Wednesday 5 October 2011

The Unknown Beast - Writing Horror for the First Time

Horror is a genre I’ve never thought of writing before. I’m easily scared and often close my eyes whilst watching a horror movie.

Recently though, the London Screenwriters’ Festival announced a logline competition. The objective was to write a logline for a Horror film in 140 characters on Twitter and the winner would get a ticket to the festival.
A free ticket is always welcome, so I thought I’d give it a go. Each person could enter up to three loglines, and boy did I find it HARD. Most of the ones I thought of either already existed or just sounded funny rather than scary. In the end, I just about managed to come up with two, and much to my surprise, one of them made it to the 25 shortlisted loglines!

This was it: When a magic lamp is discovered in a small town, all of their deepest wishes are about to come true with deadly consequences

This was my other entry (a rather gory one): When a legless man due for surgery discovers his Doctor's secret toy collection, he must escape or become Jack in the Box”

In order to come up with the loglines, I thought of entire stories and characters. So even though all I have for now is a logline, a little voice inside is considering developing it into an outline and treatment and take it from there.

Following on from that, another competition came up. This time it was the chance to write a “Campfire Story”, in other words, a scary tale. I thought I’d give it a go. Even though it’s not a genre I’m used to, it sounded like it could be fun and exciting to write it up. But I was stuck. I came up with many ideas, wrote a couple of outlines, but nothing seemed to be working too well.

I decided to think of the films I’ve seen and what’s generally the story. Many of them seem to have the same ‘idea’ – Victim is stuck somewhere with no escape and is trying to find a way out (a house/ a room/ a forest/ a spaceship…) besides that there is something or someone threatening them within, hindering their escape. Here are some examples:
  • The Descent – stuck in a cave, trying to find a way out, to make things worse, something is after them.
  • Blair Witch/ Predator – lost in a forest, trying to find a way out, to make things worse, something is after them.
  • Alien / Jason X – stuck on a spacecraft, trying to find a way out, to make things worse, something is after them.
  • Evil Dead / Panic Room – stuck in a house, trying to find a way out, to make things worse, something is after them.

There are many variations of the above and it’s not true for every horror, but it works for me as a first time horror writer. It seemed like a good place to start.

Next, I had to figure out, who or what is the threat:
  • Alien
  • Animal
  • Mutation
  • Supernatural
  • Human Being

Again, the above isn’t an exhaustive list and the “monster” could be a combination of some. As you’ve probably realised by now, I am no expert in horror.

Trying to figure out which one to go with, I was asked what scares me the most, and after some thought, I concluded that people do.

The above alone was not enough, I kept thinking of stories that already exist, and then I remembered reading again and again that many ideas are the same, you just need to re-invent them. When I first read this, I started to imagine various fairy tales from different perspectives, and in fact, that’s exactly what’s been done in movies such as Shrek and The Hunter.

I was suddenly on a roll and started to re-imagine several fairy tales and nursery rhymes. I had my story.

It still wasn’t enough though and again I was stuck. I knew the beginning and the end, but how to get from A to B? After writing about three different versions, none of which were quite working, I realised I was forgetting to set my limits. As Linda Aronson (writer of the 21stCentury Screenwriter) suggests, find the restrictions of the assignment.

So I started over. I looked back at what I had and why they didn’t work and started from scratch. I limited my location, number of characters and props. Suddenly it fell into place. With one contained location, rather than several, it all became neater and more focused. I could focus on the characters and the story rather than the action. Not only was the end result a tighter, punchier script, it is now also a low-budget script.

I am not convinced the result is a true horror, or if it’s at all scary, but it is definitely dark and there is something very creepy about the ‘monster’.


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