Horror is a high concept genre that can lend itself easily to low budget filmmaking (both feature and short film), so it’s no wonder I get so many of them across my desk via B2W and my industry clients. What’s more, audiences’ gore tolerance is on the UP, so television can be considerably more scary and violent than it used to be as well.
Yet just there ARE some classic clangers scribes can fall into when attempting the horror genre, so check this out for size because they will kill your Horror screenplay DEAD:
1) Just write a string of gruesome scenes
Look, we get it. It’s a horror, which is why you’re hacking everyone to pieces. But if you’ve not got a discernible narrative to go with the grisly stuff, believe it or not it just gets dull after a while! TRUE STORY.
2) Copy too much
Yes, yes we all love a good homage … But there’s a reason certain Horror movies make it in cultural consciousness and that’s because they BREAK NEW GROUND. They will take something “pre-sold” like murder or aliens and then TWIST it. Crucially, they’ll do this “left of the middle” though, rather than total “left field” though!
3) Not make it visceral
The best horror stories grab something and make it – you guessed it – truly horrifying. That’s why so many horror stories involve PENETRATION and PREGNANCY. Both these things are okay, even pleasurable and desirable in the “proper” context, but out of that can be VILE. That’s why the facehugger and chestburster in ALIEN is so effective, even 35 years later: it’s VISCERAL because it’s a deadly violation. EWWWWW. MORE: My favourite bit in ALIEN (it’s not what you expect)
4) Not knowing the difference between Horror & Thriller
Just as Thrillers can suffer tone-wise in the spec pile because writers don’t know the difference, the reverse is true. As a result, the story misfires because the reader doesn’t know what she’s dealing with. MORE: Horror/Thriller Mash Up Case Study: Wind Chill (2007)
5) Cliché Clanger Dialogue
Horrifying and implausible things will happen in Horror screenplays – so writers spend all their time drawing attention to how UNLIKELY events are in the story. Yes really! Usually via these lines: “This can’t be happening!” and “I don’t believe it!” and my personal favourite, “This doesn’t even make any sense!” No, just NO! MORE: Cliché Clanger Lines To Avoid
6) Write 2D characters
Look, we get it. You want to kill your characters, so you don’t want to spend *too* much time with them, else you’ll be all sad when you chop them up into tiny little bits. But guess what: if YOU’RE sad when a character dies, so will the audience be! And effective characterisation is what we want. DUH! MORE: 9 Ways To Write Great Characters
7) Overdose on exposition
Because Horror often takes place in sci fi, fantasy or hyper real worlds, involve monsters, aliens or the supernatural, very often writers will try and explain EVERY. LITTLE. THING. But you don’t have to. We just need to know, upfront, what IS possible in this storyworld – and what’s not. Relax! Have fun. Kill some people. MORE: Know Your Enemy (But Don’t Know Too Much)
8) Forget DREAD
One of the most effective tools of the horror genre – and one of the most often ignored by spec writers, I find. A sense of dread (as opposed to “rising action”, as in Thriller) is one of the key differences between the two genres. Whatever you think of them, Blumhouse Supernatural Horror movies like INSIDIOUS, SINISTER and THE CONJURING are masterclasses in the art of inspiring dread in their target audience. Watch the movies, read the scripts and find out how. MORE: The Shining (1980), A Case Study
Also in this series:
8 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Thriller Screenplay DEAD
8 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Drama Screenplay DEAD
8 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Horror Screenplay DEAD
8 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Comedy Screenplay DEAD
8 Mistakes that Will Kill Your Sci Fi Screenplay DEAD
Want MORE on genre?
Not sure about the difference between Horror and Thriller Screenplays?
Then check out my book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays, “Not merely a great read for those writing a Thriller, but anyone with a serious interest in screenwriting.” Available in ebook & paperback. BUY IT NOW.
good stuff. I’d add to the list fake out/cat in the closet scares. A good horror builds tension while all these fake violin-aided jump scares do is help the audience to relieve tension. I think there’s a place for them but used too often you also get a bit of the boy who cried wolf.
Yes! Thank you Lucy.
I’m over found footage and the hide and seek pranksters. Characters find themselves in creepy homes or remote locations (corn fields) so – what to do? Let’s play hide and seek!
“Hey, where are you? Stop playing around! It’s not funny! This isn’t funny!”
Yeah, it’s not scary now, either.
chow for now,
James Wan directed Insidious, The Conjuring and Sinister. Not Oren Peli.
Oren Peli makes found footage flicks a.k.a. Paranormal Activity.
Both are amazing horror filmmakers.
Yes, I actually mean Blumhouse in this post (who did both Wan’s and Peli’s pictures), thanks
Oren Peli was an active producer on all of the Insidious films
Yes he was involved (hence the confusion), but overall the prodco is Blumhouse, which is what I meant. So basically we’re ALL right! 😀
I have a completed horror/slasher script. I think it is rock solid, but I am slightly biased. I have started marketing it and have received some interest. I have read through your horror and characterization “mistake” lists and find I did fairly well at avoiding them. As a first time screenwriter, I dodged the mistakes by intuition and not intention.
My “hook” is that the killer takes the cellphone of his latest victim and uses it to lure his next victim. Since teens no longer speak on the phone and only text message, I thought it was a unique way for a serial killer to operate and would scare the hell out of teens.
My question is this – My killer uses a knife (the most intimate way to kill), so how best to vary the kill scenes? I varied settings, method of luring and exact kill method. Anything else that can be done?
It’s a tough one to advise out of context, tbh. Variety is good, though do be aware an ‘escalation’ of kills is a good idea. Having all your gory ones grouped together or a BIG one followed by a ‘small’ one will seem strange.
I decided to send you the script to read. I sent payment via Paypal. Merry Christmas!!
A very good list. I have recently finished writing the script for a horror short that will be set in the Star Wars universe. Maybe it is because I have watched so many movies (especially horror) when I was growing up, but these all kind of seem like common sense when I was writing, so I am very pleased that none of them have made it into the script.
The one thing I was a little concerned with was pacing early on in the film, however, I realised (as pointed out in no. 6) that the more time I spent building up the characters and their relationships to each other, the more effective it was once they were killed off. I only hope, once the film is made, others agree with this strategy.