Film & TV

How to Write a Horror Screenplay: Effective Writing Tips to Make Your Horror Movie Terrify Audiences

Written by MasterClass

May 21, 2019 • 3 min read

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Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting

Writing a horror screenplay is unlike writing any other type of screenplay. In addition to telling a story, a horror movie script must also scare the audience and give them the adrenaline rush they’ve come to expect from the horror genre.

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What Is Horror?

Horror is a genre of film that’s scary for the purpose of entertainment. Horror movies prey on viewers’ biggest fears and worst nightmares, leaving them with a sense of dread and a rush of adrenaline. Learn more about how to write a horror screenplay that’s equal parts terrifying and entertaining.

5 Things Every Horror Screenplay Needs

Common features of horror films include:

  1. More action than dialogue: Show the audience, don’t tell them, what the characters are afraid of.
  2. Mounting suspense: Pacing the story and the action to take viewers by surprise.
  3. Jump scares: Sudden loud noises or unexpected images that make viewers jump.
  4. Gore: Gruesome death or torture scenes with blood and guts to further unsettle the audience.
  5. A villain or a monster: Anyone—or anything—that’s beyond control. The audience needs to know what drives the bad guy and what they’re capable of.

Tips and Tricks for Writing Horror Screenplays

Here’s how to make your horror screenplay scarier:

  • Take the audience inside the mind of your main character. The closeness to the character’s experience will make their fear more real. You want viewers to identify with the protagonist and experience the horror as their own.
  • Hook viewers right away. Quickly introduce the main characters, time, and place so the audience is invested in the action. Start with a shocking first scene to set the tone right away.
  • Tap into your own fears and use them to your advantage. Think about what spooked you as a kid or still scares you now and access that same feeling of panic when you set up a scene.
  • Turn normal, familiar locations into scary places. Instead of using tired horror backdrops like a spooky European castle, try everyday settings like regular neighborhoods, schools, and backyards. This lets people identify with the setting and picture themselves in the middle of the action.
  • Master the art of building suspense. The secret to suspense is the unknown. You need to write scenes in which the character doesn’t know something: what’s pounding on the door, what’s scraping across the ceiling, how to find their way home. Build suspense by heightening sensory details and slowing down the pacing of the action of choice moments, like when something bad is about to happen.
  • Subvert expectations. Identify a trope within the scary movie genre and find a new way to tell the story. Audiences will think they know what to expect, but you can pleasantly surprise them with a fresh take on a classic horror movie.
  • Borrow from your influences. Watch horror movies and read horror novels to improve the quality of your writing. Ideas are often generated by absorbing story concepts from other screenwriters and authors.

Balancing Horror With Humor

Avoid putting too much horror in your screenplay. If you pile on one terrible thing after another, it’ll feel too absurd and audiences won’t buy it. Use humor to keep the story entertaining and from getting too scary. It’s a great way to achieve the proper balance between fantasy and real life. If a roller coaster only did twists and turns the whole time, it wouldn’t be as fun to ride.

10 Horror Screenplays to Read for Inspiration

Learn what goes into a good horror screenplay by reading and breaking down the most well-crafted horror scripts from the last 50 years:

  1. Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski (1968)
  2. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971)
  3. Halloween by John Carpenter and Debra Hill (1978)
  4. The Shining by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (1980)
  5. A Nightmare on Elm Street by Wes Craven (1984)
  6. Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1989)
  7. Scream by Kevin Williamson (1996)
  8. The Ring by Ethan Kruger (2002)
  9. Saw by Leigh Whannell, story by James Wan (2004)
  10. It Follows by David Robert Mitchell (2014)

Learn more about screenwriting in Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass.