Writing The Horror Screenplay

(Intro from Screenwriting Staffing‘s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart)

In this issue, we have a wonderful candidate to interview regarding HORROR SCREENPLAYS.

Gideon Sarantinos has been involved in the screenwriting world for nearly 20 years. He works mainly in film and TV as a blogger and script consultant/ analyst. You can find his HIGHLY informative screenwriting blog here: Gideon’s Way, and his screenplay analysis outfit here: Script Firm.

There is a mass demand for horror scripts in today’s industry. Many take place in 1-2 locations, feature UNDER 10 characters, rarely rely on loads of CGI and SPFX, are typically gender/race-neutral, and can be made on a shoestring budget.

Horror concepts are our most searched genre on our LOGLINE BOARD, and the #2 most requested genre our our SCRIPT SEARCH BOARD. (will elaborate on this more after the interview)

So without further ado, let’s jump right into this enlightening and instructional interview.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: If a writer wants to write a horror screenplay, where should they even start?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: Writers should understand why audiences enjoy horror movies. They explore our fears of the unknown, fear of danger or death, fear of change and fear of what we don’t understand or can’t control. These tenets rule the genre, so make sure your story fits into one or more of them. Does your idea fit another genre? If so, is horror the predominant one?

It’s also important to understand the sub genres of film such as supernatural, monster, zombie, vampire, gothic, gore and torture porn, to name a few. These will help you define the expression of your idea.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: It can be argued that your antagonist (the one inducing the fear) is more important than your protagonist when writing horror. What’s the secret to creating a powerful, horrifying antagonist (and a vulnerable protagonist)?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: Forcing us to face our fears is what makes horror so appealing. Therefore, it’s vital to clearly define what your protagonist is most afraid of early on. Then ensure the antagonist presents those fears when your main character is most vulnerable. If they are afraid of the dark, have them locked in a dungeon with no natural light. There is a shonky lamp that burns out when the protagonist is feeling trapped, lonely, hungry, thirsty and ready to die. Put your main character through the wringer and never let them off easily. If they escape their ordeal, make sure they truly earned it.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What are the pros and cons of foreplay, teasing the audience with a quick “jump”, only to find out it’s nothing at all?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: Foreplay normally belongs to a different genre of film, but things that go bump in the night will always jolt your audience. It is an effective fright tool, but it has been overused. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use it. But if you do consider its execution. The protagonist senses impending danger. The audience feels the dread. Then something goes bump. The protagonist jumps. It’s only a cat or some other harmless thing. Then the protagonist breathes deeply, touches their chest and delivers some corny dialogue like “Oh, it’s only you kitty”. The protagonist feels safe again and goes back to bed. Then we see the monster under the bed. See the range of emotions the audience goes through in this scenario. There are no real pros and cons of any stylistic device. Just use them effectively and uniquely for maximum emotional impact.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What’s more powerful: having a fear manifested in your hero before the movie/script even starts (backstory), or watching our hero’s fear unfold on page/screen due to a certain event/confrontation/reveal?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: Definitely define your hero’s fear as early as possible. The story progression should present those fears and escalate them. For instance, if your hero nearly drowned as a kid, have them stranded at sea in a leaky boat. Manifest their fear of water in any way possible.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: In horror, what’s more important, dialogue, scary moments, or something else, and why?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: Personally I think the overall concept is the most important aspect of your horror story. The scary moments help. These are your water cooler or trailer moments. Dialogue is rarely memorable in horror movies.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Should humor be incorporated in the horror genre?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: This is a matter of personal preference. Personally, I think humor is counter-intuitive to fear. It detracts from the horror. Consider The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan’s film of 2015. Sure, the moments of levity provided a brief respite from the dramatic tension, but overall they were a distraction for me. Then you can look at the British horror hit, Shaun Of The Dead, which used comedy in its dramatic core and zombie horror in its style. The box office numbers are testament to its success.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What are the pros to writing a horror film in today’s market?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: The pros are that horror films are relatively cheap to make, they don’t require name actors or many locations, and they are a great way to break into the industry. The cons are that the marketplace is saturated with horror material, so it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get noticed. If you find a great hook, such as The Purge, go for it. Be unique and don’t try to replicate other people’s style.

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Horror films every writer should watch/read?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: Friday the 13th, Carrie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, Paranormal Activity, Scream, Halloween, Saw

SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Best horror script contests on the web?

J. Gideon Sarantinos: Screencraft & Screamfest.


J. Gideon Sarantinos: Horror has long been maligned as gimmicky, exploitative, cheap and somehow lesser cinema. Something emerging filmmakers make before graduating to prestige projects. However, times are changing and horror movies are finally gaining the respect they deserve.

Interested in hearing more about Gideon’s thoughts and advice regarding the HORROR GENRE?  Click on the following links:

The Horror Film Template

Ten Steps To Writing A Horror Screenplay

The Types Of Fear In Horror Films

The Basics Of Horror

Screenwriting Staffing connects industry pros with screenplays & screenwriters. A good portion of our industry pros prefer reading scripts in the HORROR genre.

Here are a few examples just in the last month:

SCARY VAMPIRE FEATURE SCRIPTS. I work in the development department for an award-winning indie producer. He is looking to add a vampire script to his slant, and has requested I search the web, in hopes of finding the right script. Budget will NOT exceed 5M. Something in the 6 figure range preferred. There will be an initial option agreement ($500-$1,000), and then a buyout of 5% of the overall budget once financed. At this time, I can ONLY review vampire scripts. More info about our company will be given if we request to read the full script. SIGN UP FOR PREMIUM FOR DIRECT CONTACT.

LOW-BUDGET FEATURES, HORROR. MB (repped by Abrams Artist Agency) and his award-winning team are seeking shoe-string budget feature scripts. By shoe-string, we mean only a few actors and locations. Our director has directed for HBO, winning CBS and Sony fellowships. We are open to ANY genre as long as there is a solid story. PAYMENT TBD. Do NOT attach a script. We are only looking for a logline and bio. SIGN UP FOR PREMIUM FOR DIRECT CONTACT.

LOW BUDGET FEMALE LEAD, HORROR. I am looking for the right script to produce for my next feature film. Ideal script should have a Female Protagonist and an intriguing story. I just completed my first feature film, starring Todd Sizemore, Eric Roberts, and Nana Gouvea. Looking to do the same with my next project. Please submit a logline, synopsis and a breakdown of main characters. PAYMENT: 5% of budget. SIGN UP FOR PREMIUM FOR DIRECT CONTACT.

HALLOWEEN SHORTS. BP, a newly established film company, is seeking scripts that take place during Halloween, or at least revolve around Halloween. We are hoping to begin production in October. Script should NOT exceed 20 pages. Scripts should not be set anywhere outside of the United States. We will pay $15 per page, up to 20 pages. You will also receive “co-producer” credit. SIGN UP FOR PREMIUM FOR DIRECT CONTACT.


Follow us on TWITTER:

J Gideon Sarantinos – @jgsarantinos

Jacob N. Stuart – @JacobNStuart

Screenwriting Staffing – @ScreenwritingSU