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10 Screenwriting Lessons from THE EXORCIST (Part 1)

Happy Halloween!

Pic 1 Exorcist Title 1

There are many seminal Horror works that have influenced cinema, but they probably don’t come any bigger than THE EXORCIST. Whether you love it or loathe it, over forty years on, this movie has made an indelible (bloody) stamp on the genre, so if you want to write Horror? You NEED to watch this film & learn from it! Here’s why, according to Dave at the fab new website, StoryBeats. Enjoy!

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1) THE EXORCIST did it first

Nearly every film convention, trope and cliché seen in horror films today was created in The Exorcist back in 1973. Bumps scares, shocks, taboo subject matter, Ouija board, demonic possession, murder, surrealism, flash frames, gore, special effects and sound design manipulation. What didn’t The Exorcist do first?

Well, it wasn’t a slasher, so there was no axe murderer roaming around a haunted hotel, or Chainsaw Massacre, Michael Myers, Freddy, Zombies, giant shark, torture porn, creature, book of the dead or a shower scene – but it *did* blaze the path for nearly all of those films (Hitchcock’s PSYCHO being the exception). In other words, The Exorcist set the standard on how to create tension and sell horror to a mass audience eager to pony up their dough to be scared witless. Many if not all of the conventions used in the horror film genre today trace their roots back to this film.

LESSON: Since it is damn near impossible to invent new ways to scare people (though if you can, be my guest!), so instead focus on crafting unique and compelling high concept character-based horror that manages to emotionally connect the reader to the world you have created. MORE: How To Write The Most Cliched Script Opener EVER

Pic 2 a novel

2) Based on a bestselling novel

An obvious reason, but this is by far the fastest way to sell an original screenplay to a studio: write a bestseller! Not a lot of help when you’re struggling in act 2, but that is the business we are in. Look at the stats of what studios buy and make. Overwhelmingly it’s comic book movies, reboots of reboots, and original material based on bestselling novels and outrageous true life stories. The reason is simple – all of these come with pre-built audiences ready to be marketed to. The number of original spec screenplays bought and made into feature films gets smaller every year.

LESSON: Screenwriting is hard. It is a very specific kind of technical writing that is used as a blueprint to make a film. Not every story can or should be told using this highly specialised and very specific format. Consider writing a novel if your story does not fit into the exact mould of what a screenplay actually is. All of the best novels and stories get bought to be made into screenplays.

Pic 3 Exorcist 3 what she did

3) Do you know what she did??

We all know what she did. The most unholy thing a twelve-year-old girl can do with a crucifix. Then screenwriter/author William Peter Blatty takes it further having Regan smear her mother’s face in her bloody crotch before her head spins around backwards and she says the C word – essentially proving that she murdered her mother’s friend. That’s the scene that sent people running to the lobby passing out. Even if you can top it – it’s unlikely that your new taboo-breaking setpiece gets past the suits and makes it into a mass audience film with an R rating.

LESSON: Taboos only work when they serve the story. If you are writing gross out scenes just to see how far you can push the limits – then you are missing the point. We already have Faces Of Death 1, 2 and 3. Push limits – yes – but always serve the story first.

Pic 4 Comedy Exorcist

4) Comic Relief

The Exorcist is not exactly known for comedy, however, there are quite a few moments in the film that provide the characters room to behave like normal human beings making light of tense situations. The script is peppered with these small moments of levity, particularly during the exchanges with Father Karras and Lt. Kinderman. These unexpected comic beats are what make The Exorcist resonate so well and add to the subtext, dimension and internal lives of the characters.

LESSON: Create real characters and give them a unique voice. Sounds simple, yet this is one of the most difficult aspect of screenwriting there is. All the characters in The Exorcist have complex internal lives and come across and behave as real people with adult concerns.

Pic 5 Quiet bang

5) Quiet – Quiet – BANG!

Ah, the bump scare or in screenwriting terms, the SHOCK CUT. The lowest form of horror filmmaking right up there with the flickering light and the ghostly slamming door … which are of course both also in The Exorcist.

While Hitchcock might have arguably invented the bump scare, The Exorcist perfected it leaving us with the version we see ad nauseum today. Now entire movie franchises are based on little more than a series of bump scares and people walking around in the dark – making things real quiet and then BANGING something as loud as possible to jolt the audience. For proof of this – see just about every horror film made SINCE 1973!!

LESSON: As an editor for the last fifteen years I can tell you there is nothing called a SHOCK CUT. There is only a CUT that is often paired with a loud noise – or – something moving into a shot quickly paired with the same loud noise. The net affect may cause people to jump – however it is still just a cut or shot with a sound effect when it gets to the editing bay. As effective as this can be, it’s another cliché that is overused and should be reimagined IN THE WRITING – since the audience has been well-trained to anticipate this genre trope, now. MORE: Tropes Vs Clichés: A Storyteller’s Guide

TOMORROW: Part 2 of what screenwriters can learn from The Exorcist!


BIO: David McClellan is a screenwriter/filmmaker and editor. Check out his blog, where he posts all of his favorite film plot breakdowns, HERE.

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