I love scary stories. I grew up reading R.L Stine and Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan. I experienced the teen slasher flick revival that started with the movie SCREAM. I wanted to write my own scary stories! However, I spent the last decade writing comedic kids television shows. What the heck happened?
Well, frankly, I found out writing comedy requires the same elements as writing horror. Seriously, these seemingly opposing genres are really two sides of the same coin. Here’s why…
4 Basic Elements of Comedy and Horror
- Relatability. In order for your audience to laugh or scream, they need to relate. We’ve all seen jokes fall flat because the audience doesn’t “get it.” Take the TV show PORTLANDIA, for example. I live in an urban area full of hipsters, so when I watch the scene of the couple in the restaurant asking way too many questions about the organic chicken they’re about to eat, I laugh because I know those people. My parents, on the other hand, live in a small town and don’t know anyone like that, so they don’t get the joke. Same with fear. SCREAM terrified me because I know what it’s like to be home alone in an isolated house in the country. I can relate. Many people do. The handy thing about writing horror is that there are so many common human fears (isolation, darkness, claustrophobia, drowning, etc) to draw on. Less universal fears such as snakes, spiders or ghosts usually need to be paired with common fears to make the situation more relatable. That’s why ghost stories often take place in an isolated house at nighttime.
- Anticipation. Now that you have a situation that your audience can relate to, which will make them laugh or scream, build up the anticipation. An expert stand up comic will string you along with little laughs that build to the punch line. And a good horror story gives you little thrills and chills that lead to a big scare. It can’t be all punch lines or screams all the time. That desensitizes the audience. Make them wait for it.
- Danger. In comedy, the danger usually isn’t life-threatening, but the character must still be terrified of whatever it is (poodle, mother-in-law, unemployment, etc). In horror, the danger is literally trying to kill the hero. Now, a lot of writers would call this “stakes”, and that is accurate, but I’m classifying this element as “danger” because it’s important that your character fear it. Because now you can taunt them with that fear! That’s right, both comedy and horror writers constantly force characters into situations that scare them, the only difference is comedy plays it for laughs, and horror plays it for screams.
- Surprise. This seems like an obvious one for horror; surprise is its game. The killer pops up behind the heroine, the body falls out of the closet, the monster leaps out of the shadows, and everyone screams. But comedy taught me that there’s more to surprise than a sudden visual. Surprise comes from the gap between what the audience thinks will happen and what actually happens. Here’s an example from a kids comedy show I worked on called THE LATEST BUZZ: two characters are trying to make a decision, so one pulls a coin out of his pocket and suggests they flip on it. Then he does a backflip. The audience laughed because they expected him to flip the coin, but instead he flipped himself! (Handy to have an actor who’s a gymnast.) For a horror example, take the movie ALIEN. [spoiler alert] After they find the alien dead and Kane recovers from its attack, the crew gets together for a nice, normal dinner. Everything’s fine until Kane convulses and an alien bursts through his chest! Whoa! No one saw that coming! The result: big screams. So always think about what are your audience’s expectations. If they assume one thing, do the opposite, and the surprise will be even bigger and scarier!
See? Writing comedy is a lot like writing horror. And now I’m ready to write a scary script… Bwa-ha-ha-haaaaa!