Spec Screenwriting in Horror — why do some get it wrong

Having spent the last fourteen years or so around peer to peer spec screenplay writing, including Zoetrope, Simply Scripts and Talentville, there is one thing that seems to remain consistent when it comes to some of my writing peers, especially when it comes to a specific genre : horror.

A common misconception first of all, is horror scripts are easy to write. No, they aren’t. They are the same as any other script. They have to stand on thier own. They are good or they are bad. Thirteen years may have passed, but time and time again, I hear the same complaint. “The contest judges don’t like horror. They’d rather give awards to a script that’s artsy or a tear jerking drama that nobody will want to see”

Thirteen years ago. I would have agreed. Then as time went on, I didn’t buy into it. Aside from the possible fact that they haven’t read the script that made it through those contest gates, and thus would not know of it’s quality, aside from the chance that it may be all subjective, there is a bit of a problem with the conspiracy theory. Several lower-end script competitions that focus on genre (including sci-fi and fantasy) have crept up in the last number of years. Major competitions, such as Austin, have the Burnt Orange, which focuses on genre. So there’s a lot more chances for spec scripters who specialize in horror to get out there in competitions, you would think. But I hear the same tantrums — even though this time there’s another writer who did place somewhere with a genre piece. How can that be explained? Simple. You have to look at the complainer. Most of the time, it is a bad script that they wrote, and they don’t want to admit it, or simply think that all you need for a horror script is an overuse of the four b’s. You know the four b’s don’t you?

  • Bones
  • Brains.
  • Blood.
  • Breasts.

And that’s problem number one, believe it or not. I’m sorry, folks. Truly I am. For the horror spec writers out there, you are probably shaking your fist at me. But I want you to think about it. Just think about it. Don’t take my word for it.Take your own.

I want you to go to your horror script and find the scene where there’s a page of narrative which has “blood on the floor” “brains on the wall” “bones break” and on that same page, you have repeated the words that I bulleted more than twice. Here’s nasty thought, and I’m sorry if I come off as un-PC, but here goes. Let’s say your villain stabs the victim. Is it really needed to write “blood pours out all over the floor. Or in an action scene, a killer shoots someone in the head. Do you write something like (again, forgive the morbid example) “brains and bone fly out all over the wall”. All you really needed was “killer stabs person x” or “killer shoots person x”. The point is made.

But there’s more. Once I was writing an action script. There was a big scene where some hitmen were having a big John Woo-Micheal Bay like shoot ’em up with various law enforcement. Explosions everywhere. This guy shoots, that guy fires. Bang. Bang. Bang. And my protagonists had already gotten away minutes before. I started to see I was repeating the words,”fires” over and over again. And it was a drawn out body count to be sure. And it was good I thought. But something nagged at me. It was way too repetitious and I lost track of my leads. I decided to ditch the John Woo homage, get to my main characters, then get to the aftermath of the gun battle where a small go-fast boat drifts up and ‘the reveal is that the hitmen have been killed. I didn’t descibe any blood, brains or bone fragments. You get the point.

The same thing goes for fight scenes. How many times can we repeat ‘hits’’kicks’ and ‘pushes’? We as spec writers are often asked to let the directors to their jobs. Why can’t we let fight choreographers do theirs?

Fight scenes. Gun battles. What’s that got to do with horror? As with any spec script, you want to be lean and mean. Once you made the point, move on. Know when to say when.

You can call readers squeamish if you want, but hey, if they are and the only thing to your story is excess, can you blame them? Also, if you get too twisted, it might (not always) reflect on you as a human being, even if you an okay person overall.

Now go to the page in the script where the monster/werewolf/demon/vampire/gargoyle whatever is hiding the shadows with RED GLOWING EYES and you can’t describe the monster but you always can see his BIG FANGS. First of all, if the eyes glow, the moster can be seen. Second, if the monster is an animal light reflects of the eyes, they don’t ‘glow’. Especially not red.