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8 Writing Lessons From SCREAM

by Littlewit Philips about a month ago in slasher

Making sense out of the deaths of 39 characters.

8 Writing Lessons From SCREAM
Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Do you like scary movies?

Whether you do or not, we can all learn something about storytelling from them. If you spend time on Vocal, that's probably our common ground.

Unlike science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, horror is a genre that takes its definition from how it feels rather than what it looks like. This is a feature that it shares with romance and comedy. Notably, these three genres (horror, romance, and comedy) are often overlooked for their storytelling merit. An Oscar-winning film might be classified as a romance, but generally it will have enough features from historical fiction or pure drama to qualify.

And yet, these genre's hyper-fixation on creating feelings makes them great tools for examining the building blocks of storytelling. Even if you don't like scary movies or want to write scary stories, your writing could benefit from some of their tricks.

So, in honor of the end of spooky season, and because everyone on Vocal cares about writing, let's take a look at one horror franchise and ask ourselves: does it work? How does it work? And what can it teach us?

Meet Ghostface

By Autumn on Unsplash

We're going to look at the first four Scream movies, all of which were directed by Wes Craven between 1996 and 2011. This means we're going to be ignoring the Scream TV series that aired on MTV.

The premise of the franchise is fairly simple: a serial-killer wearing a mask and cloak uses a knife to murder people, all of whom are connected to the franchise's central characters. There are lots of scenes of people running, screaming, and knives being raised overhead before coming down in bloody arcs. Nothing out of the ordinary for slashers so far, right?

So why pick Scream to analyze? Why not do a break-down on Halloween, for instance?

Scream is a franchise that largely came into existence with the guidance of one man. Wes Craven made the first Scream movie, and Scream 4 was his final movie before his death in 2015. While Halloween has three distinct timelines and has been helmed by at least 9 directors, Scream is a Wes Craven production. We can imagine that the film's narrative choices are being made with some degree of consistency.

So, with that established, let's start at the beginning. It's time to talk about...

Scream (1996)

Scream distinguishes itself from other slasher flicks with a pervasive tone of self-awareness. The killer asks the victims if they like scary movies. A film geek makes theories based on the movies he's seen. Characters within Scream watch Halloween. The movie doesn't quite break the fourth wall, but it gets close.

That brings us to our first lesson from the Scream franchise:

1) Know your genre.

Most of Scream's charm and much of its thrill comes from the relationship it has with other horror movies. By acknowledging tropes (such as, a female character is more likely to die in a horror movie if they've had sex), the movie can escalate the tension (when Sidney has sex, we realize that she might in danger). This kind of trick only works if you understand the rules of the genre you're working in, and that will be one of the constants of the following movies.

They couldn't make Scream without being aware of all of the movies that came before it. In the same way (although probably less overtly), you are building on traditions, techniques, and tropes of the stories that come before you. You don't have to follow that religiously, but knowing about those tools expands what is possible for you. If you realize that particular stock scenes tend to be used in particular ways, you can use or subvert that to your advantage.

After all, while Scream definitely shows the value of our first rule, it also demonstrates our second:

2) Know your twist.

Imagine how boring Scream would be if it took everything it learned from older horror movies and just recreated those verbatim. You'd be asleep before the second act. Instead, Scream builds something new on top of the foundation laid by the old.

Scream adds a level of humor that Halloween never considered, and by playing out like a murder mystery, Scream fundamentally changed the game. It knew that Friday the 13th proved how shocking villainous plot-twists could be, and it built an entire movie around that premise.

Michael Myers is intimidating whenever he is on screen. But, because we don't know who Ghostface is, we have to be on guard whenever anyone is near our protagonists. The movie is teaching us to be afraid.

Audiences rewarded that with 173 million dollars at the box office. That's over ten times the amount of the movie's budget.

Scream 2 (1997)

This poster calls Scream 2 twice as hip, scary, and entertaining as the original, but that's missing the biggest escalation: Scream 2 is at least twice as meta. The movie begins with characters watching Stab, a based-on-a-true-story within Scream's universe that follows the plot of Scream. Rather than take the franchise in a wildly different direction, the sequel builds on what they already established because it knows our third rule...

3) Know your strengths.

Audiences connected with the meta nature of the first movie, so the sequel was smart enough to continue that trend.

In order to follow this rule, you need to hone your analysis skills, and you need to turn them to the most difficult target: yourself. It's easy to see the strengths and weaknesses in someone else's work, but you need to understand your own work as well. This is where critique partners and beta readers can be life-savers, but if you don't have access to that kind of community, taking the time to read your own work thoughtfully will still bring you a huge benefit.

Scream 2 also builds on its strengths by bringing back the same director and many of the survivors of the first movie. However, not everyone survived, and the movie needs to fill those roles too. Why?

4) Leave no left-overs.

If the sequel wanted to build on the strength of the mystery genre from the first movie, it couldn't just bring the same villains back. Those villains would be especially difficult to bring back because the movie ended with Sidney shooting them dead. So yes, it needs to introduce a copy-cat killer, and yes, that is a little cheesy. But then, aren't plenty of horror movies cheesy? And do you know what else it provides?


Scream concludes with a bang. Rather than teasing that the villains could be back, the movie let audiences sigh and say, "It's over. She won."

How much more satisfying is that than the dozens of movies that are so bound to the prospect of the sequel that they never live up to their own potential?

Sometimes you'll realise that a dramatic beat requires changing the story so much that you won't get to return in a future project. Sometimes a story will demand that a character has to die or that a relationship has to end. This doesn't need to be fatal, but it can be. But it's better to go all out with the story you have than to save the best bits for a project that might not ever come to fruition.

Scream 3 (2000)

Marketed as the final entry in the franchise, Scream 3 is where things really go off the rails. We have another copy-cat killer, we have Sidney and friends in danger again, and nothing quite adds up the way they clearly expect it to.

Like the previous entries, Scream 3 is a mystery. It continues the meta trend by having the action take place while the third Stab movie is filming. Just what is being depicted in Stab 3 when Scream 3 is also playing out? A little unclear, but it leads to some cute moments.

The problems start when the movie explicitly feels the need to cap off the series by turning the episodic instalments into a trilogy. Noting that the third part of the trilogy is when secrets from the past return and reshape the audience's perception, Scream 3 fixates on the life and relationships of Sidney's mother, whose affair kinda-sorta started the story in the first place.

Only, why should the audience care?

5) Know What Your Audience Cares About.

This is a rule so fundamental that it often goes unstated. It's the starting point in a lot of ways. When it works, it's functionally invisible. But when someone violates this rule, it becomes glaringly obvious.

Sidney's mother died a year before the very first Scream movie. While her death is important, her character is not. Building the entire mystery around her time as a teenager? It's a boring, weird cliche. And considering Scream's reputation for subverting expectations, the conclusion of this mystery is blatantly obvious and pretty lame.

If the creative team took a little more time on Scream 3, they probably could have realized that it wasn't going to work. There is no tension if we don't care about the people, and no one cares about Sidney's mom.

6) Keep Your Promises.

Scream movie promise to be smarter than a lot of its slasher siblings. Scream is in on the joke, and it is aware of the tropes, and it actually uses that to subvert them. Take the original Scream, for instance. Sidney has sex, but she still gets to be a final girl. Scream is making a statement about reductive views on female sexuality.

Scream 3 takes this a different direction. Like a cliche horror movie, an attractive woman is seen naked before she's killed. Later, an actor in Stab will complain about the same set-up. The movie is pretending to improve on the trope by calling attention to the trope, but it doesn't actually do anything to subvert the trope. This lacks the bite of the original movie's critique, and combined with the fixation on Sidney's mother, it results in Scream 3 feeling forced.

This regressive attitude is amplified by giving Sidney almost nothing to do for a good portion of the movie. Against all odds, the series protagonist is largely replaced by her male co-star for the first chunk of the movie. For a series that began by critiquing "Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door," it's a disappointing entry.

Scream 4 (2011)

11 years after the "final" entry in the series, Scream 4 rebooted the franchise by satirising horror reboots. The movie begins with Stab 7, as the in-universe movie franchise has outpaced the Scream films.

The whole gang is back, and wouldn't you know it? A whole bunch of murders are happening again. Where Scream took aim at slashers, Scream 2 lampooned sequels, Scream 3 targeted trilogies, and now we have the reboot. There is a new generation of teenagers, and these teenagers have "the internet."

And yet, something about the movie just feels off.

7) Know Your Limits.

Scream 4 wants to talk about the internet, social media, and new forms of fame. However, it looks and feels like it was directed by a man in his 70s and written by a man in his 50s. (I wonder why) The tech everyone is using looks inauthentic, and the teen's relationship with technology feels phoney.

The original Scream was a perfect case of Write What You Know. Wes Craven was intimately familiar with horror tropes by that point in his storied career, and writer Kevin Williamson was no stranger to the genre even though it was his break-through script.

But when it came time to modernize Scream for millennials, this team just couldn't convincingly capture the social media world. This wouldn't be such a problem, except they gave it a shot anyways. The murderer's motivation involves internet celebrity status, but the writer and director still focus their attention on local news crews. The end result feels like someone found a script from the 90s and only barely touched it up to bring it into the 10s.

8) Know When to Say Goodbye.

This is Wes Craven's final movie, but it is not the movie he will be remembered for. It's just not very good. At this point, they should have let the franchise rest, or pass off the baton to someone else.

Many of the writers I've known have been perfectionists. They're always willing to do another draft, even as they complain about doing another draft, because they want to get it just right. And besides, if you wrote a story with characters you liked, you might not be ready to say goodbye to those characters.

And yet, when Scream repeats its plot over and over, rather than saying goodbye to Sidney and friends, the result is movies that are less scary even as the body counts rise. The sense of danger is gone, and it starts to feel like a TV crime show. We know we'll find the killer in the last fifteen minutes, and until then it's just formula.


By Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Everyone needs to learn some lessons from themselves, but hopefully by examining art we can learn from other people's mistakes as well as our own.

One thing I've learned from Vocal is that perfectionism doesn't help you. You can't know what stories will connect with people and what won't. When you find a good thing, there's a temptation to keep mining that same idea, but there's no guarantee that people will continue to connect with it.

In 1996, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson made a movie that brought in 173 million dollars at the box office. When they tried to repeat that in 2011, they only brought in $97.2 million, despite having a budget that was almost three times larger than the original's.

There has to be balance. If you don't learn from your successes, you might as well be wandering around in the dark. But if you don't mix things up a little, eventually you will see diminishing returns.

As a platform, Vocal has encouraged me to try different things. I couldn't predict what my most-viewed story would be, and I couldn't predict what my least-viewed story would be. The challenge--for all of us, whether we like scary movies or not--is to try to learn from that data and not become trapped by it.

And what about Scream?

Well, after another decade-long hiatus, Scream is returning to theaters soon. This one won't be directed by Wes Craven. Only time will tell if they have learned from Scream's successes and failures, but here's hoping.

If you liked this post and want to see more from me, please subscribe and leave a like. If this post is well received, I might return to discuss the Scream TV show in the future.


Littlewit Philips

Short stories, movie reviews, and media essays.

The primary task of life is outgrowing the bio you have already written.

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