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Are Your First 10 Pages Frighteningly Good?

Eliciting an emotion is just one of the 14 things that a great opening needs to accomplish. Danny Manus talks about the first 10 pages of a screenplay and horror films.

By Danny Manus

There is nothing selling hotter than horror right now. And not just because it’s Halloween! It’s because with the recent major successes of films like The Conjuring, Mama, Warm Bodies, Insidious 2, Carrie, The Purge and World War Z adding to the huge 2012 horror haul of Paranormal Activity 4, The Woman in Black, The Devil Inside, The Cabin in the Woods, The Possession and Sinister, there is no safer bet unless you own the rights to a Marvel Superhero.

For those who have not done the rough math… I have. The combined budget of ALL of the aforementioned films is (about) $370M – let’s say $400M just for shits and giggles. The combined worldwide gross theatrical total (so far) of the films listed is $1,968,000,000. That’s just under $2 BILLION and counting. And by the way, if you subtract World War Z and its $200M budget, you’re looking at about $175M generating over $1.4 Billion!


But horror films aren’t successful simply because of their budgets. They are successful because fear is universal and relatable, and they offer an experience and an emotional ride to moviegoers other genres do not.

A comedy might make you happy. A drama might make you sad or feel sympathetic. But a horror movie takes you on a rollercoaster. They can make you feel happy (when the killer dies), sad (when your favorite character bites it), and sympathetic (for the family being tormented), but they also force you to feel nervous, anxious, tense, scared, relieved… Good horror movies push the audience to an emotional place – an UNCOMFORTABLE place - they don’t normally go in their everyday lives.

There aren’t many movies that give audiences an experience. There’s nothing like hundreds of people clutching each other waiting for the next time they collectively get to scream, and then laugh to relieve the tension.

Plus everyone knows that while shedding a tear during a romantic comedy might get you a good night kiss, protecting and reassuring your date during a horror movie can totally get you laid. I think it’s the endorphins.

Eliciting an emotion is just one of the 14 things that a great opening needs to accomplish. I’ll be covering all of these elements of a great opening in-depth in my Make Your First 10 Pages Shine Webinar on Nov 6th, but with horror films, there are a few of these elements that are even more important to set up immediately.

In addition to eliciting that feeling of fear, suspense and anxiousness, your script also needs to give us a powerful Opening Image that grabs us, set up the Genre, set up the Tone and Mood, Create the World, and set the Stakes of your story.

Read some of the scripts for the movies listed above, especially the opening scenes for The Conjuring, Mama, The Purge, and Sinister. Or classics like Nightmare on Elm Street. They are great examples of how to set up that creepy, dark, tense tone and mood. And it’s all about word choice. What scares you? What is your fear? What immediately puts you on edge?

If you can begin your horror film putting the reader on edge where we know SOMETHING is about to happen or could happen (a good red herring fake out), you’ll have them. Begin your script with a visual, sound or specific location that immediately connects to the fear stimulus within all of us. If your character is scared on page one, we will be too.

The pitch black road…

A creepy doll with the off-kilter smile…

Chaos on the streets…

A slaughtered pig fileted open…

An empty playground at night…

Lights flickering…

Thunder cracking…

The abandoned cabin in the snowy wilderness…

Screeching of an owl...

Think of people’s inner fears – not just superficial fears like clowns or dogs or snakes – but the DEEPER fears. Being alone, being incapacitated, pain, loss, inability to protect ones family, being tortured, tormented, etc. Can you create a larger overarching story that brings out those larger thematic fears and then work the smaller, more specific “scary, visual” fears into that story to create the trailer moments?

Sometimes opening your script by focusing on the antagonist can accomplish this even better. In horror films, it’s the classic opening of showing your big bad killer slashing a few random teens who are not your protagonist and in doing that, you set up the stakes of what’s to come and of course opening with a bang (or slice… or bite…).

Now since it's Halloween, I wanted to list for you my 50ish favorite horror films (in NO particular order). I am not saying these are the BEST horror films - I know there are some classics not on this list (like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, etc.) but these are MY favorites - the ones that scared or entertained me. If you haven't seen 'em, check 'em out! They may inspire you horror writers out there! Please note, I did not include action films or thrillers that have some horror elements on this list like Seven, Copycat, Devil's Advocate, Misery, Alien or Silence of the Lambs. Here you go:

The Exorcist, The Shining, Jaws, Shaun of the Dead, The Conjuring, Carrie (original), Sleepaway Camp, Friday the 13th Pts 1 & 2, Nightmare on Elm Streets 1 & 2 & New Nightmare, Event Horizon, 28 Days Later, Poltergeist, Ginger Snaps, The Ring, Candy Man, Scream, Blair Witch Project, Ghosts of Mars, Gremlins, The Descent, Final Destination (the first one), Paranormal Activity (the first one), Cujo, The Sixth Sense, In the Mouth of Madness, Arachnophobia, Hellraiser, Hostel (the first one), Saw (the first one), Jeepers Creepers, The Mist, IT, Teeth, Let the Right One In, From Dusk til Dawn, High Tension, Battle Royale, Cabin Fever, Cabin in the Woods, Child's Play, Cube, Eyes of Laura Mars, Flatliners, Fire in the Sky, The Howling, The Strangers, Dawn of the Dead, Quarantine, and Zombieland.


Don't Miss Danny's Webinar, Make Your First 10 Pages Shine!



At a Glance:

  • Enjoy this webinar providing instruction on the elements necessary to grab a reader in the first 10 pages
  • Discover the 14 elements needed to set up the world of your screenplay in your first 10 pages
  • Learn the 10 most commonly-used openings in a feature film