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Developing Style as an Artist

in Filmmaking/Writing by
Hammer of the Gods 2018 horror movie

Developing style as an artist

Stanley Kubrick filming Spartacus.
Stanley Kubrick filming Spartacus. Kubrick had one of the most distinct styles in film.

Anyone facing a career in the arts, be it writing, filmmaking, or whatever, will face the issue of style: where it comes from and how to get it. A quick Google search brings up hundreds of articles on developing style as an artist. As someone who talks to a lot of artists, I hear the topic come up a lot. As someone who reads tons of screenplays, I can see that people aren’t quite getting it.

The articles all say the same things: don’t force it, let it come naturally, experiment, try imitating but don’t copy. It’s all fine advice but it’s not helpful to someone who feels like their work is lacking an identity.

Watching the rough cut of Hammer of the Gods, my third feature film, I realized I’ve been developing my own style. Some elements I can pinpoint to inspiration from other filmmakers, and some are of unknown origin. Yet somehow, it all works as a coherent unit, as if it’s just one style — because it is. Led Zeppelin’s music has a perfect synthesis to it but you can still hear the Celtic and blues inspirations.

Style doesn’t come naturally

There’s a myth that certain artists were born into their style, that Quentin Tarantino sat down for the first time at a typewriter and produced Pulp Fiction. People see The Grand Budapest Hotel and think Wes Anderson has always had that quirky style. It’s not true and it’s a harmful assumption to someone starting out with their art career. Even Led Zeppelin was actually Jimmy Page setting out to create a supergroup of already well-established musicians with distinct styles of their own. They weren’t school buddies who got together in their parents’ basements to write Stairway to Heaven.

John McTiernan directs Arnie in Predator.
John McTiernan directs Arnie in Predator. His style was just emerging.

Nomads vs Predator

I love the movie, PredatorJohn McTiernan’s second film. Until last night, I’d never seen his first film, Nomads. I was curious to see what McTiernan came up with before Predator and Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, so I checked it out.

Watching the film you can see lots of hints at what would become McTiernan’s masterful style, but it doesn’t seem like a McTiernan film. It’s flawed in many ways, and there is a good deal of experimenting. The film isn’t great. McTiernan is doing so much experimenting that it’s hard to follow. He was trying to push boundaries before he understood what boundaries he could push and the film suffered as a result. Luckily Schwarzenegger loved it, so McTiernan got the director’s seat for Predator.

McTiernan experiments with style with his debut, Nomads.
McTiernan experiments with style with his debut, Nomads.

McTiernan approaches Predator differently. The artsy experimentation of Nomads is gone. Now, he’s simply trying to tell a good story. He’s focussing on relaying information to the audience clearly and efficiently. He isn’t using the camera in an attempt to create style. He’s using it to create tension. He’s focussed on doing his job as a director: the job of a storyteller. Predator isn’t a stylized film, and neither is Die Hard, but you can tell a John McTiernan movie when you see one. Why is that?

Style doesn’t mean stylized

My film school classmates all wanted to be Wes Anderson. Half of the final projects were blatant Wes Anderson rip offs. I even heard one student tell her actor, “That was good but this time, be more like Bill Murray.” I can’t judge — meanwhile, I was busy being a Sam Raimi wannabe.

Stylization happens when you’ve mastered your craft and developed a style. Once you’re able to look at that style and see what makes it unique, what the audience enjoys the most, that’s when you can start exaggerating certain elements. But first you need to develop a style, which needs to happen naturally.

wes anderson behind the scenes
It looks like Wes Anderson’s stills photographer may have been one of my classmates

Focus on telling the best, most clear story you can, and then look at your finished product. Decide which elements you like most about it. Take those elements with you into your next project and leave the rest behind. Do this over and over enough and eventually a style will emerge. Everything you like about your own work is an element of your eventual style. Bottle Rocket isn’t anything like The Life Aquatic, but you can see the little things that will eventually become Wes Anderson.

Don’t worry about your work being ordinary. Your personality will show through your work once you stop forcing style in to cover it up.

You don’t get to choose your style

This is the hardest fact to grasp for the emerging artist: your style chooses you, not the other way around. You might obsess yourself with Sam Raimi and wish your style was filled with crash zooms and over-the-top performances, but if it’s not you, then it’s not you — though some of that influence may still creep in.

You need to be honest with yourself. Embrace the unexpected. You may be casting a film, looking for a certain performance, when someone comes in and does something you never thought of. Go with it. A light might burn out on set and you end up with an interesting lighting setup and you like it. If you like it and think it can work, go with it. Don’t try to analyze or define what you like about it, just trust your gut.

A still from Black Mountain Side
A still from Black Mountain Side

In my own experience

The long following shot of Jensen (Shane Twerdun) in Black Mountain Side wasn’t what I expected it to be, but during the camera rehearsal, the camera team went down the wrong path in the snow and the shot ended up being framed completely differently. I decided to go with it (it’s one of my favourite shots in the film), and I ended up doing a similar shot in Hammer of the Gods. Embrace the accidents. Had Black Mountain Side turned out exactly as I’d envisioned in my head before sitting down to write the script, it probably would have been a glorified Shining rip off, but as I wrote, ideas with seemingly no origin came to mind and I rolled with them. When we were casting, amazing actors came in that didn’t fit my original mental image, but I went with them. Budgetary restraints forced me to be creative on the day, and at times I put my trust in other people. Good things happened and I took those good things along with me to Hammer of the Gods.

Don’t feel like you need to force style into your project to be noticed or interesting. It’s hurting your work and it’s hurting your potential. Be excited to meet your style. Enjoy watching your style unfold from project to project. It’s one of the more satisfying parts of the job.

Orchestrating the Perfect Jump Scare

in Filmmaking/Horror/Writing by

The jump scare: cliche or useful tool?

jump scare mirror evil dead
A take on the mirror gag

If you’ve seen Black Mountain Side, then you know I’m not a big fan of jump scares. In fact, there isn’t a single jump scare in the whole film. That was intentional. When making that film, I was totally convinced that jump scares lessened the value of a horror film, and that the state of modern horror was in ruins solely because of the overused gimmick.

Was I right? Maybe to an extent, but I’ve since come to believe that jump scares can, and do, have a very important role in horror films. A successful jump scare is more complex than you might think.

Why do we need jump scares?

alien jump scare chestburster
No one saw this one coming. Not even the actors.

What is the point of a jump scare? It’s not simply, to make your audience jump. The goal of a horror filmmaker should be to leave the audience with a lasting sense of dread and, of course, fear. Yelling “Boo!” and making someone jump will get a rise, but it’s not enough to leave a lasting impression. If you rely on jump scares as the only form of horror in your film, you will undoubtably end up with a bad product. Feel free to read my article on “scary storytelling”, which may echo a lot of what I’m going to say here.

Jump scares serve a single purpose: to break through your audience’s defences. It makes them pay close attention, it makes them fear what is going to come around every corner, what is going to be in every reflection, and so on. People don’t like being jolted into jumping (which is why films that rely heavily on the jump scare aren’t so good), so they’re going to do their best to try to see the jump scares coming. A good jump scare makes them vulnerable to the real horror–the content of your story. This audience vulnerability will allow you to unravel the real goodies, unnoticed, so that you can hit them with a real surprise later on.

The importance of character

the shining jump scare
Jack Torrance is strangely relatable in The Shining.

A jump scare will never work if we don’t care about your characters. Again, I touched on this in my piece on scary storytelling. There is nothing more important in storytelling than strong characters. As soon as an audience begins your film, they will subconsciously begin the process of trying to relate to the characters. They will decide quickly who they like and who they’re rooting for.

And when I say they will attempt to relate, that doesn’t mean make your characters as relatable as possible. Make your characters interesting and unique and people will relate to them more than if you make them boring and standard. No one actually sees themselves as boring and standard.

Jump scares should be natural

When you sit down to write your script, don’t write it around those wicked jump scares you have in your mind. You should be focussing on your story, on your characters, on your plot–on good writing. If you end up with a great horror script without a single jump scare, great! Don’t go and add one in for the sake of having one.

jump scare it follows gimmick
The beach scene in It Follows

Jump scares should only end up in your script if they serve the story. Interjected scares will stick out like a sore thumb and take your audience right out of their trace. Because that’s what it’s all about: the trance. Horror is a unique genre in that you need to keep your audiences on the tension train, constantly rising them up and lowering them down, within your control. If they fall off the train, it’s almost impossible to get them back on.

I liked the movie It Follows up until the scene where the invisible monster starts throwing the kids around. To me, the scene felt forced, as if the filmmakers felt they needed to up the ante. They had a great tension going, and then they lost it, and I just couldn’t get back into the film after that. I started noticing little flaws here and there because I was no longer absorbed into the plot.

Don’t be cheap

jump scares japanese horror
After the Japanese got into the game, it became the game of jump scares.

You know that scene in that movie where the guy hears something outside, so he looks out the window, leans closer and closer, and then a bird slams into the window? It’s not just in that one movie, it’s in hundreds of them, and it’s cheap. Its intentions are good–the filmmakers are trying to lower your defences and get you nice and vulnerable early on. But what are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to make you fear stray animals flying into windows?

These failed attempts are actually working against the filmmaker. They’re conditioning the audience into knowing when to expect the jump scare. They’re giving away the music cue, the buildup, the timing, everything. Now the audience knows when to cover their eyes. The whole point of a jump scare is to surprise the audience. Now you’ve lost it.

Use your jump scares sparingly

jump scare the gift 2015
The Gift (2015) is highly recommended

One of my favourite horror films in the last five years has only one jump scare in it. I won’t spoil it, but the film I’m talking about is The Gift (2015), with Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton. There’s only one jump scare, right in the middle of the film, but its affects are tremendous. After the scare, you can’t help but sink back into your chair every time someone turns a corner, every time someone looks out the window. The tension, at times, in unbearable.

When you hit the audience over the head, over and over and over, with your jump scares, you lose the potential power of the jump scare altogether. You only need one well-placed, well-timed scare, and you’ll have your audience on the edge of their seat.

Not too early

One big mistake many modern horror films make is they blow their scary load too early. If it’s ten minuted into the film and we’ve had three birds, a cat, and the jokester buddy fly at us with sharp music cues, we’re going to be numb. When the real content comes our way, it will have little affect. Contemporary moviegoers know what to expect. They know about the music cue that is followed by the long silence, which is followed by the sharp sound. Make an effort to bring the audience into your story, so they can forget about their programming.

The music cue, silence, sharp noise gimmick

Jump Scare modern king James Wan horror 2015
Director James Wan and his creature on the set of The Conjuring

Some people like these kinds of movies. There are reasons dozens of them get stuffed into theatres every year, and people continue to pay big money to sit through them. There are two kinds of horror fans: the ones who like to be afraid, and the ones who like to be thrilled. There’s nothing wrong with either group. But there’s no reason your film can’t appeal to both crowds.

If you’re interesting in making that kind of fast-paced horror movie, then it’s important to know how to orchestrate your jump scare. It’s important to wait until your audience is drawn into the story, invested in the characters, and they aren’t expecting it. Your first scare is the most important. It needs to take them by surprise. If you insist on including a “false scare” (a cat in the closet), then don’t give it all away. Include the rising music cue, the long silence, but don’t throw in the sharp noise. Save that for when you really want to make an impact. Don’t let your audience be expecting it when it really matters.

Don’t rely on the formula. Have a few scenes where you take your audience by surprise completely, without the music cue and the long silence. Go straight for the sharp noise and the jump scare. It’s important you vary it up so your audience doesn’t start to predict your hand.

 

Focus on the horror, not on the gimmick

Predator jump scare horror action
Scary or not, Predator is just an awesome film.

In the end, content is king. Think about those haunted house attractions at amusement parks. Do you really think a long hallway with lots of turns and lots of people waiting around each one, yelling “Boo!” is going to leave much of an impression? Sure, it may make you jump a few times, but it won’t be a memorable experience. A horror film is no different.

Now picture this: you walk into a haunted house and there are little hints suggesting that there is someone following you, but you keep turning the corner to see nothing, except maybe little clues as to who is in the house with you, what he might do to you. You keep looking back, but there’s no one behind you. Little noises keep you on edge.You hear an inhuman gurgling noise and your imagination starts to create an image of the fiend. Finally, you turn a corner and there he is, inches from your face. That will have an impact.

The Problem With Your Protagonist

in Filmmaking/Writing by
Josh Collins on the set of Hammer of the Gods

We get a lot of scripts sent to our script submissions inbox over at A Farewell To Kings Entertainment Company. You can always tell the experienced writers apart from the newer, aspiring writers from one simple thing: their protagonist. With the weaker works, it’s almost always the same exact problem–an incredibly easy to identify problem, but a problem that isn’t so easy to remedy. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between well written protagonists and ones that may need some work.

The Protagonist

MacReady, the protagonist in The Thing
John Carpenter directs Kurt Russell in The Thing

Your protagonist is arguably the most important aspect of your screenplay. Too often people outline their entire plot before even defining their main character–maybe they’ll give her a name, but they just think they’ll figure the rest out later. For the sake of your writing, do not approach your script this way.

Plot-driven fiction is boring fiction. It’s inevitably predictable and worst of all, it’s limiting to you, the writer. If you’ve already plotted out your story’s main beats before you’ve even chosen and defined your protagonist, you’ve got a big problem.

So what’s the problem?

Your Protagonist is Doomed to be Uninteresting

The problem you’ve created is, you’ve already made all of your protagonist’s key decisions for her. It’s a character’s decisions that define them as a unique individual. Too often do writers assume that character comes down to dialogue, gender, ethnicity, background, etc. Those things can affect (and should affect) your characters’ decisions, but it’s your characters’ decisions that define them as individuals and drive your story in interesting directions.

A story’s beats should be consequences of a character’s decision, not a consequence of fate or luck. That makes for boring fiction. I’m sure you’re thinking of a bunch of examples to disprove this statement. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but they’re exceptions, and I’m sure they were made by professionals with a deep understanding of the craft, who know what they can get away with.

Though, there is one major exception to this rule: your inciting incident should be from forces outside of your protagonist’s control. Your protagonist should be forced out of their comfort-zone and into the story. And that brings me to a perfect segue.

Your Protagonist’s Comfort-Zone should not be their Boring-Zone

Will Ferrell, the film's protagonist, brushes his teeth
Will Ferrell brushes his teeth in Stranger than Fiction. This scene actually serves a purpose.

This is the biggest issue I see from new writers. “The Everyman”. The guy who wakes up and brushes his teeth and goes to work and comes home and makes a microwave dinner and watches The Sopranos and goes to bed. There are other versions of the everyman, for example, “the every-stoner-man” — the guy who sleeps in and smokes a bunch of pot and plays video games and probably lives on his friend’s couch.

Starting out (with my first half-dozen screenplays) I was guilty of this to varying degrees. It’s one of the toughest concepts to really grasp: making interesting characters. I’ve experimented with character traits, adding them to pre-existing characters like a lasagna that needs more salt. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. The reason being, the characters’ decisions have already been made for them. Once their decisions have been made, everything else is superficial.

Here is the number one biggest example I find in amateur scripts: the group of friends consisting of at least one quirky friend, and the down-to-earth, everyman protagonist. It’s always the down-to-earth everyman who ends up being the protagonist. Why is that?

The Relatable Lie

Jack Nicholson makes a fantastic protagonist
Not the everyman

Your teachers lied to you. Relatable is Boring. Relatable characters don’t survive the test of time. Think Ash in the Evil Dead. Even in the first film, before he’s reimagined into a badass, takes-no-names monster killer, he’s not the everyman. He’s a bumbling romantic and kind of a sissy. It’s the decisions he makes as a consequence of his character that drive the direction of the story.

Think MacReady in The Thing. He’s a takes-no-shit dude who is completely unsympathetic to the people around him, only really concerned about his own survival. I don’t need to tell you why Jack Nicholson in The Shining isn’t an everyman character, and I shouldn’t have to tell you why Ripley in Alien isn’t an everywoman.

Don’t Write What You Know

My God, do I hate that advice. “Write what you know”. It’s the biggest letdown in any creative writing class. Teachers love to spew it out to their classes, “Just write what you know!” Without naming names, there is a writing instructor at the Vancouver Film School (where I worked as a teaching assistant for years) who would tell this to students before they set off on writing their mid-term projects, which we would make into short films.

The protagonist in Adaptation, played by Nic Cage
Adaptation already nailed it. Time to move onto new ideas.

I filmed close to 200 of these shorts. Easily a quarter of them were about a writer struggling to come up with an idea for a script. More than half were about a struggling writer in some situation or another. Almost all of them were about the Everyman.

The Everyman

I can’t tell you how many scenes we shot with two roommates sitting on the couch watching television together, or scenes where the protagonist brushes his teeth. Why does everyone feel the need to include a teeth-brushing scene?

If you think you know a good film with an everyman protagonist, I challenge you to think about it harder. Remember that, in real life, people try very hard to look and act normal. You can’t sit on a city bus without wondering if everyone around you is some robot clone, but they’re thinking the same exact thing about you. In Taxi Driver, for example, De Niro’s character is quiet and soft-spoken and he can be charming, and it could be easy to mistake him for the dreaded everyman. But he’s actually a character suffering from degrading PTSD and crippling loneliness, and those traits are what determine the direction of the film’s plot.

How to Create an Interesting Protagonist

In Hammer of the Gods, the film's protagonist is played by Josh Collins
Josh Collins prepares to shoot an intense scene in Hammer of the Gods

Interesting protagonists can be created in many different ways. A truly interesting protagonist is not an easy thing to create — it’s not just a matter of pulling up a list of character traits off of Google and picking a couple of them. Characters, like people, aren’t just a couple of character traits. Think about the interesting people you know in real life. How would they react to an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse? What would they do if their girlfriend dumped them? What kind of situations might they get themselves into that other people (the everyman included) might not?

Try to find conflicting traits and combine them. In Hammer of the Gods, the protagonist is the outgoing life of the party, always the last one up, drinking heavily, doing drugs. But he’s also a morning person, the first person awake. He’s already been out fishing by the time you’ve woken up. On the outside he’s a total womanizer, but he’s also a sort of hopeless romantic. And notice how I said he’s “sort of” a hopeless romantic. This is important, and a good segue to my next point.

Try Not To Define Your Protagonist With Adjectives

When you go to outline your script, don’t write down: “Jake: 25 years old, funny, smart, charming.” You’re destined to get a cardboard archetype this way. It’s not a simple matter of writing out a list of traits. You need to be able to imagine your character as a real person. You need to be able to think: “What would Jake do here?” and not “What would a funny, smart, charming person do here?” I know a lot of funny, smart, charming people in real life, and every one of them would react differently to a life threatening danger.

Tom Cruise plays the protagonist in Eyes Wide Shut
Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut is much more interesting than just ‘charming guy’

Not to mention, most adjectives can be seen in different ways. Funny, for example: Is his humour crude? Do people laugh whenever he talks? Does he laugh at his own jokes? Is he aware that he’s funny? Is he trying to be funny? Or let’s look at charming: In what way is he charming? Is he charming to women or to men or to everyone? I know a guy who is somewhat crude and blunt but everyone says that, the way he presents his crude bluntness, is a sort of charming quality. Charming doesn’t necessarily just mean he’s suave and he smiles handsomely when he talks. (And did you notice the return of “sort of”?)

Be More Interesting

Your protagonist doesn’t need to be more intricate, but she does need to be more real–less of an archetype (or a combination of archetypes). And by more real, I do not mean more normal–I do not mean make her into an everywoman. Adolf Hitler was real. Hunter Thompson was real. Charles Bukowski was real. Lady Gaga is a real person. None of these examples are “normal,” but they exist. I’m sure you can think of some pretty extravagant personalities in your own life.

Don’t Make Your Protagonist a Reflection of Yourself

People (yourself included) don’t see themselves as interesting or eccentric. It’s very, very hard to see your own personality objectively (arguably impossible). That’s not to say you aren’t interesting or unique or different in any way, because you are. You just don’t see it like other people can. When you go to borrow from real life, don’t borrow from your own real life, unless you believe your life contains something exceptionally interesting. If you were a spy during the Gulf War and you survived a plane crash, then you might be the exception.

Don’t be a Victim of Falsehoods

The Evil Dead remake's protagonist was a woman playing a man
Feminism has lead to a string of films where women are playing men. Here’s a BTS shot from the terrible Evil Dead remake.

Unless you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, it’s important to be realistic. Society will tell you that realistic isn’t “politically correct”. With Black Mountain Side, we got a particularly negative review from someone who was disappointed that none of the characters in the film were women. Writing the script, I considered making some of the characters women, but it didn’t feel realistic. The reality is, women and men are different in many ways, both physically, the way they think, and with the jobs they take. It’s just reality, nothing to be offended by. I just couldn’t believe a woman taking a job at that outpost. In the end, I figured it would be more offensive to women to force a female into the script than it was to just write the thing organically.

Realism is important in film, unless you’re intentionally making something unrealistic.

You want people to believe your characters. They won’t relate to your characters or care about their wellbeing if they don’t believe they’re authentic. All of a sudden, you’ve lost your connection with your audience because you wanted to be more inclusive.

I have a friend who strongly believes the opposite, who took a script he wrote and flipped the genders of every character in his story without changing anything else but their names. He was convinced that it was just as realistic after the gender-flip. At the end of the day, it’s all subjective–maybe you believe the same thing. That said, I think he turned a strong script into a weak one because I found myself struggling to believe the characters. The piece, to me, read more like feminist propaganda than a genuine story.

 

Avoiding Clichés

in Filmmaking/Horror/Writing by

Avoiding Cliches — What just isn’t scary anymore

Like I said before about crafting a genuinely scary script, horror should be inherently scary, and you shouldn’t “chase the scares” when you write. The scariest things here on our planet are scary because of what they are–what they represent, not because of what they look like. That being said, something can look unsettling, disturbing or even disgusting. That isn’t “scary”. A scare is an emotion. It’s something you feel. Sharks are scary because of what they represent–a giant creature capable of ripping you to shreds, which could be just inches below your feet at any given moment. Freddy Kruger is scary because of what he represents, not because of how he looks, how he sounds or how many times he jumps from around corners. Sure, all of those other things add certain elements to it, but Freddy is genuinely scary because of what he represents–a sense of helpless vulnerability. When you sleep–when you are your most vulnerable, he strikes, and you can’t do anything about it. Want to write a good horror script? Avoiding cliches is the first step.

Horror as a film genre has been evolving rather quickly over the past century. In that time, a lot of trends have come and gone. Today, in the twenty-first century, the art is evolving so fast, that it’s more important than ever to avoid those trends. By the time your script is picked up by a production company, filmed and distributed, those trends will be long gone.

A Farewell To Kings Entertainment Company has a script submissions inbox, which gets lots of scripts every week. It’s sad to see that most of the horrors that come through are glorified Paranormal Activity rip-offs. That movie came out about 8 years ago, and the endless sea of rip offs has sadly reduced it to cliché. If we look back a couple of decades, trends held on much longer.

I said that you shouldn’t chase the scares, but at the same time it’s unfortunately important to be marketable. The name of the game is still fear, after all. And although I still think that the best fear comes naturally and effortlessly though the fiction, the characters, and the world of your script, you still have an audience to cater to. Whether it be producers, distributors, investors or theatres full of people waiting for their cheap thrills, you need to deliver. And as you may remember, I don’t have a lot of faith in the film industry today, I still think you can still be “scary” on a contemporary level, without stooping to painfully overused cliches, like the “creepy” long haired child, or the burlap-sac mask.

Creepy Child

Avoiding cliches like creepy kids
A kid is incapable of hurting a grown human with an ounce of common sense, so why do we keep pushing this trend?

Enough is enough.

Unless you intend to bring something new to the game, kids just aren’t scary. I’m so sick and tired of the ghost or the demon turning out to be some “creepy” kid (mind the quotation marks around the word creepy).

It just isn’t scary anymore. When it first hit the main-stage in The Ring, sure–it was pretty scary. But that was a long time ago, and since then, there has been a “creepy” kid in every second Hollywood horror movie–and far too many indies as well. Let’s put it to rest already.

In case you need another reason to write that little ghost kid out of your script, consider this–In horror, your antagonist is your brand. Regardless of how prominently featured they are (or aren’t) in the movie, they will become your film’s brand. Distributors will use your antagonist to leverage your film. And while there are distributors out there looking to cash in on dying tropes, with the creepy kid as the face of your film, at best your film will be lost in a sea of creepy child movies, forgotten outright by even the most hardcore horror audiences.

The Old Lady

Avoiding cliches like creepy old ladies
Yes, when the Shining did it, it was scary… almost 40 years ago.

Same as the creepy kids, they just aren’t scary. Between the late nineties and the early teens (Let’s say 1998-2011), there was some strange fascination with horror filmmakers and things that were the complete opposite of harmful or menacing. People loved to turn convention onto its head in order to take people by surprise. And that was fine, but now its commonplace. And now that its commonplace, its counterintuitive. It’s no longer a surprise when the old lady turns out to be violent and disturbing, because its been done in a hundred different movies in the past decade.

So now that there isn’t the “playing with your preconception” angle, what is still making old ladies scary? Nothing.

Taking something harmless and making it into something to be feared isn’t new by any means. As a matter of fact, the most effective movies in the history of horror did just that. Before It (and John Wayne Gacy), clowns were no more than joyful entertainers. Horror writers and filmmakers used the clowns’ innocence and harmlessness to their advantage, in order to create something memorable and unique. Likewise, Chucky did the same thing to dolls. Turning something inherently innocent into a symbol of terror is part of the game.

Horror movies are unique for a number of reasons. One of which is that people tend to remember them because of their scenes, more than their plots (with some notable exceptions). People remember things that are unique. People are keener to remember the maiden voyage, than the subsequent voyages. For instance, I bet you can name more members of the first crew to land on the moon than you can of any subsequent Apollo mission. If you want to make a memorable film–a memorable script, you need to find that next clown. That next doll. That next old lady. The first person to turn a clown into a symbol of terror wasn’t sitting there thinking “I need something scary. What is something scary?”. No–He/she took the clown and made it scary.

The Burlap Sac Face

Think: The Orphanage

Avoiding cliches like burlap sac faces
Not scary.

I just don’t understand why anyone would want to redo something that’s been done one million times before. Just do something different for crying out loud! I understand why the burlap thing was so hot for a while. It has a lot of creepy properties. Like any mask, it hides any emotion. It adds anonymity and, going back to my rules to a scary script, it leaves plenty to the imagination, letting the audience’s mind create something more terrifying than any prosthetic face you could possibly create. The burlap adds a grunge and distortion, which can be creepy…

But it’s been done so many god damned times over!

There is nothing left to add to the burlap sac mask.

Just let it die. Enough is enough already. Time to start avoiding these cliches.

The Bad Guy Being… Creepy

Avoiding cliches like guys standing stupidly for no reason
What exactly is he trying to accomplish by standing there, in a perfect spot of light? Enough already.

I’m so sick of seeing this in movies–The hero walks out into the hallway, or into the empty park at night, and the antagonist is simply standing there, being creepy. Whether they are just standing straight, or in some weird pose–what are they doing? What are they trying to accomplish just standing there? Why is the antagonist putting so much effort into being creepy? Is it because he knows that he/she alone isn’t actually inherently creepy?

Even worse is when the hero completely doesn’t see the static enemy. Like when the protagonist walks across the hall, completely oblivious to the killer standing in the doorway. What did the killer just accomplish? Should we feel bad for his missed attempt at being scary?

Don’t get me wrong I understand the gimmick. I understand that there is a scare when the audience realizes they aren’t alone in the house. If you insist on using the “Killer in the house” gimmick, at least give the killer purpose. Have them doing something productive–Cutting the wires in the breaker box, smelling the hero’s panties, or… I don’t know—HIDING for Christ sakes. You want your audience to respect your antagonist, not question his/her common sense and ability to hide in a dark house.

Just use common sense

I mean, I could go on for hours listing more dumb and annoying tropes that will ruin your horror script, but all it really comes down to is common sense. Are you relying on jump scare gimmicks because your subject matter is weak? Does your story not stand-alone without cashing in on popular trends?

Just ask yourself “Has this been done before?” If so, “Am I bringing anything new and special to it?”

And then take a look through your scenes and ask yourself “What is the motivation behind this? Or did I just include it because it is scary?” Take a look at that scene where your hero closes the mirror and sees a man standing at the end of the hall–Now question that scene the way your audience is going to: “Why is he just standing there? Is he doing something?”

And while you’re at it, ask yourself “Has this mirror gag not been done to death already? What am I really adding to it? Or am I just too lazy to think of my own scare gags that I need to reuse this one?”

Aspects of a Scary Story

in Filmmaking/Writing by
black mountain side concept art deer god

Breaking down the aspects of scary storytelling

I’ve always been obsessed with horror movies. So much so, that I set out to making horror my career. In 2012, I wrote, produced and directed my first horror feature film, Black Mountain Side, which premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal in 2014, and eventually released on DVD/VOD in 2016. I finished directing my second horror feature, Hammer of the Gods, in August of 2016. That being said, I’m no expert on scary storytelling, but I like to think I have an idea or two to throw into the mix.

My obsession with all things horror goes back to my early childhood. Every Friday night, my dad would take us to the video store, where he would rent two movies to watch–one for that same night, and one for the following night. My dad would also let me and my brother pick one thing each to rent. My brother would always rent a video game, and I would wander into the 7 day rental section, where they kept older movies. Always, I went straight to the horror section, and I would pick the scariest looking movie. It was the same thing every Friday, like clockwork. I would watch my horror pick during the daytime the next day, and have horrible nightmares the subsequent night(s). I slept in my parents’ bed more than I would ever admit. Why my parents kept letting me rent horror movies, I will never know.

Dissecting Horror

Not the greatest example of scary storytelling
This masterpiece left a real impression on me as a child.

Into my late teens, I started to look closer at every horror movie I watched. I began to dissect them meticulously, asking myself “What made that scary? Why wasn’t that scary?” I began to notice interesting things. Movies with the “coolest” and visually “scariest” monsters weren’t actually the scariest movies. I began to realize that there was much more than the physical “monster” that made the film scary at all. I started to notice similarities in movies that I deemed “terrible” and not frightening at all. Interestingly enough, I started noticing that some of the most frightening scenes weren’t in horror movies at all.

I found that certain movies left a lasting sense of dread, whereas others were just cheap thrills–no more than a haunted house attraction, where people in suits jump out from around corners.

I began to realize that horror movies were like wine. It was a game of subtlety that required very careful steps to be taken to achieve the desired taste. My dissection process became much more complex, and then I made some very interesting discoveries.

Here are my three rules to an excellent movie monster:

  • Character development is crucial
  • The unseen is far more powerful than the seen
  • Your audience’s mind contains a scarier monster than your own

Points 2 and 3 are very similar, but are also very different, and I will talk about why in a moment. Let us first talk about my number one rule to making a truly scary horror movie.

Before going on, I’d like to point out that, despite popular belief, a horror movie doesn’t have to be scary. As a matter of fact, chasing “scary” for your script will end badly. Good horror is inherently scary. A good starting point is to read some good horror literature. Horror literature doesn’t lean on the clichés that contemporary horror films have come to lean on. A horror novel can’t jump out at you. A written story can’t yell, “BOO!” in your face–or play a sudden music cue. Without the gimmicks, literature is forced to truly dig deep and figure out what is actually scary. See where I talk about What Isn’t Scary.

Character Development is Crucial in Scary Storytelling

Scary storytelling personified with great characters
The cast of The Thing — some of the best characters in horror.

When I was eighteen I got into a fight with a filmmaker who made a very awful film, which I will not name here. The film was so bad that for once, I felt the need to go online and leave an IMDb review (as an adult, I hate myself for doing this). When I went to the IMDb page, I noticed that there were a bunch of rave reviews, which were quite obviously written by the filmmakers themselves. I left my review explaining why the film was bad, and I outlined the criteria that I’d developed, and explained how the film met none of it.

Not even 24 hours later, I received a response from the director himself, telling me I was an idiot and that what he’d made was a masterpiece, and people were just too dumb to see it. The film had (and still has) a rating of 2.2/10. The director took none of my free notes and went on to make his next film, which is currently scored around 2.3.

So what was so bad with his movie? The movie’s main characters had only about a combined total of 20 minutes of screen time. The movie opened with the “monster” going around and killing people who had about 0-2 minutes of introduction, for about 20 minutes. Then, they introduced the main characters, and then returned to the killing.

But certainly, that should make a great horror movie right? I mean, you’re cutting out all the talking and getting right to the action! You’re getting more monster, and more scares for your buck. But this flawed outlook misses out of an incredibly fundamental piece of the puzzle:

We need to care about the victim of the horror.

If you change your television channel and land on Movie Central, during the last five minutes of Titanic, when Leo is sinking away from his lover, you’re probably not going to break into tears and begin yelling “Leo! No!” But if you watch it from the start, you’ll get attached to the characters. You’ll get attached to the girl, and you’ll get attached to Leo. The movie brings you close to those characters and makes you feel like you know them. You care about what happens to them. So when the scene rolls around where Leo sinks away, you’ll be emotionally invested. Not only for Leo, but for Rose as well. The same logic applies to horror. The movie’s characters are your vessel into the world of the film. They bring you inside. Without that emotional tie, it’s just flashing colours on a screen.

A well-written character is relatable. When we relate to a character’s life, hardships and quirks, an emotional bond is created. When that bond is created, we let our guards down. Your number one goal, as a horror writer, is to rip down every protective screen between your film and your audience. You want to make them as vulnerable as possible.

A Character’s Stakes

Characters are key to scary storytelling
I thought You’re Next had some great characters. Here’s a bonus behind the scenes shot. Edit: I’ve been told this is from REC 4

Here’s a little thought experiment. As yourself this: “Whom do you love most in the world?” Is it you? Chances are, it isn’t. Would you risk your own life for your wife? Your brother? Your mother? Your little sister? If there was a killer inside of a house, and you saw your little brother walking through the door from across the street, you might run into the house to save him.

If you saw some guy you met briefly on a train, who you didn’t really feel one way or the other for walk into that same house, you probably wouldn’t run in and risk your life. You probably wouldn’t feel the same lump in your throat or the same sense of dread that you felt for your little brother. Sure, you might get close and yell for the poor guy, but more than likely, you won’t risk your life. (And if you would, then la-de-fricken da, aren’t you special).

So make those characters into your little brother and sister. Make the audience love your lead like you love your mother. Make it difficult for the audience to disassociate from the film. Make it hard for them to see your characters as fiction.

Have you ever watched a movie a second time, and wishfully thought, “maybe this time, X problem won’t happen to X character”?

That’s when you know that you’ve done a good job. If you come to the point in your story where its time to kill off your character, and you think “oh, maybe I don’t have to. Maybe she can live.” Then you’ve done a good job. If you like the character, others will too.

How do I make people like my characters?

This is the single most difficult task as a writer, in my opinion. Characters are the movie. The plot is secondary. Never forget that. You can have the most unoriginal plot ever, but if the characters are good, the movie will be good. Take The Evil Dead for instance. A group of kids go to a cabin in the woods and are picked off one by one by some demonic force. Sounds pretty unoriginal to me (although it was more original at the time it was released). But the characters were great. They were relatable. They all had their own little quirks and flaws. A viewer could easily jump into their shoes.

And as the characters evolve, and overcome obstacles, we like them even more.

Let’s take a look at John Carpenter’s The Thing (a true masterpiece of horror and character development). I remember finding an old shooting script of the film online a few years ago, and it had John Carpenter’s character descriptions written at the start.

The script is floating around online, and is fairly simple to find by searching “The Thing Screenplay” on Google. You will find a single page at the start of the screenplay, describing the characters. Everyone has their own little quirk and a couple of contrasting qualities.

Macready: Likes chess. Hates the cold. The pay is good.

This little line says so much about the character. Three words: “Hates the cold”, is such a strange trait, given that he is working in the Arctic! “Likes chess”, again is a huge character trait given the environment. It’s a harsh, tough-as-nails place where only the toughest men are working, meanwhile, Macready “likes chess”—something so innocent and intellectual.

Palmer: Sixties acid damage

Again, three words that create an interesting character. Saying “sixties acid damage” implies a rich backstory–a history. How did a longhaired acid-abusing hippie end up as a mechanic/helicopter pilot at an arctic research base? Just having that little bit of information, we can already start imagining this character in our heads.

My writing teacher in film school said that his three favourite ways of creating a connection between the character and the audience are:

  • Make the character funny
  • Make the character very smart/cunning
  • Throw the character into the action, and have him/her display courage/heroism

It’s worth mentioning that I’m not a fan of any of these approaches, although I agree that a funny character is more likeable, and thus the audience will care more about them. But I think writers rely too much on these almost cliché approaches. My teacher always started with a scene where the hero either solved some complex problem, made some hilarious joke/observation, began with the hero narrowly avoiding death, or all of the above.

A bad example of scary storytelling
Filming the crap that is As Above, So Below

As a matter of fact, these approaches are so cliché that just about every Hollywood horror movie relies on them. I recently saw an abysmal pile of garbage movie called As Above, So Below, where the movie begins with the main character narrowly escaping a collapsing underground city with cunning MacGyver like means, while making witty jokes. Pulling out every single trope in the book of lazy-modern-filmmaking, As Above, So Below completely failed to connect with myself and the group I was with (my girlfriend and her waitress friends—not film school people like me). I was even surprised to hear the group of waitresses talk about why the movie sucked—surprisingly eloquently (no offence, Rachael). The way they put it was:

“It was just like they were trying so hard to be scary.”

Interesting.

Technically, the movie employed all of the same techniques that successful horror movies employed. It had countless jump scares, people standing eerily in corners, the piano gimmick, and every other trope in the book. Sure, if it was ten or fifteen years ago, people may have eaten it up. But now, all that stuff is cliché—overused and beaten to the ground. See What Isn’t Scary.

The unseen is far more powerful than the seen

In the fall of 2013 I conduced my own little private study (which I promise to make a post about in the near future). I had people (mostly friends and family) sit down and play a computer video game that they’d never played before. I turned out the lights and made them wear headphones.

The game was one of those Slenderman games.

I told them that the objective of the game: to walk through the house and collect all of the little “notes” hidden around, and I told them that there was something in the house with them, and that it gets closer to you as the music gets louder. They knew that the bad guy could appear when a corner is turned, or when you turn around and look back.

None of them knew what the antagonist of the game was, or looked like.

The results were quite fascinating. As the game opens, the player was always a little bit on edge. As they became more absorbed the objective of the game (finding the notes), their anxiety grew. As the music became louder, their anxiety grew even more. As tension grew, they began to jump at turn of nearly every single corner. Some would scream at anything that remotely resembled a person. One of the players even quit before seeing the Slenderman, closing his computer screen outright.

When the creature finally appeared, there was a quick shriek and a moment of panic as they tried to run away and were subsequently killed in the game.

Then, I had them play a second time.

The most interesting part of my little study was, not one single person was as scared the second time around, once they’d seen what it was they were running from, and once they knew what would happen to them if he caught up. Sure, the second round had its share of jumps and “Oh shits!” but the tension was drastically less.

The game was free, and you can conduct your own little study by downloading it here. If the link doesn’t work, or you are not on a computer, you can search for “Slender Man’s Shadow Game” on Google, and you will find it.

This little study reveals a very interesting aspect of human nature–the unknown is scarier than Slenderman. However, I’m sure if you swap Slenderman out with any other 3D model, you would get the same results.

Jump Scares

An alternate view on scary storytelling
A screen grab from the Slenderman game

The impending jump scare is a popular device in modern horror: Where a rising music cue leads up to something pouncing out of the closet or the like. The impending jump scare is a powerful tool if used correctly. Ironically, it’s purpose is NOT to scare the audience. The jump scare is a tool used to tear down pre-conceptions. A good jump scare strikes when you aren’t expecting it, and leaves you feeling vulnerable, as if you could be hit at any moment.

When done correctly, it removes years and years of conditioning away from your audience. People will be emotionally prepared for something to jump out of that closet, because they’ve seen it one hundred times over. Sure, you might get a wince and maybe even a look-away from some of the more sensitive audience-members, but you aren’t being fully effective. (Plus you are resorting to an overused trope).

Jump Scares are gimmicks but that doesn’t mean they should be avoided.

The reason that rising music cue is there is because that is the scary part. What jumps out of the closet isn’t scary. What is scary about the impending jump scare is the fear of the unknown. It’s the fear of vulnerability, knowing that they are completely out of control of what is about to happen and when.

Evil Dead (1981) is the ultimate example of how to use jump scares, and the fear of the unknown effectively.

Sam Raimi always hits you when you are least expecting it because he knows how to play with tension and he knows how long he can let it burn before it’s too much. He lets the character look in the closet, and then move onto the next door. Sometimes, he will even let that door be safe. Other times, he attacks long before the character reaches that first closet door. Sometimes he will hit without any music cue warning. Sometimes he lets those music cues fizzle away. The audience is left vulnerable—clueless as to when they will be hit next. Never does it feel “cheap”.

Likewise, Sam Raimi understands that what we don’t see is insurmountably scarier than what we do. He practically invented the antagonist POV, which lets the protagonists see and react to the bad guy, but leaves the audience in the dark, with their own ideas and nightmares. Likewise, we never actually see, in any Evil Dead film, what it is the characters are running from.

Your audience’s mind is scarier than your own

It’s nothing against you as a horror writer. The fact is, different people find different things scary.

Get two people. Tell one of them that there is “something” behind a closed door. For the other person, show them a picture of what is behind the door. 100 times out of 100, the first person will be much more anxious opening that door.

It’s a simple matter of psychology. We, as humans, are afraid of what we don’t know. We’re afraid of what we can’t see. It’s why death is so scary–because we don’t really know what happens after it. Sure, we have some ideas and theories–some are even terrifying. Your movie is no different. Once you establish those theories–once you tell the audience that there is “something” there, they will immediately be creating their own something, consciously or subconsciously.

I think the Paranormal Activity sequels are the greatest bastardization of a good film ever. Left alone, Paranormal Activity would have reached a timeless cult status like its predecessor, The Blair Witch Project. But instead, they decided to make sequels attempting to “explain” the events in the first. (Actually, now that I think about it, The Blair Witch Project did the same thing. At least that sequel didn’t get seen by too many people) I saw Paranormal Activity on opening night, in a packed house. Incredibly, by the end of the film, people were all screaming and hiding into their friends’ shoulders. Two–not one, but two–girls even threw up in the theatre; they were so scared (one made it out to the hallway, but I digress).

Let’s take a closer look at why that film was so effective:

The Something

It establishes the “something” through suggestion. The characters talk about their house being haunted. A paranormal expert comes along and tells them they have a demon, and Micah finds an old drawing of a hellish beast in some demon book. At this point, we are at our film’s midpoint, and we still haven’t seen the monster. But still, we don’t feel cheated. We’ve gotten some great quality scares and we’ve had some great bonding time with our characters.

Great, so we’ve established our “something”. Let’s move on.

The Tease

Paranormal Activity knows that if they don’t deliver something, the audience will begin to feel cheated. They also know that as soon as they deliver, they will lose that great imaginative tension.

So, the film very cleverly teases us, placing the monster in front of the camera. Of course, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that we don’t actually see the monster. But we do watch as its footsteps enter into the room (seeing as it is invisible). In the next scene, we get a closer look at the demonic footprints it left behind. The hooves-esque prints are a subtle little connection to that demon Micah showed us earlier in the book. So in a way, the film did show us the monster, without actually showing us. The film says, “this is what you saw, but you didn’t actually see it.”

Paranormal Activity is a good example of scary storytelling
The demon’s footprints in Paranormal Activity

The film constantly teases us, bringing the creature closer and closer into the physical realm. What starts out as odd sounds soon becomes physical interaction with the characters. We always feel as though we are on the cusp of seeing the monster. They’ve given us enough information to create our own monster, but not quite enough that the tension is released.

Build & Release

Just like The Thing and The Evil Dead, we never really see what was behind all of the chaos. But at the same time, it’s not that we, as audience members didn’t know—we did, it was just in our own heads. You may remember people saying they couldn’t sleep in their own homes after seeing Paranormal Activity. People said things like “The film is haunted.” Steven Spielberg supposedly felt the need to put the film into a garbage bag, outside of his home after watching it.

Why? It’s a simple matter of psychology! People went home with that monster they created in their minds. The monster never became a latex costume, life-sized puppet or cheesy CGI model. It never became some non-real piece of the fictional movie, because it wasn’t created in the movie. It was created in our own minds, and that’s where it remained.

It’s not your monster; it’s how you define it

Don’t get hung up on the creature in your script. Do yourself a huge favour, and leave the description very vague. The more detail you add, the less your audience will be able to add themselves. Don’t reduce your monster to a cheap gag by throwing him into every second scene.

I can think of plenty of great-looking movie monsters in movies that are just not great. Pumpkinhead, for instance, is an incredible creature. But the film is lacklustre at best. Pumpkinhead is just any old killer. The only difference is, he looks cool. And sure, that movie (and series) gets a lot of praise for having a great creature. It has a decent cult following. But that is entirely because of Pumpkinhead. Unfortunately for you, Pumpkinhead came out during a time where movie monsters were absolutely everything—The eighties. Now, people expect the full package.

Now, let’s look at the other end of the spectrum—not at a movie, but at a legend.

I’m sure you are aware of the old urban legend of Bloody Mary. If you say Bloody Mary a certain number of times, she will appear in the mirror and kill you.

This myth has been parodied in countless movies and television shows. This myth continues to haunt children (and I’m sure even some adults) to this day. It’s an incredibly simple concept that can be summed up in a single sentence. My girlfriend, to this day, doesn’t like being alone with a mirror at night.

Why is Bloody Mary such a powerful tale? I mean, we don’t even know what Mary looks like, or what she will do! Oh wait, it’s what I’ve been saying all along: that is precisely what is scary about it! It’s the fear of the unknown. It’s a myth that completely relies on the audience’s imagination.

Most importantly, Bloody Mary has been relevant and terrifying for a long time–Since the 1500s, as a matter of fact. That’s one hell of an effective horror tale!

How to be a Horror Writer

in Filmmaking/Writing by
Nick Szostakiwskyj Hammer of the Gods Behind the Scenes

You want to make a career as a horror writer — maybe that means a screenwriter or a novelist. Either way, these tips should help. I don’t like “how-to” books. I especially don’t like “screenwriting how-to” books. Never has a screenwriting book brought something exciting and new to the table. Never has a screenwriting book challenged the way I think about the craft of screenwriting.

A few years back, I stumbled upon a “how to write horror” book. I read it. I was hugely disappointed. The book was simply re-hashing old concepts from old screenwriting books, and using a single screenplay to draw parallels. What made the book so disappointing was that the author of the book himself wrote the aforementioned screenplay.

I had written a script before—many, as a matter of fact; a number of which were horror scripts. Also, at that point I’d produced and directed a feature. I was shocked by some of the points the author made in his book, which shocked me from a producer’s perspective. I realized something.

Screenwriters should not write books about screenwriting

There are enough of them out there. While I consider myself a screenwriter, I am a filmmaker first. To date, I have produced two feature films, and I have travelled deep into the money side of the film industry. I understand what producers are looking for in a script, I understand what distributors are looking for in a film, and I understand what makes a good script, seeing as I am a working writer.

I also want to be a horror writer

ATFK At AFM. Tips for the aspiring horror writer
Myself (left), Cameron Tremblay (middle), and Samantha McDonald (right) at the American Film Market in Santa Monica

The process of filmmaking is lengthy and sluggish. Once a script is written, it can take months to finance, and then there is the actual process of producing, filming and posting the film. Then, there is distribution, which is a whole other can of worms. While there are busy days, the role of a “filmmaker” isn’t always a day-to-day operation.

For instance, my company is composed of three producers. We each have individual tasks, with some crossover. We have a producer who handles financing and relations, a producer who handles budgets and numbers, and then there is myself. I spearhead the hiring and execution of the technical stuff. For me, there are large time gaps during the financing months, as well as during the distribution months (or years, in some cases). I am lucky enough to have time to write.

I write between 5,000 and 10,000 words every day, seven days a week. Whether I am working my side-job as a ghostwriter, or I am working on a screenplay, I make sure to write every day.

What is this rant getting at?

If you want to be a horror writer, you need to write every single day, with no excuses. You need to finish works. I know too many self-proclaimed screenwriters who “write all day”, but have no scripts to show for it. A writer does two things:

  • Writes; and
  • Produces work

If you aren’t producing anything tangible, you aren’t a writer.

Your early stuff is going to suck

Accept that your first few screenplays are going to be bad. Accept that there are no exceptions to this rule. There really isn’t. Don’t bother trying to research your favourite writers to see—just accept it.

I have a good friend—we will call him Rudiger, the aspiring horror writer. Rudiger was a self-proclaimed “screenwriter”. Sure, he had written a few shorts. But he’d never written a feature. It was his dream to write and direct a feature. He would constantly ask me for writing advice. He was always in awe of my ability to produce multiple scripts a year.

Rudiger would ask me, “How do you do it?”

The only answer I had for Rudiger was, “You just have to do it.”

Rudiger would go home and hideaway while he wrote—sometimes for weeks at a time. When I asked him if I could see what he’d written, he would always say, “It’s still too rough. It’s not finished.”

Rudiger was never able to finish a feature script. He would always give up before he even reached the halfway point. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even finish the first ten pages. I found it strange that someone who claimed that their dream was “to write and direct a feature” couldn’t even write a feature. I thought, “Certainly, the determination to achieve your dream would be enough motivation…”

What’s wrong?

Rudiger’s situation was no unique. As a matter of fact, his situation is surprisingly common with aspiring writers. Here are the problems:

  • Perfectionism
  • A feature script appears to be a massive undertaking
  • Distraction

You see, the problem Rudiger face, like so many other aspiring writers, is a psychological one.

I came here to learn horror! Not for Rudiger’s dumb problems!

Honestly, I see no point in jumping directly into the meat if most of the people reading this won’t end up even finishing their script. I would rather take a moment to address the issue of writer psychology, before diving into the psychology of fear. After all, in order to understand the psychology of fear, we need to have a basic understanding of general human psychology. And no, I’m not going to turn this into a textbook, but I will at least give a few tips to defeat the mental block that Rudiger and so many others face. If you insist on skipping this chapter, do so by all means—it’s your book, after all. Just don’t be upset when you don’t finish your script.

Perfectionism

Sam Raimi is an incredible horror writer
Even Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead is flawed, but that’s why we love it.

This is the hardest point to deal with. It’s a mental hurdle that is especially difficult to jump, seeing as it can also serve as a very good quality later on. My brunette girlfriend always says that she wants to have long hair, but she can’t grow it past her shoulders because it has been so damaged from past bleaching attempts. I constantly try to tell her that she needs to cut her hair down past the point of damage for it to grow past where it is now. She needs to take a step back before she can take a step forward.

I hate analogies, so I apologize.

But the issue of my girlfriend’s hair and your inability to finish a script is the same issue. Your desperate desire for something is literally the thing holding your back from having it.

Your Baby

There’s no secret to it. If you are one of those people who have their “babies”—those “ideas” that are so precious, they dare not be written unless written with absolute mastery. I’m sure most of you have your “baby”, which you have tried on at least one occasion to write, and then you stopped because you weren’t happy with it.

I don’t care about your baby. Stop caring about your damn baby. Write that idea into a script. Here’s an exercise—make it intentionally shitty. Shit all over it. “How dare you suggest I shit on my baby!” you cry.

Want to know something funny? That “baby” of yours is actually damaging the creative centre of your brain. Constantly dwelling and returning to one single idea is limiting your creativity. You are training the part of your brain, which creates ideas—the part of your brain that observes life objectively to think of only one thing. Therefore, it is shutting down. Like any part of your body and brain, when you stop using something, it stops working to its full potential.

Once you’ve written your baby, you are freeing your brain. You are allowing yourself to allow new ideas to form. There will be more babies. The next baby will make the one you are clinging onto so tightly look like one of those annoying babies that won’t slamming the pans in the kitchen together.

Unfortunately, people are stubborn. Rudiger is stubborn. Oh boy, is Rudiger stubborn. He refuses to let his baby go. He’s been trying to write the same script on and off for about five years now—and that is a true story.

Rewrites

If you are one of those “writers” who claims they never rewrite (Tarantino is liar), then you need a serious reality check. It’s common knowledge in the writing community that first drafts suck. Your first draft will suck. There will be things you like about it, but it is going to suck. The dialogue is going to sound stupid. There will be stupidly long boring scenes. Characters will be talking about stupid irrelevant stuff. You will have entire scenes of “character development”, which will render your pacing slow and muddy.

After finishing the first draft, put the script away for a month and don’t look at it. Start your next script. When you finally come back to your first script, you will be far less emotionally invested in it. You will be able to go, “this scene can go, this character can go, this dialogue can go…” Before you even read it, save a copy and then as you go through it, literally just start deleting stuff, and rewording dialogue to make it sound better. In every one of my second drafts, I usually cut out at least 10%, and I reword close to every single piece of dialogue. It sounds like a lot of work, but it generally takes a day or two.

You will make it better. It might still suck, and that’s fine and normal. Shelf it again, and do the same thing in another month. Eventually, you will be able to look at it and say, “Hey! That’s actually pretty cool. I can’t believe I thought of that.”

That’s just the writing process, and you need to accept it.

The Exception

You are not the exception.

I really hate to break it to you, but you aren’t the exception. The most dangerous thing any teacher has ever said is, “Yadda, yadda, yadda… with a few exceptions.” For example, “The Weinstein Company is not interested in indie movies, except for a few exceptions.” The moment you tell someone that there is an exception; they will assume that they are the exception. It’s a universal phenomenon that every damn person seems to think that they are the exception. I bet you are sitting there thinking, “Oh, but I am the exception.” No, you aren’t. If, in this book, I ever say “with a few exceptions”, I want it to be very clear I am not talking about you.

A Massive Undertaking

A feature length script intimidates people. “One hundred pages!” you cry. “How will I ever finish one hundred pages?”

You see an actor on set with his screenplay in hand—and it looks like the damn Bible! It isn’t just long, but you have to have story arc, and character arcs for all of your characters—Not to mention all of your subplots, and that thing they call “layering”. “Surely, it is impossible.”

The truth is, a screenplay isn’t very long at all. A screenplay is actually between 15,000 words and 25,000 words. Black Mountain Side was a 100-page script, and it was about 16,000 words long. Let’s put that into perspective…

A novel is a minimum of 55,000 words, or, at its minimum it is roughly 3.5 times longer than a script.

A novella is a minimum of 25,000 words, or, at its minimum it is as long as a very long screenplay.

A screenplay is equivalent to what they call a novelette in terms of word length.

Novelette—reminds me of “Coronita”, those little Corona bottles they give to old ladies. Too often do we put a novel on the same level as a feature screenplay, but the reality is, they are nothing alike. As for elements like character, setting, pacing, layering, plot and subplots—there are tools that help us separate those into easily manageable chunks. We’ll get to those later.

It wasn’t my finest work, but I once wrote a full feature script in four days. Not that I would recommend you try that—in terms of putting it into perspective, screenplays truly aren’t very long.

Distraction

Stephen King, probably the most famous horror writer, is a serious advocate of eliminating distractions, though that corgi makes me wonder.

You may not realize that this is holding you back, but I guarantee it is. And no, I’m not necessarily just talking about that cat you regret adopting that won’t stop eating your plant. I’m talking about the smallest, tiniest, most unnoticeable things. In order to fully harness all of your creative potential, you need to be able to focus your brain entirely on the act of writing.

If you’ve ever written anything—a script, a novel, a novelette, a letter, a review, or even a lengthy email, then you’ve probably experienced the “good days” and the “bad days”. Most people say, “I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t write anything good today,” or, “I don’t know why, but I wrote like fifteen pages of great stuff today! I must have woken up on the right side of the bed”. Well, the reason is life. More specifically, it is your life at that given point in time.

When you have a productive day, it is because you mind is fully present in your writing. Your creativity centre is focussed on the task at hand, and not “what am I going to make for dinner?” You aren’t wasting brainpower on irrelevant things.

Eliminating Distractions

Albert Einstein owned multiples the same outfit, because he believed that “not wasting any thought on what he would wear” would help his brain focus on his work. While I don’t own multiples of the same outfit, I do just put on whatever is at the top of the pile. I have friends who spend far too much time (male and female) deciding what they are going to wear, which means that they are probably expending at least a little bit of thought throughout the day on their wardrobe.

To maximize your creative output, you need to eliminate as many distractions from your life as possible. I’m not saying throw out your cat and divorce your husband—but try to seriously, and objectively look at your life and determine a few things that could be changed.

One of the biggest subconscious distractions is “cold hands”.

Writers are always complaining about having cold hands. They are always stopping to rub their hands together. They are always getting up to adjust the heat. Having cold hands makes them irritable and frustrated.

Likewise, writers are always complaining about their sore back, constantly have to stand up from their desk and walk around. They waste entire days going to the mall and spending large amounts of money of ergonomic chairs. They waste money and time at the chiropractor, and the massage therapist.

The solution?

Ten minutes, twice a day of stretching.

“I don’t have time for this New Age crap!” you cry.

Stretching out every muscle in your body, twice a day forces your blood to flow through your entire body. Stretching also strengthens muscles, like the ones in your back. Stronger muscles provide more support, which means less pain. I’m not saying to go join a Yoga class. Just look up some “stretches for blood flow” on Google. Your body will adjust to the new routine, and it will continue to keep your blood flowing. Your hands will stop being cold—believe me. You will notice a difference on day one. Stretch your neck, your arms, your back, you hamstrings and even your feet.

Stretching improves your writing stamina as well. You will be able to sit for longer periods of time. Best of all, the increase in blood flow will stimulate your brain, and you will be just a little bit more creative, more articulate, and more confident in your work.

More Distractions

A simple thing like an apple core left on the desk is enough to pull you out of the writing zone. Every time you notice it, your brain have a subconscious “hiccup”. If you work at the same desk every day, your brain knows what is in its place and what isn’t. Do your mind a favour and tidy up.

If you know that you have to do the dishes at some point, or the laundry—get it done before writing. That is just one more thing to creep into your brain.

“The CREATURE begins to walk down the hall towards JIM. JIM turns around and begins to run towards the laundry—Oh shoot, I still have to do the laundry!”

Do you have e-mails that you were supposed to reply to a week ago? Do it now! Don’t let that subconscious stress affect your storytelling!

The woes of a horror writer (and every writer in general)

Only writers understand writers. As a working writer, I see The Shining in a whole different light. When Wendy asks if she can read what Jack has written and he turns into a passive-aggressive beast—I can relate to that. The writing process is a quirky thing. It is affected by so many little factors. To others, it always sounds like writers—and artists in general are making excuses.

“Why aren’t you writing?” my girlfriend asks me.

“The neighbour keep walking past the window,” I reply.

“So? He’s doing yard work.”

“How can I possibly write under these conditions!?”

It helps to have some other place you can go when you feel like nothing is being accomplished at your usual office. I generally write in my home office, but sometimes I will spend weeks at a nearby café because I’m just not able to get into the right headspace for whatever reason.

The trick isn’t to make excuses, but to create solutions. Rather than simply submitting when my neighbour insists on walking around in his own yard, I will go to the café. Likewise, when I’m expecting an email or a package, I will just go to the café, instead of it being on the back of my mind. At my café, I don’t know the wireless Internet password, and I intend to keep it that way.

The Internet is the ultimate demolisher of productivity. If you truly want to write, you need to disconnect. No one writes to his or her full potential while connected to the Internet.

Planning your Horror Script

in Filmmaking/Writing by
Concept art for Black Mountain Side

Where to start with your horror script

Every writer and filmmaker has his or her own idea of “what makes a good horror script“. No one is necessarily right or wrong, seeing as the entire horror fan base has never agreed on what is the best horror film. That being said, you may not agree with the statement I am about to make. It is important to always bear in mind that any art, even the art of writing, is subjective at the end of the day.

While I appreciate the Mona Lisa, and I understand why it is considered such an awe-inspiring piece of art, I wouldn’t really want it hanging in my living room. Meanwhile, others may not so much care for an Alphonse Mucha painting, but I love his work. The same goes for every art form. All that considered…

The two most important aspects of any horror script are…

  • Character; and
  • Pacing

Pacing?

I can imagine many horror fans, filmmakers, and writers screaming at their computer screens right now. “Certainly, the creature is more important than something as silly as pacing!” Well, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you would know that I strongly believe that a creature is only as scary and important as he is crafted—Meaning, the character is made scary by a number of other factors, the biggest of which, in my opinion, is pacing.

But Nick! Certainly, the setting and the atmosphere are more important than pacing! Setting and atmosphere are very important, and I will get to those subjects soon enough–but much like the creature, setting and atmosphere are only as effective as you create them. There’s a reason we roll our eyes at the sea of “Mental Institution” settings that plague horror films.

What is Pacing?

What is pacing? Pacing is, simply put, the pace at which your script (or film) moves. Pacing is the speed at which your story travels from point A to point B.

nick-szostakiwskyj-shane-twerdun-black-mountain-side-horror script
Me directing Shane Twerdun in Black Mountain Side.

You’ve probably heard the term “slowburner” before. I certainly have, as its been used by nearly every reviewer who has watched Black Mountain Side. The term is used to describe a slow moving story, which takes lots of time to establish characters, setting and plot elements, rather than jumping directly into the action, which is a much more contemporary style of pacing. Slowburners were popular in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, and are becoming popular again with the rise of independent film.

 

The Syd Field Paradigm

When new writers ask for guidance, I always point them towards the Syd Field Paradigm, a theory, which boils a script down to specific important scenes. The Syd Field Paradigm is based on years and years of successful movies, and serves useful when outlining and writing a script. Ironically, I’m also a preacher of ignoring the Syd Field Paradigm.

Syd Field establishes a number of points in very specific places, which are present and accurate in just about every Hollywood film made in the past thirty to forty years. In case you don’t know, those points (based on a 90 page script) are:

  • Opening Image (Page 1); The film’s opening frames (should reflect story, theme, setting, and character(s))
  • Inciting Incident (Page 10); The introduction of the film’s main conflict
  • First Plot Point (Page 25); The protagonist(s) is/are thrust into the main conflict
  • First “Pinch” (Page 35); The protagonists are reminded of the main conflict
  • Midpoint (Page 45); Something happens that change the course of the protagonist(s) journey
  • Second “Pinch” (Page 55); The protagonist(s) is/are once again reminded of the main conflict
  • Second Plot Point (Page 65); The protagonist(s) decide they will face the conflict
  • Climax (Page 75); The protagonist faces the conflict
  • Resolution (Page 85); All the details and subplots are wrapped up

The paradigm shifts accordingly with a longer script.

A Great Tool

The paradigm is an incredible learning tool. It’s incredibly helpful for new writers who struggle to write an entire 90-120-page screenplay. By breaking it down into bits, the writing process becomes easier and more manageable. Also, from an outlining and planning perspective, it simplifies the process tenfold. Rather than trying to outline your script chronologically, you start by figuring out the main points–usually beginning with your Climax and Resolution. It turns the script writing process into a sort of “puzzle assembly”. Once you have your main points, you can begin to go in and fill in the other details. It is by all definitions of the word, groundwork–or a foundation.

My issues with Syd Field’s Paradigm

I do in fact believe that every good script follows the rules of Syd Field’s Paradigm. That being said, my issue with the paradigm is that far too specifically used by many writers. I believe that a lot of the points in the Paradigm should be used more transparently, whereas some writers use them very bluntly, which doesn’t always work out. Writers using the paradigm too specifically run the risk of writing a predictable script.

Kubrick was the king of the horror script
Eyes Wide Shut

A midpoint doesn’t have to be a specific moment in a film. It doesn’t have to be in the audience’s face. It can be something that happens behind the scenes (Stanley Kubrick was the master of this). Likewise, the second plot point doesn’t have to be as obvious as filmmakers tend to make it.

 

The absolute best example of Syd Field’s Paradigm being used to a tee is the film, Army of Darkness. Let’s take a quick look.

  • Opening Image – Ash is a captive of a Medieval Army
  • Inciting Incident – The “evil” is introduced in “The Pit”
  • First Plot Point – Ash agrees to go and retrieve The Necronomicon
  • First Pinch – Ash fights Evil Ash for the first time
  • Midpoint – Ash less-than-successfully retrieves The Necronomicon
  • Second Pinch – Evil Ash rises from the grave
  • Second Plot Point – Ash takes charge and literally says “I’m through running”
  • Climax – The war between the Evil Army and King Arthur’s army
  • Resolution – Ash returns to his own time and literally explains the open ends to a less-than-interested Ted Raimi

Another issue with The Paradigm is that it sometimes doesn’t really flow beautifully with horror as a genre. Especially for films like, say, The Evil Dead! The inciting incident happens later than Syd Field says to put it. The First Plot Point happens much later. And then, there isn’t much in the way of plot points after that. It basically turns into Obstacle, Obstacle, Obstacle, and Resolution.

What I tell new writers is this:

Learn The Paradigm. Follow it to an exact tee, and write a couple of screenplays. Watch dozens of movies and try and identify all of the points. Once you understand it perfectly, discard it, but hold onto the fundamental message: Every script should have a definable beginning, middle and an end.

A New Approach

So, for the sake of my ease, let’s call Syd Field’s Paradigm the “old approach”. After studying and writing a few horror scripts under the old approach, where do you go from there? What is the new approach to pacing a script?

Once you understand the old approach and its boundaries, I believe the next step is simply: there are no rules. That being said, when you do something that is against the rules of the old approach, it is important to understand why you are doing that. Let us look at a few examples.

Pulp Fiction

No, it isn’t a horror (At least, it isn’t traditionally considered a horror). And yes, Quentin Tarantino has enough money and power that he can do whatever he wants (although that wasn’t the case when he put out Pulp Fiction). Why is Pulp Fiction a significant example of “doing it different”? Well, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, Tarantino follows the Paradigm quite effectively. What he does differently: he slices it up and tells it in a different order. He breaks the rule of “Every script should have a beginning, middle and an end.” Tarantino adds “… But not necessarily in that order.”

Death Proof

Tarantino knows how to write a horror script
Tarantino likes his feet

Tarantino’s horror film, Death Proof, is one of my favourite films, because of–you guessed it–the pacing. Tarantino prolongs the first act by a substantially margin. He breaks a ton of rules, but still effectively tells his story. No, it wasn’t a record-busting blockbuster, but it was a good film. And that is the point, right? The film’s inciting incident doesn’t happen until around something like page 40. The midpoint happens about 20 pages before the end. The resolution is about a third of a page.

The Shining

A classic slowburner, The Shining is slow to set up all of its “plot points”. While yes, they are all still there, the first act of the film takes up more than twice what Syd Field suggests. The third act is tiny–and the film’s plot points aren’t necessarily from the POV of the protagonist(s). Again, you may be thinking, “But Stanley Kubrick could do whatever he wanted, like Tarantino”. And yes, that’s true. At the end of the day, if you are trying to find a “comfort zone”, the answer may be the old approach.

The Blair Witch Project

It may seem like an easy example–“Of course The Blair Witch Project didn’t follow the Paradigm… Everything about that movie was different!”. The film has no real distinguishable pinches, and the points all happen way off of Syd’s recommended page numbers. Not to mention, that movie had no resolution. The Blair Witch Project is an important example in my post.

Subconscious Psychological Conditioning

Let me try to explain my possibly obscure approach. It sounds like a mouthful, so why don’t we call Subconscious Psychological Conditioning “SPC” for ease. The SPC approach to story pacing is much simpler than the name suggests. The whole concept is to structure a film in order to elicit whatever desired psychological effect you want on your audience. For example…

The Unrelenting Tension Subconscious Psychological Conditioning (UT-SPC)

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead made for a good horror script
BFFL’s Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, shooting The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead is structured intelligently to create an unrelenting tension. The film is slow to introduce the conflict as it carefully establishes the setting and the characters. It establishes everything beforehand, so that the “unrelenting” part can be uninterrupted once it begins. Literally, everything important is finished being established seconds before the first “Deadite Battle” (The Card Gag, in case you don’t recall). With the Tree-Attack scene, Raimi establishes the “evil”. With the destroyed bridge, he establishes the isolation.

He establishes the characters and their relationships. He establishes the little magnifying glass that will eventually be used to defeat the evil. He establishes motives. He establishes the backstory (the tape recording). He establishes every single location. He even establishes the weapons that will be used throughout, and how to kill the antagonist, who we still haven’t really seen yet. All that’s left to show is action.

Disguising your exposition

Sam Raimi isn’t stupid. He knows that spending half a movie in exposition will bore the hell out of anyone, so he cleverly disguises some of the exposition as scare gags and action. Establishing the Necronomicon, the characters and the setting, for example: First, he very quickly establishes that there is “something spooky” in the cellar. Then, he uses a long tense POV pan gag to establish the location (Ash looks around the cellar). He uses a jump scare to establish the weapon, along with the other important items. The same very POV pan gag and jump scare are also integral in establishing Scott as a character. I believe the term is consolidation. Sam Raimi consolidates multiple pieces of exposition into a small series of scares between longer, more character driven exposition in order to keep his long first act engaging.

The Unrelenting Tension SPC might look like this:

  • Establish characters and tone,
  • Establish setting,
  • Establish important physical elements,
  • Establish characters (more),
  • Pre-emptively distinguish exposition breaks,
  • Establish antagonist,
  • Action, Action, Action, Action, Action
  • Climax (With Action)
  • Resolution

It’s a structure that doesn’t necessarily need a “pinch”, seeing as there’s no need for a reminder of the antagonist, seeing as they are consistently present come action time. The most important part of this SPC is that there are no breaks once the action starts. When outlining your script with the UT-SPC, (yes, I am sticking with abbreviations) if you have a scene between your action where your characters stop to establish something important for later on, find a way to establish it before the action starts.

Another important aspect of the UT-SPC is the meta structuring of your action itself. It is important to remember to Relieve tension often in order to build it up again. Remember that the most effective part of a “jump scare” is the part leading up to the scare, not the actual reveal of the “jumper”, or the ensuing battle. So it is important to build up, attack, overcome, breathe and then repeat. Each piece of action should be more intense than the previous one.

The stakes need to continue to rise.

A more modern example of the UT-SPC (although unfortunately not a perfect example) would be the film “You’re Next“. Another lesser-known example is the appropriately titled film “High Tension” (though I am not a big fan of this film).

The Established Trigger Subconscious Psychological Conditioning (ET-SPC)

What is an “Established Trigger“? Simply put, it’s a something you create in a film that warns the audience something bad is coming. The classic trigger everyone is familiar with is the rising music cue, which comes before the jump scare. A clever writer/filmmaker can make anything into a trigger. An Established Trigger is something that is programmed into the audience’s mind, either by you (the writer or filmmaker) or by years of societal conditioning. When presented, an established trigger will elicit a memory-based emotional reaction in the viewer. Creating triggers in your horror script is important in mastering the practice of fear manipulation.

The best example of an effective ET-SPC film is Paranormal Activity. The entire film is structured around a single trigger. Maybe you remember it?

Night #19Paranormal Activity is a great horror script

Every “scary scene” started with the title slate “Night X”, X being however many nights it had been. After the first couple of nights, the audience was conditioned to know “Okay, when it says Night X, prepare my psychological defences”. Each Night was scarier and more intense than the previous one, so the audience knew, as soon as that title slate came up, they will be more scared than the previous Night.

Each trigger is spaced evenly out throughout the film. Between each trigger, exposition is established, which will later be used to intensify and emphasize the trigger, and/or its proceeding action. For example, in Paranormal Activity, between the “nights”, Oren Peli establishes little things, which come into play later in the film. Between each trigger, Peli adds in a detail which makes the next trigger scarier. Simple things like, “Oh, it’s not a ghost. It’s a demon”. Or, “Listen to this creepy voice that the audio player recorded last night”. When we go into the next night, we have a slightly more terrifying image in our head of whatever it is haunting the couple. Peli shows the protagonist referring to a hooved demon in a demonology book. Later, during one of the action scenes, an invisible demon leaves a set of mysterious hooves as he walks into the room.

What is your goal?

Much like the UT-SPC, the ET-SPC is designed to optimize tension, just in a different way. The UT-SPC is a more “blunt force” type of tactic, whereas the ET-SPC is more strategic, and is more psychological-oriented than its predecessor. The idea behind the ET-SPC is to structure your entire film around these triggers.

No other notable examples of this format come to my mind at the moment. Like any structural blueprints, the ET-SPC has its obvious limitations, but it can also be as mouldable as you need it to be. Instead of a slate, you can make it a location, or a character. You could make it a sound, or even a song. The point is to condition your audience. Even wonder why terrible songs are sometimes so catchy? The answer is repetition! “I kissed a girl, and I liked it!” Repeat the same thing enough and its bound to become ingrained in your head, no matter how un-catchy the tune is in reality.

The reason the Paranormal Activity sequels fell so flat was because they failed to recognize the original’s intelligent pacing, assuming instead the film was so powerful because of the fact it was “found footage”, or because of the possession aspect. It’s no surprise that for years after the original was released, a sea of found footage films and possession movies came out–because people failed to see the true secret of Paranormal Activity which was Psychological Conditioning, or ET-SPC.

Other Forms of SPC

There is no limit to the number of different SPC’s that can exist. Perhaps you will create your own extremely successful SPC! Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that an SPC doesn’t have to go against the Syd Field Paradigm. As a matter of fact, they can co-exist in many instances. Paranormal Activity, for example, hits all of the beats in Syd’s Paradigm. As long as your story is structured in a particular way to reap the benefits of some form of psychological conditioning or another, you are using an SPC. It may be of benefit to think for a while to determine how you are achieving it, exactly, so that you can better implement it.

The Destruction of Preconceptions Subconscious Psychological Conditioning

An SPC designed to lower the audience’s defensive barriers, the DP-SPC creates a set of rules and then breaks them, leaving the audience unsure of what to expect. The goal is to make the audience think they are a step ahead of the film, and then you pull an unexpected switch on them. For example, the film Dream House seems like a fairly predictable haunted house sort of film, until half-way through the film, the protagonist, Daniel Craig suddenly becomes the antagonist that’s been lurking around the house.

The audience could easily see that the film was heading towards a twist like this one, but what makes Dream House interesting is that the twist happens around the middle of the film, leaving an entire half of a film to explore. The audience, which was previously busy gathering the evidence to support the inevitable twist, is left thinking “Now what?”

An SPC like the DP-SPC goes to show just how loose the concept of SPCs can be. Unlike the UT-SPC (as used in The Evil Dead), there aren’t many limitations. The pacing and structuring of the film is still based around psychological warfare against your audience.

Thinking on a Bigger Scale

Dream House is a solid horror script
Filming Dream House, staring Daniel Craig

Many Paradigm supporters will argue that Dream House is just an example of an effective midpoint, which may be true. All I am suggesting is that, as writers and filmmakers, we should try to create a new “rule set” to lift the veil of limitation. Rather than thinking, “What should my midpoint be?” we should be thinking on a bigger scale. We should try to reserve our brainstorming time on developing more effective, original content, rather than struggling within the confines of some used-and-abused paradigm.

After I’ve advised new horror script writers to learn and study the paradigm, and subsequently discard it, I generally end with this:

Once you have your story outlined, and all of your important scenes envisioned, consider ways it could fit into Syd Field’s Paradigm.

Sometimes, The Paradigm points are already there, and the writer doesn’t even realize it! Occasionally The Paradigm version of the outline is better. Sometimes, it’s a better idea when it is free from convention.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to creating what you want to see. The best video games aren’t created by people who think “Gee, I bet people would respond well to this.” People who think, “Oh man, I wish there was a game like my idea”, create them! If you like it, there will be others who like it—regardless of what rule set you choose to follow. Just don’t forget that, while rules can be limiting, they can also help–especially when you are new to the craft. I can’t imagine having written my first five scripts without the Paradigm. It truly does break the process down into manageable pieces.

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