I don’t have much experience with writing scary stuff and I need advice. I’m trying to write a scene similar to the one in Jurassic Park where the kids are dodging the raptors. But I’m having trouble translating the tension and terror in that scene into prose.
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is a horror novel. If you haven’t looked at the book yet, I suggest giving it a read. You’ll find more insights into the source of the horror and how to write horror with dinosaurs in the novel than in the movie. The best way to learn about writing horror is to read horror novels. You can also read The Lost World by Michael Crichton, which isn’t a sequel to his first novel but a novelization of Spielberg’s second movie. You might glean some insights there also on the nature of translating visual mediums to the page.
Now, let’s move on to Jurassic Park the film. The raptor sequence is the capstone to the film’s subplot. The emotions you feel while watching this scene have been carefully managed and developed by what we’ve learned about the raptors, what they’re capable of, and what we’ve seen them do to the movie’s adults; including Muldoon, the park’s gamekeeper. Scenes in novels and film aren’t individual pieces which can be broken off. They’re part of a collective whole where all the pieces are working together for that climactic moment. Taking what you like from a book, a television show, or a comic is all well and good, but don’t forget to take your time and figure out how the narrative got there. What were the pieces leading up to this scene with the raptors which foreshadowed and emphasized the danger they represented? In the raptors’ case, the foreshadowing begins with the opening sequence with Muldoon and the workers putting a raptor into the cage. We never see the raptor, but we can hear it. Then, later we see Grant, Ellie, and the little boy at the digsite discussing the raptor skeleton. “You’re still alive when they start to eat you.”
This is all a careful structure on the movie’s part to build audience anticipation, including Grant having this discussion with a little boy rather than an adult. The possibility of the children being eaten in the beginning feeds toward that final scene in the movie.
The problem with looking to film specifically when trying to replicate is the presentation of a scene is visual. You need to look past the camera placement, and delve into the other four senses. The horror of Jurassic Park is a particular subgenre, one should probably familiarize yourself with on a conceptual level.
Your characters being hunted.
This is probably already obvious to you, but think it through. The scene with the raptors in Jurassic Park with the kids involves the children being hunted. With the way the shots are framed, we see both. The raptors are communicating back and forth with each other as they try to problem solve on the location of the children. The kids figure out where the raptors are through the sounds they make, and their reflections in the stainless steel cabinets. The kids need to get past the raptors and make it to the single exit from the room or else game over. The narrative has already established these animals are some of the most highly advanced and intelligent pack hunters to ever exist.
So, how do they escape?
From a written perspective, you don’t want to show the raptors. You don’t want the audience to know where they are because that heightens the tension. We see what the characters see, we hear what they hear, and the tension in a written context largely comes from what we don’t know. Based on what we don’t know, we can’t relax and neither can your characters.
Anyone can die.
You may have already planned it out for how these characters survive, but here’s the thing… you need to forget that they’re going to live and focus on them trying not to die. If you let them relax into the idea that they’re getting out of this because you already know that they are then they won’t try to survive and they’ll cheapen the scene.
Horror is about characters getting picked off one by one until only the few remain. The death count is necessary because it heightens the danger our antagonist represents, but keeping that monster in the unknown is also important. Survival should never be guaranteed. If it’s not, you’ll be focusing on the “problem solving” aspect of your characters, them figuring out under pressure how they’re going to escape this situation, and delve into the necessary “run for your life” aspect.
These characters don’t have the tools they need to fight this monster, all they can do is run. However, if you run from a Jurassic Park raptor then the raptor will run you down. They’re as fast as you, as agile as you, and more clever.
This is the video game stealth sequence where if you fuck up, you die and there’s no reload, no do-over. You’re done. So, knowing that, how do your characters behave while under pressure?
Don’t Be Afraid to Throw Out the Outline
Don’t fool yourself into thinking you need your characters to make the right choices. Don’t munchkin your way to victory. Desperate people don’t really make the right choices, they make choices which feel right to them in the moment and hope they work out.
As a creative, I loosely outline but never make myself beholden to it for the express purpose of making changes. In my first draft, I let my gut dictate where the story goes. This means, sometimes, characters who I wasn’t expecting to die do die and characters I wasn’t planning on having live ultimately survive. This gets cleaned up in later drafts, but this means that my characters are always making snap decisions in the moment. Sometimes, they work out. Sometimes, they don’t. This works well for me as a writing tool, keep in mind that it may not for you, and it’s only one option.
Think from the Perspective of Your Characters
When you watch the raptor scene from Jurassic Park, put yourself into a position where you’re re-imagining the scene from the perspective of the kids. You’re not trying to copy beat for beat. Think about how you would feel when put into a similar situation. What would you do in a similar position, what would the characters you’re writing do? We’re talking about a character being hunted, even an act as simple as sticking their head up to look for the monster can be fatal, where the sound of their breathing is a risk, when any movement could alert the monster to their presence. The kids aren’t skilled at moving without a sound and they’re in a kitchen loaded with opportunities for their hiding spot to be discovered either by a knocked off object or just by touching the thin steel wall of the cabinet.
Do you go left or right? Do you look for the monsters? How do you do this? Do you peer under the cabinets? Try to watch their reflection? Lift your head up? Do you crawl on the floor or run?
You’ve got to make a choice. If you stay in one place, you’ll die.
The raptors are looking for you. You can hear them calling back and forth to each other, but you have no idea what they’re saying. The sound hurts your ears. Your heart is pounding so loudly you’re sure the raptors can hear it. You’ve already seen so many of your friends die. Fall down, trip on the floor, not close a door fast enough, make mistakes, and, ultimately, get eaten. They’re all gone now. There’s no adults around. No one to protect you. There’s just you.
So, what do you do?
Make a dice roll. Hope you succeed.
This is really how you write action/adventure, and how you imitate Spielberg’s work in your writing. You’ve got to bring the scene home to the stakes for survival, the emotions of the characters, and the consequences of failure.
Know Your Horror
Horror thrives on the idea that your characters are ill-equipped to handle the situation, and are out of their element. They’re not perfectly suited to deal with what’s happening to them. If they are, if you present them as hyper competent and supremely capable, then it will kill all of your tension. You want completely average people trying to survive in situations where they are way over their head. The horror monster has to have the advantage, otherwise this isn’t Aliens or Predator. We’re in Aliens versus Predator territory and, whatever else we might say about them, those movies are not horror. Another example is the later Jurassic Park films like Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World which are straight up theme park action adventure, more and more outrageous as the dinosaurs become less and less legitimately dangerous to the health of our protagonists.
You need to be willing to let your characters look silly, weak, fumbling, and incompetent. Normal kids who love books on dinosaurs and computers, who constantly bicker to the point of driving everyone else around them crazy. Kids who cry, kids who whine, and clamp their hands over their mouth to keep from screaming.