by Logan K. Scott
Original horror screenplays are tough to find. When an original idea appears on a Hollywood agent’s desk though, he or she knows that gold has been struck. In today’s flooded markets of Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Final Destination franchises, a unique and original horror concept is a rare find and is sure to gain the attention of agents, producers and audiences.
Writing Original Horror
So how do you inspire originality? The best way is to read horror and horror subgenres. Many horror novels, especially anthologies like Douglas Clegg’s The Machinery of Night or Bentley Little’s The Collection, is more than 400 pages of haunting tales that may be too disturbing for mainstream ideas. Their original works breaks all the boundaries of rationality, physics, and while exploring human nature beyond what we perceive as “scary.” The best way to feed your inspiration is to read the brief descriptions provided before each story that explains how the authors were inspired.
So where does originality come from? Sometimes people dream of an off-the-wall idea while others browse their local newspapers for some random small article lost deep within the pages. A few of Stephen King’s ideas were inspired from urban legends that only the locals knew about. They can come from taking an interest in the hobbies and interests of people around them. Some authors go for a more direct approach by hunting for stories by interviewing criminologists and touring haunted locations. Original ideas cannot be forced, but they can be fed, nurtured and grow into something disturbing that will shock and horrify audiences worldwide.
Examples of Original Horror Films
Consider the movie Orphan, released in 2009 starring the wonderfully talented Isabelle Fuhrman who is also known for her roles as the district 1 tribute, Clove from The Hunger Games. It has the same kind of suspense as The Good Son, except with an undertone of adopted-incestuous romance and a twist that is still rather difficult (and disturbing) to process. The twist (don’t worry, no spoilers here) is not something Hollywood mainstream horror has ever seen before, which to producers translates into $$$.
The movie Final Destination was an original concept when it first came out. The concept of Death being the actual killer, stalking a group of survivors of a Flight 180 wreck, was a new and unusual concept that terrified audiences; made them laugh and made them question their own safety long after the movie was over. The fact is, no one can escape death but only postpone it. No one had seen anything like it before and not long after it’s release, inspired a cult following and 6 sequels so far with more in pre-production and production!
Balance Plot and Characters
As a screenwriter of horror, you must write with scrupulous attention to your plot equally as much as your characters. Take for example, Hannibal Lector, who was not only an insane psychopathic murderer, but also charismatic, charming and witty. There is always a new release of some slasher flick like Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the interlopers in The Strangers, but charming villains that could outsmart even the strongest protagonist is timeless. Jodie Foster, on the opposing side, plays a social-klutz who lacks experience, grace and confidence. Her colleagues don’t respect her because she is a female working in a male-dominated field. The odds are against her, which makes Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins a frighteningly original duo. Stay away from clichés in your characters and stay away from clichés in your plot –we already know what happens to the dumb blonde bombshell that runs away only to trip and fall.
There are many subgenres when it comes to horror. In slasher-horror films like Sleepaway Camp and April Fools Day there is usually very little plot and equally little character development compared to horror-thrillers like Hannibal, Se7en and the original Japanese version of Ju-on: The Grudge. A good horror plot should be tightly woven, but not so deep that the audience feels lost and confused. Conversely, if there’s not enough plot, then the audience will grow bored and your script will be thrown into the trash. In order to get the best understanding of your subgenre, watch movies and read books that are similar to the manuscript you are planning to write. Once you’ve got a better idea of your direction and how to execute the major plot points, you add your own unique plot twists, character quirks and shape your manuscript into something that is original and captivating.
Suspense vs. Cheap Thrills
Many horror films rely solely on cheap thrills or “jump scenes.” Imagine sitting in a movie theater as the frightened young woman moves slowly down her hallway, motivated by hearing a strange noise. As she creeps closer to the end of the hallway with a knife clutched in her hand, the audience is holding their breath. They know it’s coming and it may look like the killer is about to jump from the closet. When a cat emerges from behind a bedroom door, the audience as well as the character sighs with relief. For now, it seems that everything is okay, but then she turns around and the killer suddenly bursts from the left side of the screen making the audience jump out of their seat. Killers and ghosts that suddenly pop out at you and make you jump is a “jump scene.” It’s a rather lazy, but sometimes-effective way of reminding your audience they are still watching a horror movie. A horror movie that relies entirely on cheap thrills uses this tactic to distract audiences from a lack of plot or characters. If the jump scenes were removed, the audience would probably never experience fear.
Suspense is another form of fear in movie scripts. Suspense and mystery usually come hand-in-hand with each other and makes audiences feel fear between jump scenes. This kind of fear is stronger and reaches a deeper, more intimate level of fear. This is the kind of fear that haunts audiences long after the movie is over. This kind of horror makes your audience members think twice about getting in their car without checking the back seat for a killer or making sure to keep their arms and legs tucked safely inside the covers at night rather then letting them dangle over the edge of the bed. Horror -suspense is identified in movies like Insidious where the audience can practically feel the evil presence sitting right beside them. It occurs in scenes where the characters have become stressed with their home life and are now yelling at each other. Tensions are high in the audience as they experience the family fights along with the characters. Through dark tones, aggravated characters and a gritty milieu, the strength of the plot and the character dynamics, the audience already knows that some incipient danger is upon them even though there’s nothing going to jump out at them. This is fear. It’s much more difficult to create than jump scenes, but the reward is a successful manuscript.
If your scene is lacking in fear, don’t just throw in a jump scene to make it more exciting. Take your time and focus your creativity on further developing the plot and the characters or remove that troublesome scene entirely. For best results, write jump scenes sparingly and never rely on them to motivate your plot or be your sole purpose for scaring your audiences. Using a lot of suspense with only a touch of jump scenes is the most effective way to make your audiences get the most of their money’s worth.
The best way to make your horror screenplay original is by focusing on the internal and external fears of your character. Is she a good mother? (Internal conflict.) Will the monsters get her daughter before she can rescue her? (External conflict.) Give your character a personality that is easily identifiable, but also realistic with multiple dimensions. You have hopes, fears, worries, dreams, fantasies, pet-peeves, quirks, hobbies and a different way of speaking than anyone else. You are an individual and there is no one else like you so your characters should be unique too.
Plots should be tight and focused centrally around your protagonist. It should be strong and clear to your audiences and propel your characters toward their goals. The events that happen to your character should never be random or coincidental. Therefore, your plot is idiosyncratic to your protagonist. It’s because of his or her actions that these events are unfolding. If you can replace your protagonist with any other character, then your plot and characters need to be bound tighter together. However, if you remove your protagonist and your plot falls apart, then you are on the right track.
Originality is vital when it comes to writing a horror screenplay. In today’s Hollywood flush of ever unchanging and predictable slasher movies, seemingly endless sequels and poorly written remakes, an original horror movie script that breaks the walls of common horror films are the script that agents would kill for.
About Logan K. Scott
Logan K. Scott is the author of numerous successful mystery/thrillers. In addition to his publishing work, he has a BA degree from Brooks Institute and is the writer and producer for more than a dozen films.
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