For today’s blog post, I’ve been lucky enough to compile some tips from the New 32 Writer’s table about how to write horror. These seven horror writing tips will help you write the horror piece of your dreams… or your nightmares.
Write what scares you.
Forget, for just a moment, what your audience is going to think. What’s scary to you? If you have a fear of spiders, then who is better equipped than you to write the grossest, biggest, scariest arachnid the silver screen has ever seen? If you’re afraid of small spaces, you’re just the guy to write about being trapped underground, unable to move. Write about what scares you and you’re sure to have your audience on the edge of their seats.
…but, be thoughtful about what scares you.
There are a lot of things that society has codified as scary–or used as shorthand for the terrifying and grotesque–that might not actually align with your values as a screenwriter or as a person. Be thoughtful about what’s scary. An example is the way that horror movies have, for so long, used disability as a shorthand for moral corruption. Don’t be that guy. Be thoughtful about what’s scary, and really interrogate what’s scary about it. Spiders? Too many legs. That’s scary. Murderous cults? They’re, well, murderous. Super scary. Disabled people? We’re not scary.
Include the sound cues.
As our fabulous producer Cecilia has already told us, sound design is everything in horror. Make sure to include sound clues that up the tension; a creaking floorboard in a haunted-house movie, for example. Writing these sound cues will help you up the tension without having to rely just on dialogue and visual effects.
Turn the valve, but not too much.
Think of tension as a pressure valve that you, the screenwriter, gets to turn with each scene, either upping or lowering the tension. Now pretend that you’re using that tension to fill a balloon. If you let the tension get too low, the balloon is going to deflate, and you’re going to lose your audience. If the balloon gets too full, your tension bubble is going to burst, and you’re, well, going to lose your audience. Think of it as a game you’re playing. Eventually you want your balloon to burst, but not until the end, when your story reaches its natural conclusion. Turn the valve just right, and you’ll have your audience hooked until the balloon finally explodes.
Start with an image.
Most good horror or thriller movies have one iconic visual image that everyone who’s seen the the movie can instantly call to mind. For Hereditary, it’s the head. For Se7en, it’s, well, also the head. What is your movie’s iconic image going to be? Think of the scariest visual image you can, and then find a way to work towards that as a goal.
Actually work it out.
There’s no way to kill a horror ending faster than using a Deus ex machina. It may be tempting to throw your characters a bone and get them out of a sticky situation, but don’t do it. It’s like your math teacher always said: show your work. Put your characters in an impossible situation and then do the work to see if they survive. Take us through all the steps; don’t skimp here.
When writing your first draft, have fun and be indulgent. Don’t think about the audience reaction. Is this death too gross? Doesn’t matter, write it anyways. Is this scene going to make people walk out of the theater? Doesn’t matter. Write it. The culling happens when you start editing, and eventually showing your script to other people. The first draft is just for you. Make it the darkest, grossest, most disturbing piece of writing you’ve ever seen, if that’s what tickles your fancy.
That’s it for our horror writing tips! Get in touch if you have anything you think we should add to our list. If you like what we have to say, consider checking out horror screenwriter and New 32 cofounder Charlie Monroe’s youtube video about underrated horror movies.