Horror movies have long captivated our attention. Something about being scared silly draws people into theaters year after year, and horror classics like Night of the Living Dead and the recent It Follows are considered some of the best, socially relevant entertainment out there. Whether you want to make a gruesome slasher or a thoughtful thriller, writing a horror movie takes time, imagination, and a bit of research.
Finding Your Frightful Idea
Find the core idea — a villain, setting, or gimmick– that will make your film unique. Horror films are largely formulaic when it comes to structure, but the best horror movies have an element that sets it apart from the rest. This core idea will be the foundation of your entire script, but it is also the hardest thing to come up with. However, you do not need to reinvent the entire genre — one little thing to make your movie enough is often more than enough:
- Paranormal Activity is a classic haunted house movie, but it is fully shot by webcams and security footage, giving it a unique look and feel.
- You’re Next turns a basic serial killer movie on its head by making one of the “victims” a better killer than the supposed villains.
- Scream would be a basic slasher film, but the characters’ unique knowledge of horror film “rules” was so inventive it spawned four sequels and endless imitators.
- Even changing the setting alone can be enough to make a movie unique. 30 Days of Night is a basic vampire movie, but it’s set in Alaska, where night lasts a whole month
Tap into your own fears for inspiration. There are many possible reasons why we love being scared, but one of them is the communal connection people have over their deepest fears. The fear of the dark, fear of death, and fear of losing our loved ones are deep, universal fears that will naturally work into your script. However, the king of all of these fears, and of all fear, is the fear of the unknown. What times in your own life have you been confused and terrified? The things that scare you will scare other people, so feel free to tap into your own life and fears for inspiration.
- What horror movies scare you? What scenes do you still remember?
- When have you been scared lately? What is it that really scared you, and how can you replicate that fear in others?
Watch horror movies and read horror movie scripts. Just like any other artist, you need to study from the best to learn from the best. Take time to watch horror movies regularly, then read the screenplays (found online with a quick search) of your favorite movies. While you’re studying, take notes on the following:
- How does the writer create tension on the page without music or actors?
- Is the screenplay itself scary?
- How do you format scares and different, tense scenes?
- At what page or minute does each scare occur?
- What parts fail, and how would you fix them? What parts succeed, and why?
Understand scriptwriting format. Luckily, there are hundreds of resources and programs that will automatically format your script into the right format for you. Still, you need to know how to create a professional looking script if you ever want your movie to be made. The format is not arbitrary — it is made to make shooting and planning the movie easy for everyone, and you’ll find it comes naturally after some practice.
- Celtx and Writer Duets are free programs with auto-formatting for scripts. If you want to write professionally, you should consider buying Final Draft Pro, the industry standard scriptwriter.
Sketch out your five main plot points. Every horror movie ever made follows a simple but highly customizable format. Unless you have a really good reason to break it, the following format will help you quickly draft up your movie for the best pacing. Use this structure to build the skeleton of your movie, then make it unique in the individual scenes:
- Beginning: Open on a scary event. This is usually the villain’s first victim– the murder or event that sets the movie in motion and shows the villain’s “style”. In Scream, for example, it is Drew Barrymore’s babysitter character and boyfriend getting murdered.
- The Set-Up: Who are your main characters, and why are they in this “horrible” place? The teens might head to the Cabin in the Woods, or the family moves into the creepy old house in Amityville. Either way, we get to know the future “victims” of your script. The villain or evil may be present, but is lurking in the background. This is the first 10-15% of your movie.
- The Warning: Roughly a third of the way into the script, a few characters realize that not everything is as it seems. Many of them will ignore or miss the signs, but the viewer knows that the evil is growing around them.
- The Point of No Return: The characters realize they are stuck in this horror. The first character dies, the villain appears, or they get literally trapped, like in The Descent. There is no more ignoring the danger. This is usually halfway through the story.
- The Major Set-Back: At 75% or so, the characters believe they have won. Suddenly, however, the villain comes back even stronger than before. This false sense of security lulls the characters into near-certain doom.
- The Climax: Your main character(s) makes a final push to survive by escaping or defeating the villain. The adrenaline is high, and you need a climactic fight/scare/moment to cap everything off.
- The Resolution: All is well, and the main character has survived. The villain appears dead, and everything is good again… at least until the sequel or very ending, when evil often resurfaces (Drag Me to Hell, V/H/S).
Writing Horror Structure
Kick the script off with a scare or significant moment of tension. This is the classic way to open up a horror film, as it preps the audience for what is to come and unsettles them early on. The best horror movies scare viewers even when nothing bad is happening because the opening scene makes them aware of the evil lurking around the corner. Use this first scene to prime the audience for future scares. It shouldn’t be the most terrifying moment in the movie — just enough to make them curious or worried.
- The Exorcist’s opening isn’t the scariest thing in the world, but the odd, primordial location hints at the ancient, malevolent demon that lurks underneath the surface throughout the movie.
- Scream boasts one of the most famous, and chilling, openings in horror history. It is basically a short film showcasing the killer’s first villain. Writer Kevin Williamson gives us everything — tone, gore, humor, and terror — while showing us that no one is safe.
- There are exceptions to this rule. Cabin in the Woods starts mundanely in an effort to lure the viewer into a false sense of security, for example.
Build sympathy for at least one character for the first 10-20 pages. For maximum frights, you need the audience to care about the characters and their fate. If they don’t then the eventual deaths will ring hollow and you won’t get great scares as a result. All of the best horror movies have the best characters, not just a good villain. Take some time to let your characters converse and hang out before the evil really takes hold — it will pay off later.
- The Poltergeist takes its time making you feel for the “average American family” at the core of it, making their later terrors feel like they could happen in anyone’s home, anywhere.
- Nightmare on Elm Street spends a good 15-20 minutes at the kid’s school, then another few minutes at a standard slumber party, building up sympathy for the main characters.
- You’re Next goes the opposite direction, setting up the dysfunctional, annoying, manipulative family at the heart of the movie so that you root for the killers (who are being hunted) by the ending.
Ratchet up the tension slowly. The best scares come later in the movie, when your audience is primed and already on the edge of their seat. This is your biggest challenge while writing — building tension carefully without boring the audience or numbing them to the scares. The easiest way to do this is to defy expectations. Remember — viewers are often more scared by what they don’t see than what they do. Use the fear of the unknown to your advantage. Once you’ve set up characters and setting, start to break the norm — moving furniture, missing characters, odd signs/signals, ominous news bulletins, etc. Again, watching the experts will help you:
- The Conjuring doesn’t kill a single person, yet is considered by many a modern classic. The tension comes from what is not on screen. When you see the shaking cabinets, shadowy feet, and hear strange noises, the viewer’s imagination does all the work for them.
- Halloween succeeds largely because we don’t know where Michael Myers is at any time. He could be behind any corner, in any room, because the writer wisely leaves him in the background in order to build tension. Because he so rarely “jumps out,” we never know when to expect him.
- Many horror films rely on “jump scares,” when a loud noise or quick jump startles the viewer immediately. However, modern movies are using “fake” scares to build tension, having good guys (or pets) pop out to lull the viewer into a sense of security.
Unleash the horror halfway through the movie. Your first big kill is going to kick the last two-thirds of the movie into high gear. This almost always needs to be a major character, and the death indicates to the characters, and the viewer, that there is no turning back now. Everyone is in grave danger, and all of the audience’s worst fears have come to fruition. This scene needs to be scary, a big payoff from the prior minutes of tension building, so work on making this scene stand out.
- It is often best to imagine this moment as a mini-movie with a beginning, middle, and ending. Think of one specific scare and then work backward to make the scene shine.
Let your protagonists start to pull ahead, then chop them back down to size with roughly 25% left to go. Give your characters a glimmer of hope after the first major death. While things are terrible for a while (another character or two often dies between this moment and the first death), eventually the main character(s) get a grip on the situation. They decide to escape, or fight back, and they start to succeed too… until the villain cuts their plans short at the last minute.
- The Night of the Living Dead has a tense, action-filled attempt at escape, a chance to get everyone out of the farmhouse. The characters even make it to the car, and avoid all the zombies, until their rushed, faulty plan literally blows up in their face.
- Shaun of the Dead, a horror-comedy that sticks to horror structure, finds the main characters successfully boarded up until one of their greedy friends lies about being bitten.
Close everything up with a climactic showdown or scare. At least one character needs to escape from the failed plan, and they must make one final, last-ditch effort to survive. Depending on your movie, you can take this in multiple directions, but, in general, the characters either decide to run away or fight back the evil.
- Funny Games’ main character decides, despite her hatred for the villains, that all she can do is run. What follows is a tense, cat & mouse scene of hopeful escape.
- Dawn of the Dead finds the desperate survivors willing to fight for their freedom, taking the battle straight to the zombies instead of waiting.
Keep things as real as possible. Horror already pushes the limits of “suspension of disbelief,” so don’t give your viewers any additional reasons to push the script away. Characters should act realistically, meaning they are afraid for their lives and don’t make obviously dumb mistakes like following the killer or ignoring warning signs. The killer should be overpowering, but not so much so that you can’t root for the protagonists to ultimately win (even if they don’t). Finding realism in horror is mostly about writing realistic characters, but a generally consistent, realistic world, even if it is clearly fictional, will help your scares hit harder.