Story, Technique

Anatomy of a Scare

Alex D. Reid writes about the pacing and structure of scares as well as the sub genres your horror script might fit into.

I’ve always been a scaredy-cat at heart. I would make every excuse in the book to avoid seeing whatever horror movie was terrifying millions of movie-goers every weekend. I didn’t understand why anyone would willingly want to be scared.

Then I watched one.

Horror, I realized, was not about the fear itself, but the thrill of being scared. The cinema screen was a haunted house that I had to grit my teeth through and come out the other side with windswept hair, wide eyes, and a racing heart. I was thrilled. That’s a distinction that I’ve exploited countless times in my own screenplays, one of which went on to win the horror award at Austin Film Festival.

Scaring the audience is a fundamental obligation of horror films. Of course, you need to tell a good story complete with rich themes, interesting characters, and riveting dialogue, but scares are what set horror apart from the pack. If you’re going to write a horror screenplay then you have to nail every scare in your story. You only get so many, and each has got to be memorable, unnerving, spellbinding, but not necessarily scary. Let me explain.

I’m a voracious horror reader. I’ve read a lot of King, Poe, Ligotti, Stoker, Jackson, and M.R. James. I’ve read every story Lovecraft ever wrote (and believe me, they’re not all good). However, I cannot say in good conscience that I have ever been scared by what I’m reading. I am often disturbed, unnerved, disgusted, anxious, and filled with nihilistic existential thoughts, but I’m rarely peeking into the corner of a dark room and wondering if the antagonist of the story is lurking in the shadows. Same goes for theatre, music, poetry, graphic novels, photography and many other worthy art forms. For me, there is a disconnect between these forms and the fear they illicit. They’re still thrilling, but often the fear is more intellectual and gradual. Film (and video games) completely bypasses the rational mind and strikes the viewer directly in the lizard brain. There’s only so far you can intellectualize a terrifying image before your primitive brain takes over.

But where does this leave screenplays? They’re filmic in nature but also very similar to prose. Can screenplays bypass the intellectual brain like a fully-fledged film can? 

No. So you have to work extra hard to make them effective.

You’ve got to be smart about your scares. Sure, you can write that a scary monster jumps out of nowhere in all caps but that isn’t the kind of scare that’s going to keep your reader up at night thinking about the horrors you’ve written. Not all jump scares are bad per se, just that they are rarely used in a manner that digs into your head past a reflexive start. Instead, I argue that you must tailor your scare to the subgenre of horror you are working in.

In your outlining stage figure out what subgenre of horror you are playing in. Are you writing a slasher like Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream? Maybe a psychological horror like Black Swan or Perfect Blue? Or maybe you’re like me and adore the cosmic horror of Uzumaki, In The Mouth of Madness, and Event Horizon

No matter which subgenre you pick each demands a particular kind of scare. Slasher audiences love nothing more than a kill that is creative, darkly comic, and twisted in its execution. Psychological horror must play upon the quirks of everyday psychology, exploring how horrific our subjective perception of the world can become given the smallest variance in the everyday. Cosmic horror hinges on eliciting “the weird”, that feeling of feeling existentially small in an uncaring universe. Here the scares should point towards something bigger, to forces beyond the protagonist, and the audience’s understanding.

This is not to say that each subgenre has stringent rules that must be followed to the letter. There’s often a fair amount of overlap. However, if you clearly situate your horror screenplay in a specific subgenre of horror and structure your scares so that they play towards what an audience wants out of that style, then your reader will be more receptive to your writing.

Horror, like action, demands that your writing be precise. The scares are the draw of your screenplay so they need to hit hard. One way of extracting maximum value from your scares is to contrast the nuts and bolts action line writing that makes up 99% of your script versus the moments where you want to provoke dreadful fear. I always try to keep my general action lines short so that when I want to indulge in the description of a scare I’ve bought some good-will in advance. The reader knows that I’m not going to constantly resort to purple prose which allows me to get stuck into the gruesome detail of my setpiece scares. If you want a scare to be sudden and shocking don’t be afraid to get creative with the formatting. If you show a strong sense of core craft in your action lines then any deviations from your established proficiency will really hit home. A classic trick is to avoid the use of any grammatical structure which can underscore psychological degradation when done well.

But everything I’ve talked about so far is intellectual. I feel that at certain points writing has to go beyond finding a formula and strike straight at the lizard brain. For centuries storytellers have known that the quickest way to bypass the rational mind is to engage the audience on an emotional level. The exact same is true of fear. How do you do that?

Character. If the most horrific act imaginable is happening to a character we don’t care about then we feel nothing. However, if we feel attached to the characters and want to earnestly see them work through their issues to become the people we know they can be then we will feel the true peril of great horror. It doesn’t have to be complex either. The character motivations of Don’t Breathe don’t extend far beyond escaping the house, but we have grown to like them enough that we share their feelings. We can all relate to the all-encompassing fears that consume us as kids which is part of the reason why Pennywise has always been scarier to me when seen through the eyes of kids and not adults. 

Here’s the good news. Audiences want to root for a character. We’re empathetic at heart and care deeply about these fictional people in fantastical situations. This is why the first 30 pages of your horror script are incredibly important. From page 30 onwards you will be delivering scares regularly and will have less time to develop character. All the hard work needs to be done in the first 30. Assume that the seeding of character arcs in act one that pay off in act three counts for double in horror. A drama has all the time in the world to develop their characters, but horror writers don’t. 

I believe there are two kinds of horror protagonists. The first type is the audience stand-in, a blank slate who we can imprint on. Lovecraft was infamous for overusing this type. The second kind (and in my mind, the far superior kind) is the character that has a goal that we can get behind. Horror writers stand to learn hundreds of lessons from animations like Inside Out and Coco and how theme and action become inextricably entwined in the final act. The Babadook uses similar techniques to Pixar in its utilization of metaphor as a method of forcing a character through change. 

None of these tips are revelatory and have been discussed time and time again. However, often when we are in the weeds of page 70 we forget the fundamentals of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Remember the subgenre you’re working in, be precise and creative with your writing style, hammer home empathy for the protagonist, and you have a fighting shot at elevating your script above the pack.

Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre.