Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Five things most horror scripts need

At the end of last year, I wrote an article on horror for the excellent Script Angel website - I mean, it’s excellent without my input, I lowered the tone slightly - and now I’m reposting it here, with permission. It’s pretty much a short version of how I approach writing horror movies - it’s not a definitive guide, might not work for you, your mileage may vary, and so on, but it’s how I work. Putting it down in words actually helped me figure out how I do what I do, so hopefully it’ll be of some help to some of you too.


Writing Horror


I kill people for money.

Fake people, obviously. In scripts. But they don’t feel fake to me. I have to breathe life into them, make them full, realistic characters, with hopes, dreams, prospects - and then kill them. It’s sadistic and awful and weird and I love it.

You have to love horror if you want to write it. If you don’t love the genre, if you don’t respect it, it’ll show on the page. Don’t write horror because you think it’ll sell, just write a story YOU want to tell, something you’re dying to get out. Doesn’t matter what is selling now, because the one thing that always sells is a good script.

Horror movies are like romantic comedies - everyone thinks they’re easy to write. But they’re not. You can’t just kill off a bunch of teenagers in a cabin (especially not in a romantic comedy). At the very minimum, you need five things: a proper story, strong characters, a believable villain, genuine scares, and a great ending.

Story:


Horror is tricky, because you don’t just need one story - you need TWO. There’s the normal story that happens before anything goes wrong - and then there’s the horror story that kicks in and interrupts. Set up the characters, put their stories into motion - and then fuck their shit up.

The normal story should be big and compelling enough to be a movie in itself, even if the horror part never happens. This is crucial. You should be hoping that it doesn’t become a horror movie! Once we’re invested in the characters and their situation, we should be as shocked and horrified as they are when things go wrong.

Ideally, you want the horror part to intersect nicely with the non-horror part - it should have some connection, one of them should help to resolve the other.

Characters:


The characters have to be real, you have to believe in them. They aren’t just there to get killed in creative ways (but feel free to kill them creatively). We need to care about them, otherwise we won’t be scared - if they’re just dull cardboard cutouts, we won’t care if they get killed. Make every death hurt, make us yell at the screen and hope they survive.

They don’t have to be flawless angels - they really shouldn’t be - but they need to be people we can relate to. They’re our representatives on screen, and we should root for them to get through it safely.

What would you do in their shoes? Think about all those times you shouted at people in a horror movie, saying “why don’t you just do THIS?” - do that! Let them react in a realistic way. Let them be smart, let them try to get out of the situation. That way it’s scarier - they’re clever, but they’re STILL in danger.

How would YOU get out of each situation in your story? Every character is more or less a part of you, so think how you’d behave if you were feeling brave, if you were scared, angry, sad, selfish, vengeful. Sometimes they’ll surprise you with hidden depths. You never know how anyone will react in a life or death situation, until you throw them into one.

Villain:


You should spend as much time on your villain as you do on your main characters. Whether they’re a human, a ghost, a demon from another dimension, they need a reason to exist. What do they want, what are they getting out of this? Why are they trying to hurt/kill the main characters? What’s their endgame?

They MUST have a believable, consistent plan, it’ll make them easier to write and to understand - even if you never explain their motivation on screen. It’s not enough for them to just be crazy. Why are they doing this? What made them this way? What do they hope to gain? Money, power, vengeance?  What would make YOU do the things they do, what would push you over the edge?

If you were trying to do what the villain does, how would you do it? How would you stop the characters escaping? It’s almost a conversation between you, the villain, and the main characters. How would I get out of this? How would I stop me? How would I stop me from stopping me?? Make your characters smart, then make your villain smarter.

Scares:


If you’ve set up your story, characters and villain properly, the scares will develop naturally. This is where you have to make yourself worry - think of the worst case scenario. What is the worst possible thing that could happen? Now how do you make it even worse? What would be the LAST thing you’d want to see appear in a darkened corridor? What is worse than being killed?

What might a determined villain do to stop you from foiling their plan? What might THIS villain do, how many people would they kill? What would make you jump out of your seat in the cinema, or when watching at home, alone, in the dark?

Try not to do fake jump scares. If you do, use them sparingly - a little goes a long way. If your horror movie has more fake scares than real ones, something has gone wrong.

Ending:


You have several options here. The heroes can overcome the threat, or fail and escape, or fail and get killed, or get killed *while* they overcome the threat. It’s horror, you don’t always need any survivors - but don’t cheat, don’t use “they all get killed” to hide the fact that you don’t have an explanation for the mystery!

If your horror and non-horror stories have been developing together, then you could tie them both up at the same time. The characters could use their normal skills to overcome the horror. Or they could overcome the horror another way, and that victory makes their normal life better.

The ending should be surprising, exciting, and satisfying - happy or sad, it should feel *right*. It should be inevitable, but not obvious. Push the characters into an impossible situation, and figure out how they escape. The audience has mere minutes to guess how a scene will end, you have months! Lead the audience down one path, then surprise them with a stealth attack.

It’s a game, a magic trick using misdirection. They’ll be trying to guess the answer, so do the opposite of what they expect. If you’ve done the opposite several times in a row, they’ll start expecting it - so do something else. The ending is like the punchline. Write a great ending, and they’ll forget any bits they didn’t like, they’ll just want to watch it all over again.


That's it. Getting all those five things in doesn't mean you're guaranteed to write a brilliant script, but they can head you off from some common mistakes. The great thing about horror is the wide variety of stories you can write - from splattery comedy-horror to brutal slashers to subtle supernatural pieces. You can tell any kind of tale. Funny, scary, gory, tense, shocking, satirical, whatever you like. You can explore the human condition much more easily when people are fighting for their lives. And that’s why I enjoy killing people for money. Fake people. In scripts. Mostly.

Make it real. Make us care. Make it hurt. Make it count. But above all - make it good.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Cockneys Vs Zombies on US TV

Americans and America-adjacent beings! Cockneys Vs Zombies will be on US TV this Saturday April 11th, at 3pm and 11pm, on the Chiller TV channel.

It's a cable and satellite channel, so you might not have it, but if you do... free movie! I have no idea if it's edited for TV, but just to be safe, maybe watch the 11pm showing instead of the 3pm one. Or watch both. It's Zombie Week on the channel, so keep an eye on their schedule if you like the shambling dead.

Monday, March 23, 2015

GeekedFest, Newport, August 8th-9th

Convention news! I'll be a guest at GeekedFest, a new convention in Newport, Wales. I'll be doing talks, signings, all the usual sort of thing, and possibly showing some new stuff if it's ready in time, he said mysteriously.

Details and tickets available here, the initial guest announcement includes me, Virginia Hey, John Challis, Simon Fisher-Becker, and Ross Mullan, with lots more on the way, so go check it out. I'm coming for you, Newport! Be ready!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Crazy For You in Philadelphia again

Crazy For You, the short film I wrote and directed, starring Arthur Darvill and Hannah Tointon, screens as part of the Best of Vivisections International Horror Shorts in Philadelphia on April 19th at 6.30pm.

It's $10 for 106 minutes of horror shorts, so go along and see some cool stuff. Including mine! Obviously. Details and tickets are available at this link right here.

Monday, March 02, 2015

My second ep of The Sparticle Mystery on TV today

My second episode of The Sparticle Mystery is on TV today, 5pm, CBBC and CBBCHD!

It's episode 9, and you can catch up on the 3rd series so far here, and see a sneak peek for ep9 here. I blogged about my previous episode (ep4) here.

It's a heisty-capery-farcey-style episode, so expect action, thrills, and spills. There will also be slapstick, silliness, and possibly some Cockney builders (long story, actually not that long, you'll see what I mean when you watch). Hope you enjoy it!

UPDATE! It's now online, on iPlayer, and you can watch it right here!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Crazy For You, Philadelphia

Yes, I'm crazy about Philadelphia because in their infinite wisdom, they're screening Crazy For You at 7.30pm this Sunday February 15th at the Vivisections International Horror Shorts, as part of their Valentine's special selection! What better way to spend the day after Valentine's Day, than by watching short horror movies featuring twisted love stories gone wrong? None! None better way!

All the shorts in the selection have a romantic theme, so bring along that special someone, or go alone with a severed head in your bag (make sure to open the bag slightly so they can see). Note: if you do bring dead people, please keep them on your lap so as not to take up seats that living people could occupy.

It's only $10 for 79 minutes of shorts, and who knows, you might just pick up some romance tips (disclaimer: you won't, please don't copy anything you see, especially the murder stuff, I'll get letters).

It looks like a really cool selection of shorts, so it's definitely worth your time on a cold Sunday evening. If you're there, let me know how it goes.

Monday, January 26, 2015

My first ep of The Sparticle Mystery on today

Excitements! TV Excitements! My first episode of The Sparticle Mystery is on TV today, 5pm on CBBC and CBBCHD!

Update: It's now up on iPlayer, and you can watch it online here. It'll be available until February 25th, so get watching now!

It's episode 4, so you can catch up on the first three episodes here, here and here. And there's a sneak peek at my ep here! Season 2 should still be available to watch on iPlayer too, but if you need to jump in, read my quick summary of what happened so far at this blog post here. My next episode will be episode 9, airing on March 2nd.

This episode airs almost exactly 7 years after my first ever TV episode way back on January 23rd 2008 - it was the Sleeper episode of Torchwood. I wrote about it on the blog here, and followed up with a reaction post here. Bizarrely, and completely unintentionally, both episodes contain the line "there's no such thing as aliens"...

I still get excited when anything of mine comes out, there's nothing like the feeling of knowing the audience is all watching at the same time. I won't be able to watch live, as I'm away, but I'll do an update post when I get back. I'm really excited for everyone to see it.