The Art of Writing Horror: Constructing a Scare
Getting scared is cool again. With the current visibility of high-class horror films, the genre has found new life, and ScreenCraft’s horror screenplay contest provides the perfect format for fresh blood to break through. How does one write a script that’s scary, though? It’s impossible to craft a story that frightens everyone, but previous horror classics display their own dark patterns that fresh blood can follow. Light your candles, turn off the lights and shudder at the process of constructing a scare.
DANGER IS COMING: FOREBODE, BUT DON’T LECTURE
It isn’t enough to crank up the volume and jolt your audience. In order for a scare to register as more than just shock, the audience must already be on edge. Placing a hint within the film’s first act, showing us that there is evil lurking in the shadows, can be essential to building unease.
There are plenty of ways to do this. Some films don’t give us any clues - they create discomfort simply through the distortion of the natural world. If a character’s environment begins as normally as possible, subtle shifts in expectation will create the sense that something is not right - that we’re unsafe. This requires patience; if a film blasts the audience with peril and fear relentlessly, they’ll grow desensitized. Hint at danger and create expectation, before unleashing your monstrosities.
Blatant foreboding - the archetypal crazy person who warns the protagonists of an evil in the woods, or the decades-old murder in a haunted house - doesn’t work terribly well with today’s audiences, maybe never did. Films have been subverting and repurposing the trope for decades. The Haunting establishes a deadly past for its titular house, while turning the above-mentioned trope into a genuine character. Rosemary’s Baby also introduces a pattern of violence within its location, but also as a joke, while it establishes real dread from mundane details - the neighbors who just aren’t quite right.
Of course, sordid histories aren’t required. It Follows takes its time introducing the horror, but it starts with an act of shocking, unexplainable violence that tells us how high the stakes can become. Even more mysteriously, The Exorcist preludes its visceral horror with the nebulous scenes in Iraq, which establish a sense of cosmic dread that never quite resolves itself.
MAGIC TRICKS: SHOCK AND SURPRISE
In some ways, cinematic effects - like a joke, or a scare - are structured like magic tricks. It’s about the art of misdirection, a set of expectations that are upended. A good magic trick doesn’t only surprise, it confounds - the uncanny result isn’t the one we expected or one that we can understand. Simply pulling a rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, won’t bewilder an audience. The monster in the closet becomes scarier when it isn’t where it’s supposed to be, and doesn’t take the shape we expect.
Arguably the first jump scare in cinematic history comes from Cat People - a woman hears footsteps and growls approaching her from above when a hiss attacks her from the side. The noise’s source turns out to be a harmless bus, a fakeout that allows tension to remain. Quieter frights work this way, too - just when we think Laurie can rest at last during the climax of Halloween, the murderous Shape rises to fill the frame behind her. The hide-and-seek scene in The Innocents scares us with a commonly unsettling image, then chills us by revealing that this image forebodes a real evil.
Of course, knowing what will surprise an audience is impossible; not every viewer will fall for the trick. If the scare is well-constructed and genuine, though, it will act as an actual plot beat. If a film is constructed entirely of jump scares, it will end up feeling like a trick. Scares must also connect themselves to a story, with jumps and shocks sprinkled throughout as spice.
SCARE AND STORY: CONNECT IT TO THE PLOT
By using the scare to move the plot forward - establish a new obstacle or caused by a character’s precise action - it will resonate beyond the momentary shock it causes. No matter how grotesque a monster or uncanny a phantom, their impact won’t linger if they aren’t connected to the story. Propelling your story forward through scares can also immerse the audience further into your world; if they’re frightened alongside the protagonist, it’s difficult not to become invested unconsciously in their fate.
Infamous moments in horror prove this point almost without fail - the crucifix scene in The Exorcist or the twin girls in The Shining are visually unsettling, but they also advance a story, either driving characters to action (finding a priest) or paying off a previous beat (Halloran’s warning). The shower scene in Psycho would be little more than a grotesque set piece if Hitchcock didn’t show how the murder affects other characters, creating a mystery to solve. The Thing is famous for its body horror sequences, but these work so well because they’re linked through a story of paranoia and survival.
Giving people the shivers is fun, but challenging - and while scares often display a clear structure, they also require that nebulous emotional ingredient if they hope to leave a lingering chill. Surprise, shock and startle your audience, and drive a frightful narrative forward while you do it. Perhaps your monstrous creations will have a shot at placing in ScreenCraft’s upcoming contest.
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbidden Tomes is published twice a month on Daily Dead. His short stories have been published in The Book of Blasphemous Words, Danse Macabre, and WitchWorks.