ENTRY SIXTEEN: WRITING HORROR

Welcome foolish mortal to the first of five entries on the blog in our #HORRORMONTH. For the next 4 weeks we will be posting about all things horror. Taking you on a journey behind the scenes we will be covering everything from writing and directing, through to acting and how we market our horror to the masses. This is the first time we have tried something like this on the blog and the horror genre is really where all of us behind SuperfreakMedia really cut our teeth. We really hope you enjoy the content we have on the way and we’d love to know what you think so don’t be afraid to let us know on our Twitter or Facebook page.

Before we get to the good stuff, please let me first apologise for the lack of updates recently. It is our goal to have a fresh blog post every week but some brilliant opportunities have come our way and we haven’t been in the office all that much to come up with exciting new posts. I hope to share some more news in the future about the aforementioned opportunities when it’s safe to do so, but for now my lips are sealed. Now we’ve got the boring stuff out of the way, on with the blog.

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This post will mainly be about the processes I go through when writing a horror script. I do not profress to be an expert, nor do I think that the stories I write are perfect.. We have however been quite successful in our horror ventures so far, so I thought it might be worth sharing some tips and tricks I use when writing to shed some light on how the shorts we post come about. Some of the notes I make on how we approach projects could be applied to all genres, but the majority of work we create is rooted in the horror genre.

Although my main interest lies in the field of directing, I also write the majority of the work we post online and have come to change the way I approach writing throughout the years. Going to university was a real help as it opened my eyes to a whole different way of writing and even put me on the right track as to what software to use to format my work to an industry standard. I’ll get onto the software I use later on in the post, but for now I will start at the beginning.

GETTING AN IDEA:

I try my hardest to come up with fresh ideas as often as possible in order to keep posting content online, but also to get the gang back together to create something we can all be proud of. Every project I try to find a reason to justify it being made. For example I might want to try out a new technique when filming or editing. Does the project offer me a chance to explore something new within the genre? Do I get a chance to focus more on the actors and the story as opposed to the visuals and the spectacle? Or, does the short give me the chance to try and scare the shit out of you? If you are writing something it is always important to keep in mind the purpose of why you’re starting the project in the first place. Although we try to post often to maintain our audience online, we never make a short for the sake of it.

Writing is not always an easy task to undertake. ‘Writer’s Block’ is a well known phenomenon for a reason. Sometimes ‘Inspiration’ just takes it’s time to come your way. However frustrating it is, it’s important to stick with it because through all the difficulties, when you have a finished film and you get to see how people react to it – you can’t beat that feeling.

Starting from square one, struggling to reach the next idea for a horror short, I will try to take inspiration from real life. I will think back to times I was actually scared in the real world. This is the feeling you want to convey to your audience. Scares often work best when they are authentic or relatable. When you are in a theatre and a character is going through hell, the moments in which you can relate and recall something similar in your own life are the moments that will stick with you. James Wan said in an interview that he often walks about his house at night in order to find potential scares and moments he can incorporate into his films. Wan has revitalised the genre over the last decade, so when you hear a technique like that, you bloody well try it out yourself.

One such example of where I tried this to scare an audience would be in ‘SANDMAN’. I was actually asked about how I came up with one of the visuals in the short at a Q+A. The explanation I gave was exactly what James Wan said he does to find his scares. Looking out of her window and glimpsing a pale, skeletal figure run across the street to her front door, SANDY runs onto the landing from her bedroom as she hears a crash downstairs. Pausing at the top of the stairs she tries the light switch but to no avail. As her eyes adjust she looks down the stairwell. The darkness stirs and a figure sits crouched a few steps up, as it’s head moves, it’s eyes glint in the moonlight. She freezes, terrified.

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Screening after screening, people have asked me about that moment, or complimented me on how scary that portion of the short was. So how did it come about? In reality it is crazy simple, but led to a moment I am incredibly happy with in one of the scariest shorts I think we have made. When writing ‘SANDMAN’ I was sat on my bed late one night. My door was open a crack, leading directly onto the landing. With the way that my house is set out, the top of the stairwell is directly in sight when I look out of my bedroom door from my bed. A small shaft of light illuminated the tip of the staircase but the rest of what I could see was in total darkness. That’s when it hit me. What if something was sat there watching me? That thought still bloody terrifies me so I try to avoid looking at my staircase in the dark at all costs. Taking that notion, I adapted it into the story. Not every scare I place in one of our shorts comes about the same way, but as I mentioned I think the authenticity of that moment is what makes it so effective. Most people have a set of stairs in their house and I bet you that they’ve passed them in the dark with no regard for the terrifying evil that lurks at the bottom.

As I said not all of the scares and the stories we create come from the same source as mentioned above. I think that as a writer of film it is important to be a lover of film and try to consume as much of it as possible. Scope out the competition, get an idea of the current climate of where you want to enter with your own work. I regularly try to watch as many short horror films as I can. I try to network with fellow horror movie makers online and try to attend as many local film screenings as I can. YouTube and Vimeo are incredible platforms that many filmmakers have taken advantage of to showcase some great work. It doesn’t hurt to have a look what is already out there. Take inspiration from what you watch (don’t copy obviously), seek out opportunities. Look for a gap in the market with the content that is already online. Create a story to fill it. Short of the Week is an incredible site that showcases some of the best short films from around the world, in all genres. Seeing films at that calibre is really inspiring and can be the real kick up the backside you need, to improve your own work from project to project.

THE WRITING PROCESS:

My process when writing can change from project to project. For example I could get a random idea in the middle of the night for a short. Scribbling the loose idea down on paper I might not revisit it for days, whereas other times I will sit down with the pure intention of writing and blast through the entire story then and there. I think the key thing to remember is to allow yourself to be open to these moments when ideas strike. You might sit down at your desk for days and not have a fresh idea come to you, but you have to allow yourself to be in that place so that when the idea does eventually come your way, you’re ready.

One way I may approach an idea, depending on the length of it, will be to first write the story out in a conventional form (short story). There will be no directions, scene titles or camera directions, just a huge dose of creative writing. Creative writing was something I absolutely loved as a child and was really something that led me onto film in the first place. For years I wanted to be a writer or an artist when I grew up. The older I got the more I realised that filmmaking was an art form in itself that combined everything I loved and still allowed for me to tell a story to an audience. Getting an idea down onto paper in a traditional written format for me is essential. When writing like this you can stumble upon moments much more organically than if you were trying to just type up your idea into a script. The description also permits you to establish a world that you can really draw upon on the day(s) of shooting and can be used as a tool to communicate with your peers, for example with costume and production design, or how the DOP should approach shooting the scene.

Another way I might try to get my idea down before attempting to adapt it into a script is using notecards. Much like the cue cards you might use in a presentation, I use these to write down key plot points, directions, dialogue and character developments. Breaking the story down into such key moments allows for you to edit and play with the pacing of the piece before you even get into the script. Laying out the cards in order I have a clear idea of the story I am trying to tell before I’ve even begun typing on my computer. This also allows you to see opportunities within the story for scares, plot twists and where to reveal key bits of information. You can even play with the order in which you tell your story. For some time I have been a fan of the way Tarantino might first present you with a moment from the future at the start of his films, only to go back to the start of the events that lead up to it so the climax revisits that first moment but in a clearer way. This is something I have also done a few times within my own work, most recently in ‘HIDE & SEEK’. In ‘HIDE & SEEK’ we begin with the reveal of a bloody hand, the audience is immediately aware that danger is on the horizon without pinpointing exactly how we will get there or who is involved. This can be a really cool technique to use as its establishes the tone you want to set in your story from the outset.

Another key thing to keep in mind when writing is the importance and function of the characters within your work. Characters are whom the audience will either choose to identify with or follow through your story to be entertained and in our case scared. Even if you only have the one character in your story, it is important to know as much about that character as you can whilst you’re writing. Even details that don’t relate to the plot can help to inform you of decisions and how that character might act in that situation. When writing both ‘THE COPY-WRITER’ and ‘MR CREAK’ I created detailed character profiles and breakdowns of our main protagonists. This is a good practice to get into as it truly lets you understand the characters you’re working with and in the future when you are looking to cast the piece and collaborate with actors it’s all valuable information that can be used or passed on. Understanding a character and their motivations within a scene is invaluable. The more you can prepare and know about the characters that populate your stories, the better!

THE PRESSURES OF WRITING:

When posting the original work you create online, or sending it out to festivals in a similar fashion to how we release our work, writing the next project comes with a certain amount of pressure. When genius strikes and one of your videos goes viral or wins an award it’s important to take stock and recognise the achievements there. Trying to think of the follow up project however, suddenly becomes a mammoth task. You’re now striving for that moment of genius again, this time with a timer ticking and a gun to your head. Everyone wants to know what you’ll do next.

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest tips I can offer is to always allow yourself to be open to ideas wherever you are. I always carry with me a pen and notepad. I have an ideas book and a pen by my bed as more often than not I will get an idea for a film at an ungodly hour in the morning. When out I always have a notepad with me in my bag. This allows me to always note down any ideas or sources of inspiration I may want to revisit again later. The world is an incredible place of inspiration and the most mundane things can conjure up some of the craziest ideas. You just need to be able to keep track of them all. No matter how much pressure you are under to deliver another great idea, being present and having the resources available to you to roll with an idea is the best place to be in. No one can say you aren’t trying then.

A WRITER’S TOOLKIT:

As with any art form, how successful you are at writing can be down to the tools you utilise. For years I had used Microsoft Word to create my scripts. This can work to a degree but if you are wanting to up your game and create an industry ready script I would suggest switching things up. The software I use to create my scripts while writing is CELTX. I know that this software and FINAL DRAFT are pretty much industry standard script writing tools. I started using CELTX when I was in University but quickly became accustomed to the layout and how to successfully write a script within it. It is super easy to use and I couldn’t recommend it more, everything is formatted correctly for you and once done you are left with a professional looking script that’s ready to be turned into a killer film. Within the software you can easily keep track of characters, settings and scene numbers whilst even being able to co write with someone else (easily identifying each persons’ contributions to the script). You can download CELTX for free online so what’s not to love?!

Aside from the technical aspect of scriptwriting, the best tools you can have as a writer are a simple pen and paper. Nowadays we have phones we can use to type up notes and more often than not I have done just that. Really though, what I find helps me the most is going fully analog and scribbling an idea down on paper. Doodling creations and scrapbooking images of inspiration is where I find I am able to be the most creative. Everyone will be different but you must find your own system, use your resources and develop your own toolkit. Find what works for you, but even with just a simple pen and piece of paper you can start writing something, there really is no excuse.

WRITING FOR THE GENRE:

Horror is a really unique genre because it allows for a multitude of scales. What I mean by that is that huge blockbuster pictures can be categorised in the genre, the same way as features and shorts made for a few hundred dollars or pounds can be categorised in the genre, and both still maintain a solid fan base. Action is a genre that is somewhat hard to do on the cheap, the iconography of the genre suggests we should expect fights, explosions, weapons and car chases. All of which cost money. Horror can be a lot more subtle and fake blood can be incredibly cheap to make! Sometimes the cheapness and drawbacks of a picture can add to it’s charm and cult status. I think more often than not, filmmakers within the genre benefit from the restrictions it provides. I for one did not overly enjoy Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘CRIMSON PEAK’ or more recently Gore Verbinksi’s ‘A CURE FOR WELLNESS’. Both of which were huge budget, studio flicks. Both I feel could have benefited from a lower budget and less of a grand scale. When the films become all about spectacle I think it takes away from the feeling of horror that is trying to be evoked. I did have a point I swear. What I was really trying to say is that when writing it is always important to bear in mind the realities of your situation. I will never be that guy that says stifle your creativity and don’t write the script for the ghost story at the end of the world with dragons and robots. All I will say is, especially if you are wanting to shoot the stories you write, do you have the means to shoot that ghost story at the end of the world with dragons and robots…You do?! Well why are you reading this blog?!

It is always important to be ambitious but that should also come with a sense of practicality. I more often than not find that the ideas I roll with are the ones I know I could actually turn into a reality. It doesn’t hurt to dream big and try to reach your maximum potential but writing a script with a location in mind, or something along those lines doesn’t hurt either. If anything it just gives you that comfort and that drive you need when writing, knowing that what you are creating will be able to be turned into a film that delivers. Budget can often be the killer of dreams but the situations in which you’re forced to get creative with the resources you have regularly lead to the best results.

When writing a horror script it is often tempting to fill every available second with something scary, but this can be detrimental to the feeling you are trying to generate within your audience. A lot of the scripts I write and end up making go through various drafts. Of course dialogue is improved and becomes more naturalistic and I may even change something up drastically. Mostly though I go through and ‘trim the fat’ and break the story down to its core. Of course there are moments of terror in there but it’s also important to let your audience breathe and establish the world in which your story is set. Jump scares become tiresome quickly and I have noticed more and more that I favour a huge dose of tension over a jump scare. Building a tense atmosphere up within a scene and then releasing it with a bang gives me such a kick as a filmmaker. If you know that the film you are wanting to create is not that long in length (for example 5 minutes) you might not want to have more than 3 scary moments in there. A common misconception is also that these moments need to be loud and in your face. You can easily unnerve an audience just using silence and the expectation of dread. Stripping it back and picking your moment to scare makes the moment of impact all the more meaningful and effective. Your short should be building from the outset to a finale that is memorable. Scaring an audience means that you almost have to reset the clock and begin that build again. If you’ve already jump scared your audience 3 times in the first 2 minutes of your short, chances are when the big scare comes at the end everyone will expect it and won’t be that bothered. Just be mindful of that, even with horror the expression “less is more” certainly rings true.

STUDYING WRITING:

My time at University was incredibly beneficial to me. I learnt a hell of a lot and some of the tutors I was lucky enough to be taught by had a real focus on story telling and script writing. This helped shape me into the writer/filmmaker I am today. Now it might sound obvious, but I was often encouraged to approach scriptwriting/storytelling with a sense of knowing what my destination was. Being a fan of horror and the twists and turns it can offer, I was told to know where my story ended and work my way back. Knowing the big reveal meant that you could lay a trail of breadcrumbs whilst still providing that moment where you pull the rug from under the audience. Knowing the ending didn’t mean that you were writing aimlessly trying to stumble upon an incredible plot twist as I went. This for the most part is how I work. I try to approach the stories I tell through the eyes of my characters, make their actions realistic and believable. If I know that the final few moments of the film are going to be hellish and tense, the writing process then becomes the time for me to figure out how to get there in a way that feels organic.

While at University I also had the opportunity to study the structure of the films I love. Horror again is a genre that offers us as film fans a whole lot. It’s a genre abundant with complex narratives and creative storytelling (If you hadn’t guessed I’m a fan of Horror). The likes of ‘TRICK R TREAT’ I was shocked to find, whilst conducting a case study, was a film that really came to be the glorious monster it is in the edit. It was scripted as a linear piece, going straight from story to story, A to B to C. Only in the edit did the director Michael Doherty see the potential to mix things up and splice the stories together to create a ‘Pulp Fiction – Style’ anthology film. This is not to say that once you have your story together and you do indeed know your end point, you can’t throw a bit of spice into the mix and piece things together in a more unconventional way. If anything that just adds to the excitement and the energy of the story you are trying to tell.

*I don’t want my above comments to make it sound like you need to go to University to become a confident writer. A lot of the writers I know didn’t study, I only speak from personal experience when I say that my time there meant I learnt a lot and now approach script writing in a different way that has led to results I am happy with. Practice is ultimately what makes perfect so the best thing to do is to start writing and keep it going. Passion and hard work will carry you to the results you want.

WHERE TO NOW:

The medium of short film really allows for a lot of experimentation. If you are writing and shooting your own work, yeah it comes with the negative of not having that much of an outside influence to tell you your idea is whack, or hey it’s amazing. A simple way to combat that is to show it to someone you trust or someone whose opinion you value. Being in control though of a project from start to finish, however not always the case, allows for you to try new things. Never be afraid to fail, just be afraid of the times you didn’t try something.

Once you’ve plucked up the courage and written your own script, whether it be horror or something in another genre, it’s important to allow it to take on a life of its own. What I mean by that is this. Not every script you write will get made, and not every script you write you’ll make yourself. Handing over control to someone else isn’t a bad thing, filmmaking is a process of collaboration and seeing what other ideas your script conjure up is a great thing to be a part of. If similarly to how I work and you do see the project through from start to finish, again show it to people on the way, be open to feedback and when working with actors if something more natural or believable can be achieved on the day of the shoot go for it. Never be too precious about it all. When people read your script or watch your film some people will love it, others will hate it. Film as an art form is so subjective. Never lose faith though, you’ll always get the comparisons to other films that are out there or the comments that say it was stupid and didn’t work but if you know that you put everything into that script and tried you damn hardest. What’s not to be proud of?

For us now the next steps are to take our knowledge of writing horror and apply it to our first feature ‘MR CREAK’ which we currently have in development (check out our blog post about our progress HERE). I really hope that guiding you through my process and shedding some light on some of the techniques I use when writing the horror SuperfreakMedia produces helps. Still unsure of something, or have a question that’s gone unanswered? Drop us a line and we will try to help where we can. Don’t forget to tune in next week when I will be discussing Directing ‘Horror’.

Thanks as always and until next time…

– LIAM

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