Vera Miao on the Creativity, Process, and Inspiration Behind Two Sentence Horror Stories

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Two Sentence Horror Stories moved from a digital series to The CW broadcast this season.

Created by Vera Miao, the series offers a full movie's worth of scares and sometime's important messages in a condensed format.

We had a chance to chat with Vera about the inspiration of the series, as well as the challenges and fulfillment she encounters during the process of creating her work.

Vera Miao

Can you tell me how you first got the idea to make Two Sentence Horror Stories into an anthology?

I came across stories just as someone who tends to track horror-related things when some of the best stories from the Reddit thread went viral. And, really, the idea came out of my reaction to reading the stories because I felt like into very economical form, right? Like just two sentences.

It did this really great thing where it tests out the story in the first sentence, and it kind of provides the twist in the second. And in doing that in this way, I was struck by a few things.

One was that they felt like traditional campfire, spooky tales. So something felt very classic and almost old fashioned about them, which I love. But that they were also told through this virtual community that was made only possible by technology and where we are currently with something like Reddit.

Two Sentence Horror Stories Poster

And when I would read them, I loved that I'm reading stories that other people have written, and that they immediately evoke an atmosphere but were general enough, because it's two sentences, that my brain immediately started coming up with scenarios and bigger stories that were inspired by the atmosphere and twist that was set up.

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And I think it just clicked for me. I was so busy both loving that it felt so specific, the atmosphere in each story, but all so open-ended that my brain was just going to fill in the gaps. And that's really the inspiration for an anthology series.

Did you ever consider adapting the sentences you found on the internet, or were you always interested in writing your own stories to adapt?

I think that it was just about writing my own stories and being a participant of this community of folks who was inspired by this format. I mean I think there's a lot of, there are a lot of similarities, I feel like. Right? 'Cause there's only so many things that you can do in two sentences.

An UnMerry Christmas

But also again, it's like that kinship where you know, even though I don't know the people who wrote those two sentences horror stories, it is like we're all sitting around a virtual campfire.

So it's not shocking that there's a whole bunch of stories, for instance, that deal with how creepy mirrors are or a bunch of stories that deal with dolls. Right?

Because these are sort of, again, like tried and true classic subject matters like ghost tales. And things that sort of send chills up your spine. So it was always about writing stories and participating in that new tradition, I guess for the show.

Do the sentences always come first in your process? Or do you sometimes have a story in mind first and then craft the two sentences?

Yeah, I think when I first started out it was the sentences that, more often than not, drove the story. But as you sort of get into it and you're trying to come up with a bunch of different things, there were times that the story, the episode itself, components of the episode themselves, would take root first.

Watch Her Squirm

And then I'd find the story, the two sentence horror story, in combination with building out the larger story. Because again, the two sentences kind of create, essentially, the structure of your episodes. You have your set up, and then you have to have a twist. Yeah.

Right. So how does the inspiration usually hit? I mean, are you just walking down the street and all of a sudden you see a scenario and you've come up with your two sentences?

Well for this season on The CW, I had a writers' room. I actually had to translate a process, to come up with ideas for my writers' room. For me, as a writer, yeah inspiration comes from everywhere. And then, I just do my best to make a note of it before I forget it.

And so I came into the room with a series of ideas, but then in terms of working with my writers, I did a bunch of different things. I'm really a big fan of how do you create a process to really foster creativity? So you've got to go in a bunch of different directions.

Sometimes I asked my writers just to share. It's like, what are we scared of? What are some of our fears? What are some trouble setups or concepts or contexts that we've always wanted to play with? What are some types of characters and situations that we've always sort of this idea, it would be cool? We just know where.

Metamorphosis

With my writers, we very intentionally looked at sub-genres of horror and thought about, "Oh yeah, we definitely want to do a dolls episode." And per the structure of the two sentence horror stories themselves, we would start with, "What are we used to seeing in doll sub-genre?"

Like the dolls genre, right? We're used to seeing this. We know this is going to happen; we expect this to happen. We love the familiar 'cause that's a good thing. Lean into that. But then what can we do to refresh it? What's the twist that we can add to it that's a little different?

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And so between thinking about what personally scares us, what are some contexts or situations we've always wanted to explore? What are some types of characters that we were interested in, and what are the sub genres? Then we sort of did almost like you're throwing up a bunch of different ideas and sort of starting together and see some pictures that could come together from those different elements.

So, I mean, I think, for instance, as an example, one of my writers has experience working for many years with autistic children. There's a writer in the room with specific experience working with autistic children.

You Better Hide

And that's a particular kind of character that isn't necessarily very often represented on screen or well. And the episode didn't become a story about her autism. That was her character's choice. But it escalates what happens if you have an autistic child and a nanny and a home invasion.

So it was just like piecing and pairing, like this is the issue we're really interested in exploring in a particular episode. This is the sort of like social, political, or even personal issue that we'd really love to see played out. And that was one of the big components in trying to think about the seeds or the ways in into stories.

And I love how the show approaches social messages by showing instead of telling.

Yeah.

How important is it for you to address socially relevant topics by way of your stories?

It's not like I sit around, and I intentionally and deliberately think, "How do I incorporate social messaging into my stories?" I think about it from the perspective of the character and really being in the character's perspective.

And then also being really specific about who the character is and what is going on in their life and in their world that, particularly given the genre, really contributes to this tension and to this dread and to this escalating fear and danger that they might be in?

And so because I'm focused on characters that I feel either reflect me or the people that I know most in my life.

Hiding Under the Bed

Sure.

And then taking it from there. So if you get really specific about who the character is, then that opens up, you know, all of the different ways to look at the components in their life. And, and I think a couple of things, right?

Like number one, I don't take the position that it's just internal pressure that is the most valuable in building tension in the horror story. I think we're people in the world, and it's both internal and external pressures. But it helps a lot because there's only so many times you can have someone sort of like trapped in a house with a ghost.

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But it's interesting if it's about who is that person trapped in the house? And what are some of the things that actually add more danger, and more tension, and more challenges, more drama, and more conflict? Fundamentally, the journey of trying to confront your deepest fears.

So, but having said all of that, it is important to me, right? Because these are also things that I think about a lot and they matter a lot to me. And I think that there are lots of people out there who these things often matter to them, and it's an emotional position as opposed to an intellectual one.

Spooky

And I think you do it really well. I mean, I always try to stay out of politics, and I watch shows in a very critical light to see how they're delivering their messages. And I love the way that Two Sentence Horror Stories is doing it. I think it's fantastic.

Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.

Your welcome. And I wonder how difficult is it to introduce a compelling character and deliver these complicated and frightening stories in such a short window?

I mean, they're essentially, short movies. In every one, it seems everything clicks so well. I guess I'm wondering about your process, and how you manage to get the emotional and frightening aspects down so well?

I mean, I appreciate that a lot because of course I'm my hardest critic. So, I think I can do better. And I do think that wanting to do justice to your characters and I don't... Two Sentence Horror Stories is not by intention and design a jump scare kind of or gore-driven horror approach; it's psychological.

So the best way to actually get to effective psychological horror is to do character development and spend some time there, and it is a challenge when you have less time. So I mean, I don't know what to say. You design the story first, right? You design the arc, you design the beats, you design.

Dead Set

You think about it from the perspective of what's the best story to tell for this character. And then it becomes a real skill that you have to develop to figure out how to do it sort of economically.

And I think that, yeah and how do you do something... If you were to look at our scripts are actually pretty dialogue-light, for the most part. There's a couple of episodes that are the exception to the rule. There's one that's like a found footage, or found footage sub-genre.

With like a YouTube makeup tutorial, blogger situations, so it's very heavy in dialogue. But for the most part, we lean pretty heavy on how do we convey this visually rather than direct position? And it becomes a really wonderful process of figuring out how do we tell this story visually? And how do we do it in such a way that kind of gets to the point without saying it?

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It's funny that you mention how little dialogue there is. Because when I think back on each episode, it doesn't seem like there's not that much dialogue. There was a movie out for kids about five years ago, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and there wasn't a single word. I loved it. And there wasn't a single word in the movie, but it conveyed so much.

And that's how I feel about each episode of Two Sentence Horror Stories. You've come away with this entire ... it feels like there was so much more time spent and so much more said. But there wasn't.

I mean, I really appreciate that because it's always a challenge. It's a challenge. And of course, I'd love to have more time to spend with the characters and with the scenarios, and there are certain things that you have to sacrifice.

I would rather sacrifice transitions. I'd rather sacrifice seeing a character walk from one location to another, which does really help with mood and rhythm and emotion. I'd rather sacrifice that so that I can spend more time with the character and emotional beats.

So there are certain things that you have to do in terms of designing and crafting sort of like a story dense episode in a short amount of time.

Fighting with Family

I never had the opportunity to watch any of your earlier episodes on Go 90. And I'm wondering if any of what you previously shot is going to make it to The CW, or if all of what you have on The CW was specifically written for the network?

The very last week of broadcast will be a special one hour that is three of the episodes from the Go 90, the first iteration.

Oh great, which three?

Ma, Guilt Trip, and Singularity.

Awesome. I read that Ma was very special to you, so I'm glad I'm going to get a chance to see it.

Yeah, it was very special to me. It is very special to me. Yeah.

And have you changed your process at all from working in an online scenario to working for broadcast?

I think there are just functional considerations in terms of crafting the stories so that they allow for commercial breaks. In terms of making a show for broadcast versus digital means that there's different considerations.

The digital realm doesn't have a broadcast centers and practices that weighs in. So there are certain functional considerations for sure.

And regardless, it's a very intense, and fast and crazy kind of dimensional production process across the board. But the core of it stays the same in terms of what the creative process look correct.

Protecting the Baby at All Costs

What's your favorite episode of the CW season that's airing now?

That's like asking me to say like, "What's your favorite child?" I don't think I could do that. You know? And I think with the writers' room, we really wanted intentionally to... Since you haven't seen the first season, the digital version, this won't make as much sense.

But in the first version, there was a lot more sort of intentional coherence, visually, across episodes. I think tonally. And then for this CW season, we actually really wanted to be creative and embrace playing the sub-genres and really embrace a heterogeneity. And so we took some risks.

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Big Scares in a Small Package

So, the episode that I mentioned, "Tutorial," is our "found footage" episode, and that, just functionally by setup, like you have static cameras; it's a really different, different thing.

And we're talking about like YouTube, millennial, beauty bloggers. It is vibe wise so very different than like "Hide," which is about a nanny and a home invasion. You know what I mean? They're just so profoundly different. Yeah.

So it's hard for me to say which one is a favorite because they all have their relative strengths and unique identities.

Who Is Lurking In the Background?

What can you tease about the next episode? What kind of fear does it affect?

It really speaks to the heart of family. And it speaks to the ways in which turning your back on tradition and turning your back on your elders that might sort of create a corrosive force in the notion of family.

And what does it mean to be abandoned by your family? What does it mean to be abandoned and have, literally and metaphorically, have your family turn their back on you? Because of these differences? And it sounds sort of deep, and it sounds like a drama. At it's heart it probably is that.

I'm trying to figure out how to talk about it without spoiling anything. Yeah, and I think at the end of the day, fundamentally the episode does something that I don't feel like a lot of episodes do, which is it talks about the tensions across generations, within one family. And it talks about tensions across generations and across cultural differences. And it sort of turns some of the tropes that we have on its head.

Oh, I can't wait. So what does the future hold for Two Sentence Horror Stories and for you?

For the show itself, I think that we're all just pretty focused it's broadcast airing now and my hope that it resonates with audiences. 

Two Sentence Horror Stories Season 2 Episode 7, "Only Child," airs tonight on The CW at 9/8c, and Two Sentence Horror Stories Season 2 Episode 4, "Hide," replays immediately following.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA), enjoys mentoring writers, wine, and passionately discussing the nuances of television. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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