This is to be my penultimate essay in the series of What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year (don’t you just love that word, “penultimate”—I have no idea why anybody ever came up with that word—who thought, we need a long, snobby sounding word for next to last; I know, how about penultimate?).
My final essay will be one about what I search for in screenplays for competitions, what I like, what genres I especially respond to, and the pitfalls in those genres and types of films.
But now to the horror, the horror, as Joseph Conrad might say.
Probably next to thrillers/mysteries/film noirs and movies of that et al, horror is probably the genre that I read most for competitions. And it makes sense. After all, who doesn’t like to be scared? Add to that that they are constantly being produced (almost with the exponential growth of a zombie outbreak), so writers can easily see that there is a market for them. And everyone acts like they are one of the easiest genres to write.
And maybe writers are right. Maybe they are the easiest to write. After all, what does it take to make a horror story: gather a group of victims together; add ghosts, zombies or crazy rednecks with chain saws; mix together ala Julia Child; and voila: horror (it’s like those old jokes about menus in Chinese restaurant: choose one item from Column A, two from Column B and one from Column C).
They can also be a good way to break into the biz, so I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from writing them. And if done right, they are the sort of stories that most easily fit in the self-contained indie approach to movie making that is popular these days.
But because everyone thinks they are easy to write, and because everyone writes them, that can also make them some of the most difficult to win competitions with. It can be a bit harder to stand out if everyone is doing the same things.
Which leads us to the first topic of discussion (nice when things work out so conveniently like that, isn’t it):
Here I should probably admit, and shame the devil (which may not be the wisest idea in writing about this subject), that in some ways horror screenplays are often not my favorite to read, usually because, based on the number of screenplays I’ve read over the year, they are rarely very original, or have anything particularly unique, in plot outline or character, to offer.
In fact, I hate to say it, but I sometimes think that horror writers are some of the, well, I’m sorry to be so ruthlessly honest here, laziest writers around.
I say this because there are times, after having read a hundred horror screenplays in a few months time, that I get the idea that authors think that all they have to do here is get city folk lost in the country and have to fight for their lives against inbred natives (a plot idea as old as the hills from which the villains usually come); get a group of people trapped in a remote location where something supernatural (or not) kills them off one by one; or, for some arbitrary reason, as if a bunch of plot ideas hand been thrown into a hat and one drawn out, a plague somehow breaks out and turns everyone into the living dead.
But if that is your approach, if that is the most originality you can bring to a story, then I should let you know that the majority of readers of horror screenplays fall into two types. The first are the ones (like me), who have been around since the Civil War and have seen a huge number of scary movies come and go, talking of Michelangelo (extra points if you know the literary reference).
And just to give you some back story here (as we say in the biz) to more fully explain my point, I was at the opening night of the original Dawn of the Dead (and yes, the 2004 version is a remake, okay?). And I saw many of the various Dead/Zombie movies for awhile after that before the genre itself got a little moldy, like the central characters of the movies. So after all these years, it’s probably going to be a little hard to get a living dead screenplay past me mainly because it’s all been done to death (do not pardon the pun).
The second group of readers are those who love horror movies. Now, you might, at first, think that will give you a break. But in reality, such readers are quite possibly going to be even harder on you than people who don’t care for horror movies. They like scary movies, but so much so that it’s hard to get anything run of the bloody mill past them.
And because of this, what I have found is that for horror screenplays, not only is the basic idea often a bit stale, but the plot, the character arc, the various twists and turns are almost always obvious in the first ten pages simply because they resemble so many other screenplays that have come before.
Of course, if it’s one of those great ideas that make a producer sit up and say, I want that screenplay no matter how much it costs, then you’re safe. But again, most ideas that are highly original from an author’s point of view are often pretty standard ones that have been done a million times before from a reader’s point of view.
It’s the old orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally—all men know when they have satisfied their sexual partners, etc., etc. Every writer thinks their plot idea is so unique it carries the story, but readers almost never come across a unique or original idea in horror, so you do the math.
At the same time, rules are made to be broken. Take the three plot outlines above (the city/country folk; people killed off one by one; living dead): over the last two years, I have highly recommended screenplays that have those plots as their basis.
But for those I did, they all tended to have one thing in common:
WHO OR WHAT IS DRIVING THE STORY
I know, I know. I’ve talked about this concept ad nauseam. But I think it is very pertinent in horror films mainly because I sometimes get the idea that authors think that in such movies, the least important aspect of the screenplay are the characters, that they are often just fill in the blank puzzle pieces and it doesn’t even matter if they even belong to this particular puzzle. It’s true they may be easily dispensable from Jason Voorhees point of view, but from a reader’s point of view, they are very, very pensable.
I really do often get the feeling that authors think that the only thing they need is a scary plot idea (no matter how unoriginal) and enough dead bodies, dismembered limbs, big breasted women screaming and running for their lives (misogyny is alive and well in horror screenplays) and blood flowing to get their story sold.
And based on the number and kind and quality of horror movies made these days, they may be right.
At the same time, though, we’re talking about screenplay contests here. And contests generally look for something more than whether a screenplay is just barely good enough to be made into a straight to DVD B-movie.
And it is perhaps in the horror genre where I have found the characters to be the least interesting because authors don’t seem to think they need to be. And what usually happens is that the story is often not driven by characters, but by the basic plot idea.
But remember, it’s unlikely that it’s the basic plot in and of itself that is going to get a reader emotionally involved, not if it’s the same old chestnut that everyone is writing. But if you have interesting and intriguing characters, I’ll follow them into that buzzing chainsaw no matter how old and rusty it is (and let’s face it, if I find the characters bland, boring and flat, why should I care if Leatherface kills them or not; in fact, if they are bland, boring and flat, I might cheer him on).
Of course, in the end, your goal should probably be a combination of a clever plot with a new and unique idea as well as rich and vibrant characters. But what I’ve found is that if a plot is overly familiar, but the characters are not, then I’ll stay with the story much longer than if neither the plot and characters are unique, or if the plot is unique in some way, but the characters aren’t.
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS
Another major issue I often find when it comes to supernatural horror films, especially films about hauntings, demon possessions, or deteriorating mental states of some sort, is that the story often seems rather arbitrary and the “victim” (the hero usually or main character) chosen almost at random, like a spin of the wheel on a game show, Vanna.
In writing a horror screenplay, the author often fails to answer some very basic questions: Why is this happening now? Why is it happening here? Why is it happening to the people involved? Why is nobody asking why this is happening now, why is it happening here and why it is happening to the people involved? Why, why, why?
Now this actually doesn’t mean you have to answer these questions. Just because someone asks why, doesn’t mean they have to get an answer (see Job if you don’t believe me). Or the answer could very well be that there is no answer. I mean, if you want to go all existential on me, I actually welcome that.
But remember, if the characters aren’t asking these questions, believe me, we readers are. And if we don’t have an answer, you almost never get a recommend.
CALL THE DOCTOR, CALL THE DOCTOR, CALL THE EFFING DOCTOR
This concerns one major mistake I see repeated over and over again. A person suddenly starts experiencing hallucinations, or their body starts acting weird, or their child starts acting like the demon from hell (and I don’t mean the terrible twos), and no one goes to the doctor. No one seeks out professional help. Someone starts acting like they are in the last stages of cancer and everybody around them treats them like they have a minor cold.
I see this over and over again. Now, I know that not everybody has insurance and not everybody can afford to go to the doctor (though that never seems to be the reason in screenplays that people don’t do this; in fact, there never seems to be a reason in screenplays like this; and even so, with ACA, that’s going to be less and less of a believable excuse, like cell phones not getting reception, but I digress…)
As I was saying, if you suddenly start seeing demons on the TV, or you lose a hundred pounds in two days, or you find yourself sleep walking and going to bars and picking up strange sexual partners, waking up the next morning with blood all over your face and a terrible taste of raw meat in your mouth and you can’t remember any of it until those pictures show up on facebook, I think you are probably going to seek out an expert’s opinion.
In fact, this is often one of those do or die, change the channels issues. If a character doesn’t try to figure out what is happening to them and go to a doctor of some sort, I will often not pass on a screenplay for that reason alone.
RULES OF THE GAME (and I don’t mean La regle du jeu)
Another major issue I run across is that often writers will set up a situation, but won’t set up a clear set of rules to the game. Things will happen in an arbitrary and catch as catch can manner.
And I have read a great number of horror scripts where I feel like I am playing Monopoly, and all of a sudden for some reason the author doesn’t reveal, I suddenly have to pay $200 to pass Go, or I can’t buy Marvin Gardens this time round; and doubles means I have to move backwards. And why? Just because the author of the screenplay says so, that’s why.
Sometimes when I point this out to a writer, they will claim that the supernatural is the supernatural and doesn’t necessarily have a logic.
And I suggest this is patently untrue and an insult to all good supernatural villains and demons and devils everywhere. They have a logic. It may or may not be our logic, but they have a logic and set of rules they play by, just as we do. It’s just that theirs is true to their own world and way of thinking.
Sometimes when this concept of rules are ignored, this results in what I call a jump and go boo movie; a movie in which the scares happen at arbitrary times to frighten the audience, but make no plot sense at all. Which is actually more annoying than scary.
But this can also result in a story that has no forward momentum because nothing has been set up to resolve the situation. People are just running from place to place in a series of scenes that are all on the same level of tension with no rising action, because there is no long range plan or way to stop what is going on. The story isn’t going anywhere and it’s taking forever not to get there.
This also applies to back story. Not only do you need to know the rules, you need to know the background, the set up, everything that led up to the present situation, as well. Be forewarned, one of the things readers do is put together the back story as they read along, compiling the events and story line that led up to the present situation. And woe be it unto you if the back story makes no sense or doesn’t match up to the present situation. We can be very anal that way.
I’M SO EXHAUSTED
As in action movies, I have also found that in horror movies the narrative can be so overwritten, that the story becomes little more than chase and action scenes. Remember, action is not plot and if all you have is action, a story can get old pretty fast. Action is rarely exciting in and of itself, but most often only in context of furthering the plot or exploring character. And so often in horror movies, it’s just there for its own sake.
WHERE DID THEY GO
This applies to movies about people who disappear, especially people who are traveling and end up being caught and trapped in some way. This becomes an issue when it becomes clear that this happens on a regular basis and has been happening for years and years.
What I never understood is why no one ever came to look for these people. They all have relatives and loved ones who are going to wonder why their teenagers who went on spring break never arrived or never returned home. And if this does indeed go on for years, after awhile, someone’s going to catch on to the fact that the victims all used their credit cards at the same gas station or restaurant and disappeared in the same location.
But the writers act like their story happens in a vacuum and that the outside world never seems to exist.
I WILL LEAVE YOU ON ONE FINAL NOTE:
Remember that what happens in a movie doesn’t necessarily have to be believable or logical or make sense. I mean, it’s a horror film, how could it be. But generally speaking, the characters’ reactions to whatever happens probably should be. So if someone does something that doesn’t make sense; someone starts acting really weird; things start happening in a house that make no sense; or people start dying right and left, then the people need to react to it. No matter how illogical something is, people need to react in a logical manner. This note alone can solve many of your problems.
NEXT: What I Look for and Like in Screenplays