Rules Of Blood: The Horror Storytelling Guide for Interactive Media and Virtual Reality
I felt like I had been sitting in the courtroom for an eternity. The moment between the judge raising his gavel and slamming it down – then delivering my sentence in his booming, resonant voice – seemed to stretch over a millennium or two.
"One hundred counts of uninteresting narrative," the judge said, listing my crimes. “Five hundred counts of wafer-thin plotting. Two thousand counts of boring character depiction. And …” His eyes narrowed with thinly-veiled contempt. “Ten thousand counts of procrastination before an empty page.”
In the gallery, my family and friends looked down at me. Tears were running down their cheeks. They knew what was coming. So did I.
"Your punishment," the judge said, “is an eternity in Storytelling Hell.”
In a blink of an eye the floor opened up. I tumbled down, falling, spiralling into the underworld.
Immediately typewriters with teeth snapped at my heels. Pens with wings followed me in swarms, stinging me with their inky, painful stabs.
A demon appeared: “You have some notes from a client,” he laughed, before crushing me under tons of printed emails.
Suddenly everything exploded; a wall of sheer flame that stretched to the reddened sky. It was getting hot. Actually, let’s not be coy: it was getting fucking hot.
I woke up. The sun threw a huge beam on my face - my computer on the desk in front of me, the screenwriter app still open.
I began to type. "Today I’ll change. I promise.“
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Everyone is a storyteller these days. You are, your colleagues are, your cleaner is, your pet is. It’s the buzzword of the era. And yet – while everyone wears the ‘storyteller’ label proudly – that doesn’t automatically make them a good storyteller.
Chances are that most so-called storytellers can’t deliver the impactful narrative that the audience deserves. They don’t value the time that the viewer has invested, nor can they engage that viewer’s emotions. In short: if we are not able to involve the viewers emotionally - our storytelling sucks.
We’re in a Halloween frame of mind right now. It’s the perfect time of year to fully appreciate the horror genre. Because – as often-maligned as horror can be – there is no other genre that sticks so persistently to its formula of storytelling success.
For all the snobbery and criticism surrounding horror… it arguably contains all the universal elements needed to tell a compelling story.
For everybody who has ever tried to tell a story, this might be a ridiculous repetition of what you have already learned. But think about it. Storytelling can often feel like a natural, organic process. Honestly... looking back on previous work, even when you hit that narrative nail on the head… do you always remember exactly what you did right?
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Don’t want to end up in Storytelling Hell? Grab your weapon of choice - shotgun, axe or pen and paper - and get ready to rumble: ‘Rules Of Blood’: five lessons that horror movies can teach you to make your storytelling - no matter what genre or medium - more immersive.
Picture: Dead Man Running by Horton De Rakoff
1. You need a killer logline
‘A haunted house in space’ (Alien). ‘A serial killer re-enacts the seven deadly sins’ (Seven). ‘Vampires invade a small Alaskan town that goes without sunlight for a month’ (30 Days Of Night). See where we’re going with this?
Truly effective horror will always keep it simple – and the same applies to every other genre too. Simplicity is king. The essence of the story should be obvious, as should the character’s motivations and the situations they find themselves in. If your narrative needs acres of exposition and backstory, there’s a good chance your narrative needs to change.
It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing in motion pictures, non-linear storytelling or commercials. Look: ‘A couple of friends take a cross-country trip to return a suitcase’ (Dumb And Dumber). ‘A man has five minutes to figure out whether he is turning into a zombie or not’ (the interactive branded short Five Minutes). ‘This toilet paper is better than any other toilet paper’ (any toilet paper commercial).
If you can’t summarize your idea within a one to two sentence killer logline, then it might be too complex to immerse the audience. By overcomplicating your idea, you are more than likely denying your viewers a cohesive, emotionally-affecting experience.
Picture: Storm: A Survival Experience for Oculus Rift by Anrick | Production: UNIT9
2. One place to rule them all
While there are a few rare exceptions, great horror movies tend to focus on one single, well-defined, evocative and atmospheric location. Friday The 13th used a campsite. The Cabin In The Woods used (no prizes for guessing) a cabin. Paranormal Activity and The Exorcist – for the most part – managed to condense all their scares to a single goddamn bedroom.
Horror filmmakers understand that there’s a hell of a lot of mileage in a stripped-down location, making it easier to plant narrative seeds and pay them off big-time later. Such payoffs are one of the biggest rewards you can give an audience: it wraps them up in the plot and characters, keeping them guessing, keeping them enthralled (for a good example, check out survival simulator Storm).
This rule, needless to say, transcends horror. A tight location-based narrative is a great storytelling trick no matter if you’re working with comedy or tragedy. Look at Twelve Angry Men (set in a debating room in a courthouse), Clerks (set entirely in a convenience store), Lifeboat (set entirely on… look, do we really need to tell you?) or Locke (set entirely in a car). Hell, it even works when you’re dealing with a VR experience about a hedgehog’s birthday party (seriously).
Oh, and there’s one other advantage to a stripped-down location piece: it makes it easier on the budget. As many a producer will tell you, that’s a very good thing.
Picture: Alfred Hitchcock by Jack Mitchell
3. Worse decisions, better suspense
Everyone knows that – in a dangerous situation – you should stick with your buddies, right? Everyone, that is, apart from the poor bastards in slasher-flicks, whose announcement of “I’m just going to check what that noise in the basement was” usually ends up with their guts spilling over their shoes.
With the notable exception of postmodern masterwork Scream, horror movies (and all their rules and clichés) don’t exist inside the world of horror movies. The characters in a horror flick don’t know that there are certain decisions they can make that virtually guarantee their grisly death. Why is this awesome? Because – while the characters might be oblivious to all this – the audience most certainly is not.
We all love yelling at the screen; trying fruitlessly to warn a character of their fate. We know better than the character – and that’s why we get emotionally involved. Hitchcock knew this was the key to suspense (not surprise – there’s a difference).
Does this rule work outside of horror? You bet it does. Don’t you want to warn Michael Douglas not to hook up with Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Don’t you wish you could tell Bruce Willis to take the day off in Die Hard? Don’t you want to slap Jim Carrey out of his clueless ignorance in The Truman Show? Course you do. And so does the audience – an audience you need to engage.
Picture: Five Minutes by Maximilian Niemann | Production: Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg, UNIT9
4. Make it a mind-fuck
Nothing beats the impact of a great horror twist: just like when (spoiler alert) the killer at the beginning of Halloween is revealed as a little kid, or Bruce Willis is revealed as a ghost at the end of The Sixth Sense, or that moment in Psycho when Janet Leigh (who we presume is the lead character of the movie, and totally safe) takes an ill-advised shower. Sometimes, even, part of the fun of horror is the expectation of a ‘twist’ – we all know that the killer isn’t really dead, but does that stop the cheerleader from walking over to examine his ‘corpse’? Sadly, no, it doesn’t – and then there’s one less pom-pom girl cheering on the football team next season.
Needless to say, a great twist is not just the province of horror – fantastic plot surprises abound in Fight Club and Planet Of The Apes and Memento, to name but a few.
Hidden motives, dirty secrets, fake identities, twisted agendas: they all serve to make any narrative ten times more exciting. Crafting a brilliant twist isn’t easy – if it was, everyone would do it – but there’s no shortage of help out there to inspire you on your way.
Picture: Lifesaver - A New Way To Learn CPR by Martin Percy | Production: UNIT9
5) Keep it primal
Why is horror so effective? Because it triggers our deepest instincts, prying into our simplistic lizard-brain fears. We’re all afraid of the dark. We’re all afraid of monsters. We’re all afraid of things we can’t see.
It’s perfectly natural. We evolved that way. The reason we feel uncomfortable in a dark, creepy place – even when the rational part of your brain is telling you that there’s nothing to fear – stems from the early days of our species. In 2015, that unsettling noise you hear in the middle of the night is usually just the pipes creaking. In Neanderthal days, it was more than likely a sabre-tooth tiger intent on ripping your face off.
It’s not just horror. Why do we obsess over sex and romance, like the mismatched loners in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind? Because ultimately we want to make babies. Why do we cheer over sports movies, like Slapshot or Any Given Sunday? Because we want to win. Why do we enjoy comedy and laughter, such as howling with delight at the antics in Naked Gun or Airplane? Because it relieves stress and brings people closer together.
If your story doesn’t affect the audience on a deeply primal level – whatever format you’re using to tell it – then there’s a good chance your idea needs a little evolution of its own.
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We can see all these five rules in action in the kind of project you’d least expect - for example, LifeSaver by Martin Percy, an interactive media experience made on behalf of the UK Resuscitation Council. Don’t believe us? Take a look for yourself. It’s all there: the simple logline/concept (“someone has collapsed and needs your help”), the simple location of each scenario, the terrible decisions that the characters can make while trying to save their friends, the mind-fuck of the whole thing (just imagine this happening to someone you cared about) and the primal, universal horror of being caught up in a life-or-death situation.
You might not even realise you’re following the Rules Of Blood most of the time - they’re such entrenched storytelling standards that they often come to creatives naturally. Yet… whenever you’re lost and looking for inspiration… remember that the Rules Of Blood are there, waiting for you. In the dark. Dare you venture forth to meet them?
Maximilian Niemann is a Director at UNIT9