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Build A Better Horror Screenplay

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting
Alien horror screenplay screenwriting

No matter who you are or how much experience you have, there’s always a point (maybe several) in the process of developing a new screenplay idea where you start to question your assumptions.

This examination is a good thing. Why? If you’re questioning conventional wisdom, you’re making sure the unique demands of your story are being served. You’re not just doing what everyone else does because you heard it was the “right” way. You’re shaking that Jenga tower of a story you’re building and making sure it’s solid.

And even though it can feel really uncomfortable while you’re going through it, I secretly love this part. Because poking the soft spots of what you already “know” often leads to new discoveries and deeper understanding.

Get to the horror movies already! Okay, I hear you.

Screenwriter and friend-of-the-blog Mike Will Downey is working on a horror screenplay. So we were kicking the tires and checking the gauges (as you do), and that led to a discussion about the horror genre in general. Specifically, how certain horror movie elements have to work together. Or do they?

horror screenplay screenwriting

Horror movies are just about scares, right?

Horror is one of those genres that never seems to die. (Ha!) It’s often budget-friendly and proves to be a sound investment. So there’s a good market for horror scripts, with more potential buyers.

And with the recent “resurgence in imaginative, brainy and – most importantly – frightening fare”It Follows, The Babadook, Green Room, Raw, Get Out — there’s even more interest in finding that next great, elevated horror movie.

If you’re so inclined, writing a horror script can be a smart way to open some doors.

The caveat here is that a lot of other aspiring writers have the same idea. I’ve read a lot of horror screenplays.

One noticeable trend is the “basic” horror script. That’s the one that relies a little too heavily on flashy scares, but doesn’t have the substance to make it emotionally engaging. And yes – even silly horror movies need to grab us somewhere deeper. That’s what makes one stand out from the rest.

Understanding how the basic elements of the genre work equips you to play on those expectations, and elevate the genre.

What is a MITH?

A lot of horror movies – including Mike’s, the one that started this whole discussion — fall into the Monster in the House (MITH) genre.

If you’re not familiar, don’t worry. In short, “Monster in the House” is a label that comes from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. (Full disclosure: I worked on this book with Blake).

In this book, Blake lays out his 10 “genres” — which is really a way of grouping story types, rather than the usual industry use of the word. So these “genre” categories are determined by the story elements, not by the tone or marketing hook of the movie.

Not every MITH movie is a horror movie, and not every horror is a MITH. But there is a lot of crossover, so for today we’re going to focus on horror movies that do fall into the MITH category.

What are the elements of a MITH?

For the MITH genre, which includes such diverse movies as Jaws, Alien, Tremors, Jurassic Park, The Ring, The Cable Guy, and Fatal Attraction, Blake lays out three essential elements:

  1. A “monster” which appears to be unstoppable.
  2. A “house”, which can encompass a range of physical spaces and settings, though the more isolated our heroes, the better.
  3. A “sin” which indicates someone is guilty of bringing the monster in the house.

So, by way of example, in Fatal Attraction, the monster is the woman scorned (Glenn Close). The house is the family unit that she invades. And the sin is infidelity; if Michael Douglas’s character hadn’t slept with her, she wouldn’t be a threat to him / the family.

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

How MITH elements interact with other story components

The discussion I had with Mike started around the idea of the “sin.” I commented that “the monster should feel connected in some way, like a direct challenge to the main character’s flaw, sin, and/or internal struggle. They’re usually related … so that the monster problem challenges the main character’s deficit. … [T]here’s a [sense of] cohesion to the story.”

But, as Mike pointed out in his examples below, the story’s sin doesn’t always belong to the protagonist. So even if the “monster” is related to the protagonist’s flaw (as in, a direct challenge to it), that doesn’t mean that the monster has to be related to the “sin” because the sin might belong to a character other than the protagonist.

Confusing, right? A sure sign I needed to challenge my assumptions.

And I realized that I had misspoken. I was conflating the elements. The “sin” element is not the same thing as the character’s flaw.

I still stand by the idea that the monster needs to challenge some internal deficit in the main character in order create a more cohesive story. That’s simply a horror-specific way of saying that coming up against the antagonist of the story is what forces the protagonist to grow.

But if sin and character flaw aren’t the same thing, then what is the “sin”?

Sin vs. Character Flaw

Blake says that someone does something to let the monster in, and that’s part of the terror, because the monster entering is our own fault. That it’s our guilt over a sin committed — and the dread of being punished for it — that helps make MITH stories effective.

Where this can get confusing is when we look at MITH stories and try to identify what “sin” brought that “monster” in. As Mike pointed out:

Jaws is [a MITH], although I’m not sure what Brody’s sin is, it’s more like the sin of the mayor. I have read these … on Save the Cat! … but all seem to be sins of the people around the protagonist.

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

Jaws. Monster: A man-eating, great white shark. House: Alternates between the beachfront and a boat. Sin: Greed. When the city officials refuse to close down the beaches during the busy tourist season, they invite the monster into the house.

Alien. Monster: A metamorphic creature with acid for blood and an uncanny ability to hide. House: The Nostromo spacecraft. Sin: Greed again. The company sends the crew out to collect these specimens, and whether they survive or not is almost inconsequential to the bottom line.

The Exorcist. Monster: A powerful demon. House: A teenaged girl’s body. Sin: Disbelief. Doubt and a faltering of faith between Fathers Karras and Merrin invite the dark spirit into the child, forcing them to face their monsters head-on.”

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

From these examples, it’s clear the sin isn’t always something done by the story’s protagonist. Meaning, it doesn’t have to be something that demonstrates the main character’s flaw.

So the sin isn’t necessarily reflective of or related to the character’s arc (as I previously assumed). Rather, it seems like the sin’s function is to create a sense of dread in the audience. If we think the group that’s being targeted by the monster kind of deserves it, we anticipate that they might just get what’s coming to them. Even as we hope they don’t. Even as we understand movie protagonists usually make it out alright.

It’s the constant push-pull of hope and dread (or fear) that keeps us invested in a story. If we identify with the character(s), we hope for the best outcome for their sake. But the circumstances of the plot and the forces of antagonism make us fear the worst. We hope this will happen, but we fear that will happen. We keep watching (or reading) to see which it is, which will win out.

And the “sin” can help establish that fear.

How does “sin” relate to “monster”, if at all?

Later in my conversation with Mike, I course-corrected my earlier comments: “So … invoking the idea of needing your story’s “sin” to relate … to the monster was off base. Because the MITH movies that I’m thinking of seem to connect the monster to the main character’s arc, but I haven’t tried to specifically identify the “sin” in each of these examples.”

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

So a “monster” like the alien in Alien, which takes out members of the group indiscriminately, may challenge a main character who needs to come into her own and stand up for herself (we’ll look at that more, below).

But that doesn’t relate to the “sin” of greed, which put the group in that dangerous position in the first place.

And that’s okay.

Because the sin is an important factor in creating our sense of dread, which helps get us hooked into the story. But watching a character put through a specific kind of hell, seemingly created to challenge her exact flaw or deficit, helps keep us invested in the story. Remember? It will make us hope for the best, and fear the worst.

How does the “monster” relate to character flaw?

As mentioned above, stories gain a sense of cohesiveness when the “monster” does relate in some way to the main character’s flaw. The same way that an antagonist and a protagonist often feel like two sides of the same coin. It gives the story a sense of purpose. This character must experience this story right now.

A few examples from my discussion with Mike:

It Follows is a good one to look at, as is The Babadook. In It Follows, the main character is grappling with the issue of how to have intimate relationships and the monster speaks directly to that [as it’s passed via sexual interactions]. In The Babadook, the main character is dealing with depression and grief, and the monster is … a direct representation of that.

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

I think if you look at The Ring, the main character is dealing with balancing motherhood and career, and the monster comes in and challenges her on that point and makes her come to terms with it and make a real choice [between the two].

Fatal Attraction takes this strategy too — the monster of the scorned woman is a direct challenge to the hero’s deficit, i.e. he needs to appreciate his wife/family and not wish for greener grass, and his dealings with Alex make him see that.”

In Alien, the monster attacks and kills members of the crew indiscriminately. No one is safe, so Ripley needs to come into her own, become her own hero. This ties into her need to grow up or become her own hero in life, as she’s just learned she’s been deceived/betrayed by the parental figure of the corporation.

However, we started this article talking about questioning our assumptions. So it only makes sense to ask:

Does the “monster” always have to relate to the character’s flaw?

And the short answer is ‘No’. Of course not.

There’s no one right way to build a story. Think of this monster / character arc connection as a spectrum. Some stories are more obvious metaphors. Others are more subtle.

I’d say that Alien falls in the latter category, while something like It Follows lands in the former.

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

Which type of horror story is most effective?

Alien is a classic, there’s no question about that. It certainly hasn’t suffered any ill effects just because its “monster” may be only loosely keyed into its main character’s flaw.

On the other hand, many recent horror successes seem to have stories built on a strong character arc / monster connection.

In the nearly 40 years since Alien hit theaters, audiences have been exposed to a lot of horror movies. Maybe savvy audiences require more. The next evolution. The new new.

What do you think? Tell me which horror movies are your favorites! Let’s figure out how they work… and how we can build our best horror screenplays.

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