Writing Horror: Check-In 2, The Shining (1980)

the shining

For this second check-in, I will continue to focus on the research process for developing my horror screenplay. This week, I specifically was taking a look at the film The Shining. The script was written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson. I felt that it was important to focus only on this film for this check-in because of how important and influential it was and is to my writing process. This film is about a main character who descends into madness in his own home, who attacks loved ones, and who sees visions of the dead. In the end, he also dies as a result of this pseudo-possession. All of these facets of Kubrick’s (and Stephen King’s) story can be seen in the screenplay that I am writing, so there is a wealth of information for me to dig into here.

For this post, I will be looking at Kubrick’s original treatment of the story (a rare find that I was delighted to stumble upon). For those who don’t know, a treatment is a written document that outlines the story as it will be detailed in the screenplay. The reason I chose to look at the treatment as opposed to the script is that the only script of the story available online is the shooting script, the version of the screenplay that focuses on shots and camera movement in a way a spec screenplay does not. What I am writing for this project is a spec screenplay, a version of the story that does not worry about how the film will be shot, but rather details the story fully. For this reason, the treatment for The Shining provides more of a look into Kubrick’s creative process than the shooting script, and therefore offers me more valuable information.

Without further ado, here are the three most important things I learned from reading and viewing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining:


Lesson 1: Play with Reality

One of the more memorable scenes from the film is when Jack participates in the ghostly ball held in the hotel, especially when he takes a bathroom break and runs into Delbert Grady, the long-deceased caretaker of the hotel. Below is a clip of the scene:

What stands out here? Obviously, Jack Nicholson’s acting, which is top-tier, but what else? I would say that the relative normalcy of the scene is astounding. If someone pitched to you a scene where a man who is descending into madness sees and interacts with a ghost in a haunted hotel, is this really what you would imagine? Of course not! I would imagine flickering lights, a half-transparent ghostly butler, and maybe even a blood-splattered wall somewhere. What Kubrick does that is genius is that he demands that this scene, clearly situated in the realm of the supernatural, be filmed and set just as many of the other scenes in the film that take places outside of delusion.

Kubrick blurs the lines between the natural and the supernatural by setting them up in the exact same way, with Nicholson’s acting one of the few points that suggests his continuing loss of sanity. At the same time, Kubrick has internalized Jack’s insanity by forcing it to emerge only in his character, but he has also externalized it by normalizing this scene in the same filmic style as the other scenes.


Lesson 2: Tell it how it is

One of the more harrowing and interesting from a film perspective scenes from the film involves little Danny pedaling his way down the halls of the hotel. The scene is ominous from the beginning, and the way we follow Danny down the halls builds quite quickly a sense of foreboding. The eventual climax of the scene, involving the two little girls and the hallway splattered with blood, is terrifying when seen in the movie. But look at how Kubrick wrote the scene in his treatment:

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What stands out here? First, the attention to detail. Jack’s typing in the lounge. The shoes of the little girls. The playing cards on the floor. But also, the tone of the writing. It does not exactly inspire fear in the way the scene in the movie does, does it? I can imagine this paragraph rewritten in an attempt to inspire fear, with multiple exclamation points and ellipses in an attempt to build and release tension, but would it really improve upon this iteration? I don’t think so, and I think that there is a lesson to be seen here. Sometimes the goal of being clear in your storytelling can be muddied by attempts to drive readers’ thoughts and emotions or to create atmosphere. If the story is good, then the tone will come across.

(Also, on a side note, the phrase, “when he dares to look again,” is perfect. In those six words Kubrick is able to tell us exactly how Danny is feeling in this moment. Awesome.)


Lesson 3: Let the Characters be the Vehicle for Fear

A new paragraph from the treatment, this one coming towards the end of the film:

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This scene differs from the last paragraph we read with Danny in the hallway. On first glance, the multiple question marks and underlines might seem to contradict the previous lesson, but to me there is a crucial difference: it is the character that expresses such fear, not the narrator of the treatment. To inundate an entire treatment with such expressive language and formatting would take away from the overall effect of reading the treatment, and the last thing I want when writing a treatment or a script is for my reader to lose the sense of tension or grow numb to constant stimulation. I think that keeping emotions like panic and fear to dialogue allows for a script or treatment to convey these emotions without having the reader feel like the writer is trying to force these feelings on them.



Looking at The Shining was incredibly valuable because it both gave me ideas for effectively portraying madness and creating an engaging screenplay. Kubrick is incredibly effective from the treatment to the final product, and I have benefitted from looking at both.


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  1. mcshannon says:

    This was a very engaging post to read! While I’m not a film major, I still find analyses of films like this to be extremely interesting. The three lessons that you pulled from this were pretty eye-opening to consider, and I think that the second and third lessons can be useful for many different genres of writing, but especially horror, as you said. I will definitely keep them in mind as I watch movies or read books in this genre in the future!