Your friendly neighborhood slacker. Chill Clinton likes to write about film, music, collectibles, and more.
The Joy of Writing Horror Screenplays
The Summer after I graduated from high school, I committed to writing my first feature length screenplay.
Though at first, I hadn't intended to write a horror film, I quickly found myself drawn to the formulas most commonly found in the genre, and used some of these unique elements to help me bring a complete narrative to life.
Of course, this horror film about a little girl who discovers a mysterious family living in the foothills behind her remote home, was not very good. But being able to accomplish such an incredible feat in one Summer (as I worked full time and prepared to attend college), showed me that writing a horror screenplay requires only a bit of drive, and adhering to a few common best practices.
If you have a passion for telling scary stories, but need a little bit of help transforming that idea into something that functions as a 90 minute film, follow the guide below, where you will learn:
- What to do before you sit down to write.
- Introducing your antagonist.
- Creating rich characters to combat the antagonist.
- Shaping your narrative to fit a three Act structure.
What to Do Before You Sit Down to Write
Familiarize yourself with a screenwriting platform.
Before sitting down to write any film, you should first equip yourself with the tools and knowledge necessary to write a correctly formatted screenplay.
While in the past, you would need to learn all of the formattings and apply them yourself, these days, you can find free and low-cost platforms that help automatically format your screenplay with only a little user input.
In this article, I won't detail the functionality of any online screenwriting platform, but I would encourage you to create an account with Celtx, which offers creative tools for filmmakers, including an easy-to-use screenwriting platform.
Create an "elevator pitch", or an explanation of your film that you can articulate in under 30 seconds.
Some screenwriters might encourage new writers to create a complete outline- or a scene-by-scene breakdown of their film- before they start drafting their screenplay, but this isn't necessary.
Instead, by developing a brief "pitch" for your film, you can approach the screenwriting process with a clear vision in mind that with help you frame your narrative while giving you the opportunity to explore new ideas as you write.
In an effective "elevator pitch", you should be able to articulate who your main protagonists and antagonists are, what the central conflict is, and what your story is "about" in a more general sense.
I realize that may sound confusing, so let me provide an example of an elevator pitch that I wrote for the 1973 horror classic, "The Exorcist":
"An archaeologist unearths an ancient evil that is then summoned by, and takes possession over, an adolescent girl. When the girl's mother fears that her daughter's body has become a vessel for an evil demon, she relies on the reluctant help of a downtrodden priest who is on the brink of abandoning his faith, to perform an exorcism. It is a story about the struggle between modernity and faith."
Introducing Your Antagonist
If you're a seasoned horror film fanatic, you may realize that many horror films hint at the primary antagonist before ever introducing the central protagonists.
Take, for example, the 2002 horror film The Ring, which tells the story of a journalist (Naomi Watts) who discovers a mysterious VHS tape that kills anyone who watches it within seven days. Before we are introduced to the journalist, who is the film's primary protagonist, the film opens with two teenage girls who are hanging out late at night.
While joking around, one girl admits to having watched a creepy tape exactly a week previous during a weekend excursion to a mountain cabin with her boyfriend. Naturally, this expository scene ends with an unseen evil force descending on the girl and taking her life, showing the audience the strength and brutality of the antagonistic force that our main protagonist will have to combat, but without revealing its form.
We can also see this technique deployed in the 1975 horror classic, Jaws, which opens with two intoxicated lovers that run out to the ocean for a midnight swim before one of them is pulled under the water by an unseen beast, trolling the shoreline.
As you open your film, consider using this technique to establish the modus operandi of your central antagonist (or antagonizing force), and show what your central protagonists might expect to endure if they fail to overcome it.
Opening your screenplay in this fashion will help hook your readers, and create tension as you introduce protagonists that your reader knows will eventually have to combat the force you previously introduced.
Creating Rich Characters to Combat Your Antagonist
After illustrating your antagonist in the first scene of your film, it's time to introduce your audience to the protagonist. This is the character in your film who will ultimately struggle with the horrific challenges imposed by whatever beast, entity, or force acting as your antagonist.
While thinking about who you want to be your protagonist, you might want to consider what novel or unique conditions the antagonist might impose on them, and what you want to "say" with your film. This can help you create a character (or characters) with unique qualities that make their struggles compelling to watch.
Consider the 1988 slasher flick Child's Play. The protagonist, Karen Barclay, is a widowed mother who works evenings at a department store to support her young son. Without the time or money necessary to find a nice birthday present for him, she stumbles on an opportunity to buy one of the season's hottest toys off of a peddler who found it rummaging through the alley. The only problem is that unbeknownst to her, the doll named Chucky is possessed by the soul of a dead serial killer.
This protagonist's social and economic status as a low-earning, single mother perfectly ties in the struggle she has to not only see that the doll is evil but to keep track of her son, who is slowly "kidnapped" by Chucky right under her nose. Also, her lack of resources and access also place her in the position to purchase the doll at a discount off of a homeless man, rather than purchasing a regular doll off the shelves of her department store.
Her characteristics not only logically place her in a position to encounter Chucky, but also add additional obstacles which she must overcome that make her journey to defeat the doll and rescue her son all the more difficult and meaningful.
Shaping Your Narrative to Fit a Three Act Structure
Now that you have your general synopsis, antagonist, and protagonist, it's now time for the trickiest part of planning out your film: shaping your narrative to fit a three Act structure.
This is not necessarily a scene-by-scene synopsis, but a general plan that will help you creatively weave your way through compelling plot points which are common in nearly every major motion picture.
Act One (Pages 1-20 in a 90 Page Script)
As suggested previously, the first Act of a horror film should include an exposition that introduces but doesn't entirely reveal, your antagonist. After this hook, you should immediately establish the setting and primary protagonist of your film, and show them in a state of normalcy.
Does this mean your character's life needs to be mundane and average? Not at all! Your protagonist could be a traveling circus performer who shoves nails into their nose while fighting tigers, or a globe-trotting model who graces the runway at elite fashion shows. The important thing is that you're showing your protagonist going about their expected routine so that you can then disrupt it in order to create dramatic tension.
However, after establishing your protagonist's state of normalcy, it's time to shake things up with an inciting incident. This is an event, often a choice presented to the protagonist, that sets your character on a course to encounter the horrors that await them.
For example, in Eli Roth's 2005 film Hostel, the inciting incident is the choice the travelers make to divert their course to Barcelona and visit Slovakia after one of their hosts tells them how great the clubs and women are.
Your First Act will then conclude with the "first climax," which is a dramatic peak of the events that occur as a consequence of the inciting incident. In a horror film, this is typically the moment at which the audience realizes, beyond a doubt, that the protagonists are facing a significant threat. This moment can often follow further choices characters make to proceed (often unknowingly) towards the danger rather than away from it.
If we're looking at Hostel again, Act One concludes shortly after one of the friends disappears under suspicious circumstances. Though the hostel's front desk worker tells them that their friend checked out and was probably already out of the country, the remaining two travelers decide to remain in the hostel an additional night to search for him. However, this choice leads another traveler to be taken, only to wake up in a dungeon where he is tortured to death by a deranged captor.
Act Two (Pages 20-70 in a 90 Page Script)
This is the longest narrative arc in your three Act structure. The second Act will include a series of obstacles that your characters will need to overcome in order to learn more about the forces which threaten them and equip them with the experience necessary to eventually combat the antagonist in Act Three.
Each obstacle in your protagonist's path should push them closer to a direct confrontation with the antagonist. Oftentimes in ensemble horror films, this can simply be a matter of whittling down the pack through a series of grizzly deaths, or in paranormal horror films, the obstacles could appear as a series of attempts to fight the ghastly presence, learning what definitely doesn't work.
Act Two will also generally include a significant plot twist that changes the characters' fundamental understanding of the horrors that they face, called the "Midpoint". If we look at the popular 2013 horror film The Conjuring, the midpoint is the moment that Ed and Lorraine Warren, the demonologists called in by the Perron family, discover that a murderous witch previously lived in the house. This realization leads Ed and Lorraine to conclude that the evil spirit is that of the witch, who will possess Carolyn, the matriarch of the house, and force her to murder her own children.
After establishing a midpoint, there will likely be more obstacles that your protagonists will have to encounter as they reorient themselves to their changed circumstances. This is a crucial period in your horror film's structure, as it gives your characters an opportunity to further understand the true nature of the antagonist, and prepare themselves for the Third Act, where they will either overcome or fall victim to the evil force that threatens them.
If we are still looking at The Conjuring, the Second Act intensifies as Lorraine and Ed desperately try to reach representatives from the Church who can permit an exorcism as the ghost of the witch slowly takes full control over Carolyn.
Finally, the Second Act will conclude with a climax that locks the protagonists into a fairly narrow course of action. This is sometimes aptly referred to as "the point of no return", in which the characters have no choice but to face the antagonist head on, leading to the Third Act in which the film's primary climax will take place.
Act Three (Pages 70-90 in a 90 Page Script)
The Third Act will include your film's climax and resolution. By this point in your script, your characters will have exhausted all but one option to combat the antagonist, and their survival is dependent on whether this course of action works or fails.
Of course, this isn't to say that your protagonists can't find novel solutions, or slightly change their gameplan, while engaged in whatever battle makes up your climax. But typically, your protagonist will have made the decision to stand up to the antagonist and face them head-on, either unable or unwilling to find any other course of action.
In the 1976 horror classic The Omen, the climax occurs after Robert, the father of a boy who appears to be a harbinger of chaos and evil, learns that he can determine whether his son is the Antichrist by looking for a birthmark on his head. When he discovers the presence of this birthmark, Robert takes his son to a church, following the guidance of a demonologist, to ritualistically sacrifice the boy. The climax is the moment that we see Robert about to stab his son before being gunned down by police.
Still a part of the third Act, he falling action is a sequence of narrative events that bring a script from the climax to the final scene.
In horror films, the falling action varies in length depending on what occurs during the climax. Frequently, the climax will be the moment that decides whether the protagonist will live or die. Of course, if the protagonist dies, the falling action may be comparably short, perhaps showing that the evil will go on to target others, but offering little additional information.
And this would make sense. After all, the narrative is the protagonist's story.
So if your protagonist wins the "final fight" so-to-speak (this isn't necessarily a fight, but at least a challenge that they must overcome), you may want to include several scenes that help bring your audience through the conclusion of a narrative. You can wrap up any questions, reveal unlikely survivors, reward your protagonist with whatever they fought for—their life, to save another, etc.—and then hint at the antagonist persisting.
Of course, you don't have to abide by these recommendations, but these are some of the most common events that conclude horror films where the protagonist is not killed.
This will be the final scene in your narrative, which will give your audience either a sense of closure or imply that the terror will persist.
Consider what tone you want to imply at the conclusion of your film. Do you want your audience to leave with the feeling that evil can be overcome, having seen your protagonists definitively defeat the antagonist? Maybe you would prefer to use this scene to hint that the antagonist hasn't been eradicated but will simply lie in wait, or turn their attention to the next unwitting victim.
Get creative, but know that the final few scenes can set the tone for the viewer as they finish your movie, so ensure that your conclusion either helps your script's reader better understand your film by tying up any loose narrative elements and/or proposes a new and interesting question to haunt them.
Think Less, Write More
Some people believe that outlining a story, properly hitting narrative beats, or coming up with a good idea are the hardest parts of writing a good horror script. However, for beginners, the hardest part is definitely finding the confidence and motivation to simply get the words on the page.
So while I encourage you to use this article as a guide to help you get started on your first feature-length script, the best advice anyone could offer is to just write.
Your first script will probably be bad. Since writing my first feature-length film, I have written four more, and out of the five total, I think one is "good". However, I see each experience as a chance to learn more, brush up on my skills, and improve for the next screenplay.
Have fun, write a little bit of your script every day, and I am sure you will enjoy bringing your most macabre and terrifying creations to life!