This time around, we’ll look at horror screenwriting. We’ll attempt to offer some pointers or a basic writer’s guide to writing screenplays in this genre.
Writer’s Guide to Genre (and Subgenre)
First of all, when we try to create a writer’s guide to horror, we need to figure out what we mean by the horror genre. To figure this out, we need to take a look at genre as a whole.
Genre has been discussed widely when it comes to dramatic writing. The first great theorist of genre was Aristotle. He divided drama with an eye to the value change in the ending. As such, he postulated four basic genres: simple tragic, simple fortunate, complex tragic, complex fortunate. Genre and subgenre have been discussed throughout the centuries by a vast array of luminaries: Goethe, Schiller, Polti, Metz, and many others.
Nowadays, understanding genre is one of the greatest challenges of a screenwriter or filmmaker. The truth is that audiences are extremely discerning in their approach to film and television. Not only do they know a lot about genre already. They also have an abundance of streaming options which makes them much stricter as an audience than years before. A writer’s guide to genre (and certainly to the horror genre) is quite useful.
Horror Subgenres: First Glance
Robert McKee talks about the horror genre in a very interesting manner. The horror film in his scheme is divided into three subgenres. The first is the “Uncanny”, that is, “(…) in which the source of the horror is astounding but subject to ‘rational’ explanation, such as beings from outer space, science-made monsters, or a maniac (…)”
The second horror subgenre, according to McKee, is the “Supernatural”. Here, “the source of the horror is an ‘irrational’ phenomenon from the spirit realm.” The third of McKee’s subgenres is the “Super-Uncanny”. In this particular horror film, “(…) the audience is kept guessing between the two other possibilities.”
McKee’s writer’s guide to horror and its subgenres is very useful. He goes on to list a large array of other genres too. These range from what he describes as the “modern epic”, to the “western” and all the way to genres such as the “action-adventure”.
Horror Genre Bending
Although a short writer’s guide to the horror genre is useful (like McKee’s), there might be more to consider here. Each genre has certain conventions and principles. McKee states that “(…) each writer’s homework is first to identify the genre, then research its governing practices. And there’s no escaping these tasks We’re all genre writers.”
There is a lot of truth to this but we need to consider other elements. As mentioned earlier, audiences nowadays are extremely discerning in their tastes. They have a lot of possibilities to choose from. A stilted and rigid approach to genre may work against us. This is also true of horror.
Consider a film like ‘Alien’. At first glance we could surely describe it as a horror film. We could even use McKee’s writer’s guide to genre and say that it’s an ‘uncanny’ horror film. There’s more going on though and this separates this film from standard genre fare. Even calling this film a science-fiction and horror film, will only begin to describe the story. Imagine a film series (originally a book series, as we know) like Harry Potter. Surely it has elements of horror, but also a lot of other genres going on.
So, what’s the deal here? Should we stick to a single genre? Should we attempt to mix genres?
When discussing genre mixing, it’s useful to consider elements such as suspense and tension. These can be found in genres or subgenres as such, and they deserve special attention in any writer’s guide to horror screenwriting:
- Mystery genre: Here, we chiefly follow the master detective’s POV (point of view).
- Detective genre: Cop’s POV.
- Thriller genre: Victim’s POV.
Note that these are only a few of the most typical genres which are mixed with horror. They’re not the only ones though. Fantasy is very often mixed with horror too (think of Harry Potter and the third installment in the film series in particular).
Creativity and Writing from the Inside Out
Film critic Devin Watson states: “There are very few horror movies made that adhere strictly to one particular subgenre. A case in point is the 2004 zombie-comedy Shaun of the Dead. Mixing up genres can provide new and interesting twists that otherwise would never have been seen or explored.”
Ultimately what we’re attempting to drive at in this article is simple: A writer needs to write from the inside out. This means letting their creativity and imagination flow first and only secondarily trying to make them adhere to some basic story genre guidelines. These genres should not cripple the story. The idea is that they empower it by squeezing out all the drama that the initial ideas can provide.
The opposite approach is a likely way to cripple our imagination in the service of a genre vehicle. Ultimately the writer should try to write the film or television show they want to see. This may absolutely mean mixing the horror genre with other genres.
Writer’s Guide to Horror Conventions
Now then, there definitely are some horror pointers to remember. The idea is not to use them as a straitjacket:
The Importance of the Logline
A great way to structure a horror screenplay starts with the logline. A writer should attempt to work and rework the logline constantly, to make sure the basic elements of the story are there. Most importantly, it should be short. As its name implies, it’s only one line.
Tension and Conflict
Screenplays usually sag and bore their audience when there’s little conflict. Dramatic writing requires conflict. Indeed, each scene may very well feature conflict. Such conflict need not be extreme. It may be as subtle as one character wanting something that the other isn’t prepared to give. This can be quite understated and subtle.
Check one of the dialogues from ‘The Exorcist’. The fight between Pazuzu and Karras hasn’t begun per se (this is the first encounter between Karras and Pazuzu), but the dialogue is already marked by conflict in nearly every line:
Hello Regan. I’m a friend of your mother, I’d like to help you.
You might loosen the straps then.
I’m afraid you might hurt yourself Regan.
I’m not Regan.
I see. Well then let’s introduce ourselves, I’m Damien Karras.
And I’m the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps!
If you’re the devil, why not make the straps disappear?
That’s much too vulgar a display of power Karras.
In here. With us.
Note that the demon and Karras are at ends with each other immediately. The demon wants no straps which the priest will not concede. Soon, the demon begins taunting Karras, upping the conflict. Indeed, Pazuzu begins by mentioning the priest’s mother. The scene ends in spectacular fashion (a writer’s guide to a great horror scene all in itself):
Your mother’s in here with us Karras, would you like to leave a
message? I’ll see that she gets it.
If that’s true, then you must know my mother’s maiden name. What
Regan keeps a sharp stare on Karras. Karras’ smile turns to an
angry stare. He rises and moves to her bed side.
What is it?
Regan leans forward and vomits a disgusting, green bile in Karras’
face. Karras wipes it off, coughing. Regan keeps her eyes fixed
on him, with green vomit covering her night gown.
Writer’s Guide to Some Horror Films
Let’s try to see some horror films to see more tangible examples of what we’ve been discussing. We’ll try to consider the issue of genre primarily.
The Exorcist (1973)
‘The Exorcist’ is a necessary film when attempting to devise a writer’s guide to horror screenwriting. At first glance, we could describe the story as horror, of the supernatural subgenre we examined earlier. But is this all that’s going on? Let’s take a look.
At the heart of ‘The Exorcist’ is the supernatural horror battle between Pazuzu and Merrin, which, for most of the film takes the form of a battle between Pazuzu and Regan and later between Pazuzu and Karras.
What’s immediately striking about ‘The Exorcist’ though, is the amount of characters. Each character has an arc that carries them throughout the film. As in most great films, each arc features elements of other genres. Consider Father Karras and his character and arc. The elements of his storyline feature clear elements of the myth genre, for instance. This is also true of Father Merrin’s arc. Detective Kinderman’s arc has all the makings of a classic detective genre or murder mystery genre.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a horror film that also provides amazing lessons to include in any writer’s guide. This film is very interesting in that there’s an overwhelming sense of dread throughout, but only an actual confrontation in the third act. As such, it’s been described as a psychological horror by many critics and fans. This is accurate, but there’s a bit more that we should consider.
As mentioned throughout this article, the arc of the characters says a lot about the different genres at play. Throughout the film, we follow the POV of Rosemary Woodhouse. Her story is a thriller, since we follow her POV as a victim. It also features clear mystery conventions, as she attempts to untangle the conspiracy and discover the truth.
We’ve tried to create a writer’s guide to the horror genre. McKee’s horror subgenres are a useful starting point. It’s important to realize, however, that when writing horror screenplays, we may very well mix genres. Mystery, thriller, science fiction and fantasy are often mixed with the horror genre.
The important thing is to attempt to write ‘from the inside out’, aiming to craft an organic story. This is easier said than done. It means letting our creativity flow first and only afterwards trying to cajole it into one or more genres.
A useful tip is to try to write character-based horror. This means crafting compelling characters, with clear desire lines, and letting them take the lead. Other useful tidbits we must not forget are the importance of working and reworking a logline and understanding that good drama requires conflict.
The Bunny Studio Way
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