8 Horror Screenwriting Tips from the Writer of THE BLACK PHONE and SINISTER
C. Robert Cargill is a screenwriter’s screenwriter. Along with writing THE BLACK PHONE, SINISTER, SINISTER 2, and Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE, he has appeared on horror panels for ScreenCraft at the Austin Film Festival, he co-hosts the “Write Along with David and Cargill” podcast, and he’s very open to sharing the tricks of his trade on his Twitter.
Cargill recently posted an eight tip crash course on how to write a horror movie. And he spoke with ScreenCraft’s Tom Dever in a ScreenCraft AMA via Facebook Live, in which he revealed enlightening pointers and anecdotes.
Before we dive in, a fair disclaimer from Cargill himself: “As with all writing advice, your mileage will vary.”
1. If you want to scare, make us care.
The characters are the most important part. If we care about them, we’ll get scared for them. Write interesting and likable characters; preferably both.
Another way of looking at this comes straight from Cargill: “Give us unlikable characters and a cool monster and the audience will root for the killer instead. And it won't be scary - which is often why some of those films lean into realistic gore to affect the audience. If you want to scare, make us care.”
“The key to writing horror is empathy. The more we care about and like our protagonists, the more scared we will be for both them and ourselves. The more we dislike a character, the more cathartic the horror will feel, as if it is a well deserved karmic punishment.”
2. Write what scares YOU.
If clowns freak you out, write clowns. If losing your child scares you, write about that. What scares you, scares others. Use that.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise that if you’re writing a horror film, you should write what scares the hell out of you. Whether it’s spiders, cults, dolls, or cosmic terrors, if something genuinely scares you, your fear will bleed onto the page. Your authentic fear feels genuine to an audience.
Cargill describes his inspiration for writing Sinister based on a nightmare:
3. Make sure something scary happens every ten pages or so.
Any longer and the audience forgets they’re in a horror film.
Every scare beat needs to feel genuine. A “cat jump scare” is startling and only effective upon first viewing, so your horror needs to be authentic and memorable and not simply jump scares.
While Cargill gives leeway to the first act while we’re establishing characters, a horror film needs to have scares or the audience gets bored.
4. Be funny if and when you can.
Not so much that it is a comedy, but used as a tension release, the audience will reset and be ready to be scared again. Character humor often works best here.
Comedy doesn’t necessarily mean slapstick, unless it’s done really well like in EVIL DEAD II (1987) or ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992). Horror and comedy are close cousins. Both are all about set up and payoff. It’s simply the payoff that’s different (Comedy: “Haha!” Horror: “AAAAH!” )
Cargill describes how using humor between characters in SINISTER is a great buffer for scares:
5. Your main character should evolve.
If the characters aren’t changed by their exposure to scary shit, that should be the whole point of the character. We are told that characters are meant to arc or change. And horror films introduce a deadly or supernatural element to the characters, so their very survival depends on them changing their status quo. But what happens when a character DOESN’T change to the horrific force? Quite the misdirection in character.
Another bit of misdirection advice from Cargill: “The key to narrative surprise is misdirection. Not lying, misleading. Use your knowledge of how stories unfold against the audience. Make them think they are watching something familiar, THEN bring in the changeup. The audience will try to be ahead of you; use that against them.”
6. Know your audience's expectations.
If it’s science fiction, the audience will expect everything to make logical sense. If the horror is magical in origin, they will give you much more leeway.
Audiences are more picky when it comes to sci-fi movies like ALIEN (1979), THE FLY (1986), or CLOVERFIELD (2008) because their horrors are based in science fiction. The science element makes us crave a logical, sometimes manmade explanation for the creature(s) haunting us.
Yet magical horrors have unfathomable powers. Magic could mean many terror elements like ghosts, cosmic creatures, or the powers of hell. Just look at how many things the powers of hell has possessed over the years: people, dolls, vehicles, videotapes, beds, and Ash’s hand. The world of magic is unexplainable and not based in science, meaning the writer can get away with a more open-ended (or no) explanation.
And sometimes you get both worlds, like when the powers of hell take over a spaceship like in EVENT HORIZON (1997) (We’re still waiting on that unrated director's cut, PAUL.)
7. Character's choices should make sense.
Imagine all the possible ways your character could escape any deadly situation, because the audience most assuredly will. The characters should make the most logical choice.
This has a lot to do with making your protagonist interesting and likable. We like smart people. We like survivors. So our survivors should make smart decisions. The dead meat teenagers that Freddy and Jason hack to bits make bad, immoral, or illogical decisions.
Ellen Ripley in ALIEN (1979) is a smart character. Not that her crewmates aren’t smart; they’re space truckers. But Ripley showed concern upon bringing a xenomorph-infected body aboard her ship. She made a very smart decision vetoed by her crew. We know Ripley is smart, so we identify with her and want to see her live. ALIEN could very easily been a simple slasher in space, but it’s more memorable because we have Ripley to root for. We are scared with Ripley and we survive with Ripley.
8. Horror tends to be brief.
Unless you have a lot of deep character work, aim for about 100 pages. The “one page is one minute of screen time” rule doesn’t really apply in horror because the suspenseful action tends to take longer in horror. And if you’re Ari Aster (HEREDITARY, MIDSOMMAR), you probably don’t care about page count anyway. But if you want to break in to the industry with a horror screenplay, keep it short. Not only does a modern audience expect a tight runtime on horror (and comedy), but less pages mean less scenes. And that means a lower budget. And a lower budget is attractive to studios.
Cargill says horror screenplays should be written around 90-100 pages, because the final run time is always longer than the page count. He also gives pointers on how to build tension on the page:
And those are eight tips from screenwriter C. Robert Cargill. And you can always find great advice by combing through his Twitter or listening to his podcast.
About the author:
Tom Radovich loves creating popcorn entertainment that Sam Raimi, Chris Columbus, and James Gunn were known for in their early days. He’s worked at Blumhouse Productions and graduated Loyola Marymount University with an MFA in Writing for the Screen in 2018. He’s also a producer and made a proof of concept short with his creative partner titled “The Graveyard Shift.” Tom was a finalist in the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship and subsequently signed with a manager at Zero Gravity.