It’s Halloween! I’ve been thinking about what to post on such an auspicious occasion: a dissection of Alfred’s Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, a breakdown of horror-film structure generally, or a shout-out to all the frickin’ awesome costume designers without whom every horror movie ever shot would look like an episode of Alf.
And I’ve settled on this: FEAR.
How does a writer create FEAR in a script, and why are some thrillers SO CHEESY while others scare the living crap out of us?
Suspense is certainly important. To create suspense, a writer will generally build in a FORESHADOWING SCENE early-on in their screenplay in which the MAIN BAD GUY does something horrible, or the HERO experiences a tragic event. If this scene can do both—perfect. Foreshadowing scenes can also be more subtle than this (and often are in thrillers versus horror movies), but they must still suggest the STAKES of what your hero will come up against later in the film. Then, once the foundation has been laid, the writer’s job is to tease the premise of this foreshadowing scene throughout the movie, and slowly build to a CLIMAX ten pages into Act III in which the character’s WORST FEARS nearly come true. This climax should directly recall the foreshadowing scene, but also subvert expectations and take the nightmare ONE STEP FURTHER.
But, come on now—it can’t really be that easy, can it? We’ve all seen movies that stick closely to this formula—but still SUCK. I wanna make my audience SQUIRM in their chairs and SHOUT OUT in stone-cold FRIGHT, for chrissakes…
To write a truly scary movie, writers must first embrace the fact that YOUR JOB is to MANIPULATE an audience’s emotions as effectively as possible. And that’s not just the case for scary movies—ALL SCREENWRITERS must find ways to make their readers, and later their audiences, FEEL exactly what they want them to feel.
I always get annoyed when I hear social conservatives or politicians talking on the news about the manipulative qualities of movies or TV. No DOY! That’s what movies do—they manipulate. And whether you’re inspired to think drugs are fun after watching Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, or that there’s always a second-chance for love after watching Nights in Rodanthe, the same thing has happened:
And while others can debate the pros and cons of media manipulation, that’s not a writer’s job. Your job is to do it WELL, and the first step towards effectively roping in an audience and making them FEEL WHAT YOU WANT is to create a hero (the main character) that audiences will LIKE.
It’s that simple. If you want to heighten the FEAR, the LOVE, the HOPE, the DISGUST that your audience will feel, you must first give them a character they can care about. And that doesn’t mean he or she hast to be a rube—no way. Was Tony Montana an especially LIKEABLE character? No way. What about Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways? Kind of a jerk-off… But there’s a difference between a character being LIKEABLE and a character being LIKED. You first job in screenwriting is to shape a main-character that audiences will care about, despite any flaws and/or reprehensible behavior.
And that’s the real trick. If a character that audiences DON’T CONNECT WITH is going through all kinds of crazy, awful stuff, no amount of heart-pounding music and super-sweet special effects will make their journey any more SCARY. But if we CARE about their fate, and CONNECT with the main character as a person, then the VERY SAME PLOT will get the screams and heart-flutters a screenwriter is hoping for.
So, how do you do that? How do you make your audience LIKE or better yet LOVE your main character?
One of the most effective methods I've discovered is best elucidated by the screenwriter Blake Snyder in his book “Save The Cat.” Here’s how he describes the premise of his book's title:
“I call it the ‘Save the Cat’ scene… And it’s basic. It’s the scene
where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving
a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”
It’s the best tip you’ll ever get on screenwriting.
If you want your audience to FEEL the way you want them to, you must first make them CARE about your main character. And to make them CARE, you must give them a reason to connect.
Your character can be as tough, closed-off, or assholic as you want, but underneath it all, we need to see something about them that is GOOD. Saving an actual cat sounds pretty cheesy – but that’s not Snyder’s point. Your secret-serial killer might be an introverted mess, but couldn’t he stop to help the homeless guy who passed out on the street? And the mean cheerleader at high school might be hollier-than-though—but couldn’t she interrupt a hallway fight to stand up for the dork being picked on? These little scenes—half-a-page even—can be instrumental in giving your character SHAPE, and ingratiating them to your audience.
FEAR by itself is just a word. No one just FEARS generally—we fear for something or for someone. So give your audience someone to care about, THEN put that someone in a frightening situation. When your audience connects, they’ll internalize the horrors of your hero, and VOILA! You’ve just written Silence of the Lambs.