Killer Lines: How Dialogue Can Take Horror Scripts from Good to Great
Happy Halloween! ‘Tis the season for falling leaves and pumpkin-flavored lattes. It’s also the season for screenwriters to ponder such issues as ‘are machetes passé?’ and the relative merits of fast versus slow zombie pacing.
In short, it’s horror movie writing season!
Horror is a genre of evergreen popularity for audiences, studios and screenwriters.The budgets are often small yet the returns can be quite high. According to The Tracking Board, horror films are “the second most well-traveling genre behind action and tend to sell big internationally,” which might be why they call it “one of the most profitable genres.” Regular sales of horror spec scripts are common, making it easy to understand why it’s a popular choice for writers looking to break in.
A good deal of discussion on this topic involves finding the perfect monster to hide under your protagonist’s bed, so we’re focusing on an often under-analyzed aspect of horror scripts: Dialogue.
Other than the occasional killer line (pun triumphant) such as “I took a souvenir,” from Se7en, or “Here’s Johnny!” from The Shinning, is good dialogue really necessary in horror scripts? The answer to this may depend on the number of characters in your story. If you’re writing a single-lead script such as Anthony Jaswinski’s Kristy (about a college student alone on campus over Thanksgiving menaced by a cult), excellent dialogue may not need to be a number one priority, simply because of a lack opportunity for one character to speak to another. However, many horror scripts feature multiple leads, either to provide fodder for story-driving conflicts or so you can end lives without ending the film. Unfortunately, it can be easy in multiple-lead horror films to become so caught up in creating a sinister atmosphere or crafting the perfect monster, that you can forget one of the cardinal rules of scriptwriting: Multiple characters require multiple engaging voices. It may seem counter-intuitive to give great lines to characters who may not last long in your script, but the reason for it goes right to the heart of great horror writing: High stakes.
How is dialogue tied to stakes? Through audience engagement and realism. When you remove realistic dialogue from your characters, they begin to fall flat, and by extension the world they inhabit, start to ring false. Put simply, if characters don’t feel real, then neither will the threats they face. At that point, even your scariest serial killer might as well be murdering sock puppets.
This is where dialogue can make all the difference. Consider the first movie in the profitable Scream franchise. On the face of it, the small town characters are typical horror movie tropes: The virginal lead, the blonde best friend, the inept local police, etc. What sets Scream apart, however, is its inclusion of the media in the story (through the use of a career-obsessed reporter) and the interesting meta-nature of its dialogue. Every time the characters give voice to things the audience is thinking (such as when Sydney described scary movies as “some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl… who’s always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door”), the bond between the somewhat stereotypical characters and the audience is strengthened. This sort of memorable and engaging dialogue adds nothing to the film’s costs but added immeasurably to its value.
Cabin in the Woods brings us another example of realistic, engaging dialogue in the horror genre. Here, some of the least developed characters are the employees of the highly improbable human sacrifice initiative. To counter the thinly-developed nature of these characters and their dubious workplace, their dialogue is filled with relatable and engaging moments, such as Hadley’s annoyance over his wife baby-proofing their home despite the fact she’s not pregnant yet. And then there’s the scene where Hadley and Sitterson poke fun at an overly-serious coworker by putting him on speaker phone. Even hearing one line from a guy who bought tickets to his crush’s favorite ballet helps establish the realism of these people in the minds of the audience, despite the far-fetched environment. This, in turn, strengthens the audience’s emotional response when they’re attacked.
In horror films like these, dialogue takes characters who could seem unrealistic and turns them from ‘them’ into ‘us.’ It makes these characters feel like our avatars in the story and the threats they face become even more menacing because of it.
Script Analyst / Playwright
Kathleen Cromie is a professional script analyst and playwright. Her plays have been produced in America, the UK, and France (in translation).