriters often claim the movie The Sixth Sense is original. Is it? Isn’t it just another ghost story with a fresh spin on an old fear? The twist has to apply the entire plot to make it marketable. What twist does your story have? In Shadow of the Vampire, a film director hires a real vampire to pretend to be an actor portraying a vampire – if you haven’t seen this Horror flick it’s well worth the time to see how to give a fresh spin on an old fear. Another example is the film 30 Days of Night, which is just another vampire flick, but the vampires can hunt 24/7 because the location is Alaska where it’s night 24/7. It’s a new twist to an old story.
TWIST MUST APPLY TO THE ENTIRE PLOT OR IT WON’T SELL
The writer should also keep the story in present day. Period pieces are a tough sell in any genre and require A-list actors attached. While Horrors set in present day with lower budgets are much easier to sell.
The threat must remain. This is the area most writers mess up their Horror screenplays. Screenwriters have been taught to write in complete resolution and tie up loose ends. This applies to Horror, but the threat must still remain. In the classic film Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character barely escapes Michael Myers when the psychiatrist shoots Myers and he falls out a second story window, but in a few moment he disappears! Curtis’ character escapes death, but Myers is still out there! In the film Hocus Pocus, the witches are defeated, but their spell book’s eye blinks at us in the end scene, which promises a chance the witches might return.
In the cult classic Horror Carrie, she dies in the end, but one of the high school girls dreams Carrie’s arm grabs her from the grave. The writer may or may not defeat the killer in the end, but the threat must remain or the Horror fails.
Don’t fret about doing this. Consider it a blessing in disguise because a looming threat carries the potential for a sequel and even a franchise!
Horror is one of the most watches genres on planet Earth. Everyone likes a scary movie. Even though more films have been made in this genre than any other, it’s a key genre for an aspiring screenwriter to use to break into the industry, especially if it’s low-budget and has a fresh spin. Every aspiring writer should have a Horror in their marketing arsenal of screenplays.