Top Tips for Writing Horror

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Though Halloween is over, horror is having a great afterlife. Scary movies are premiering year-round, and high-quality TV shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are terrifying audiences and wowing execs with stellar production values and great acting (Jessica Lange, anyone?) In honor of terror, here are the top tips for writing a horror screenplay.

Know the genre

Horror is perhaps the most formulaic genre, and it’s important to know all the tropes so that you can either avoid them or make them work to your advantage. The reason why Scream is brilliant is because it mocks the “rules” of horror films even while following all of them!

Timing is everything

While a drama or comedy can have an extended scene of character development or jokes, horror films need to be on task at all times, or risk boring the audience. Despite my love of Tarantino, his half of Grindhouse (Death Proof) didn’t live up to Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror because it was bogged down by lots of dialogue. There’s room to explore deep topics (Hostel has an interesting take on American’s exploitation of other countries, while still delivering gross-out scares), but keep the story moving.

It doesn’t have to be over-the-top to be scary

Special effects and makeup can impress the audience, but low-budget thrills in movies like Paranormal Activity can be even scarier. In fact, the scariest part of the Blair Witch Project (spoiler alert!) is when Mike is facing into the corner in the basement- which is not a scary image except that it has been endowed with meaning by the backstory of the witch.

Save the best for Last

Ever see a monster movie that was scary… until you saw the monster? Horror screenplays often suffer from big surprises that don’t pan out- the monster that’s not frightening enough, the twist the audience sees coming, the disturbing scene that’s overshadowed by the even MORE disturbing scene before it. Start off with a bang, but make sure you save the best stuff for the end.

Do Your Job, Not the Director’s

Writers sometimes get caught up writing about the atmospheric music or the way the camera moves to capture the scene, but unfortunately, writers don’t control that! Horror depends on visuals and music to scare, which mainly falls to the director and the composer; so in setting the mood of the movie, writers take a backseat. But it’s the writers’ job to create a plot that makes sense and characters the audience will root for (whether they root for them to get away or root for them to get killed is up to the writers too). The script is the starting point, so give it everything you’ve got!