Hidden Horrors and Disappointing Reveals

Posted: March 5, 2013 by cherylmahoney in Cheryl's Words
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I love reading for a lot of reasons, but as a writer, I also love what I can learn from watching how other writers have told stories.  Of course the best thing is seeing how they’ve done things well—but there’s something to be said for learning from how other people do things badly too.

I thought I’d explore one narrative device I’ve noticed that, for me at least, never seems to work.  I don’t know if there’s a name for it, so maybe I’ll coin one.  Let’s call it the Hidden Horror.

The Hidden Horror is when SOMETHING happens (or has happened).  A character knows about it and reacts in shock and dismay…you know, an “Oh, the horror!” moment.  Sometimes that’s literally what the character says 🙂 but the point is that somehow it’s conveyed to the reader that the character feels SOMETHING really awful and horrible and excruciatingly bad has happened.  But—we don’t know what it is yet.  The narrator holds onto the secret, and makes us keep reading to find out what the SOMETHING is.  Sooner or later whatever happened is revealed, and of course we’re supposed to echo, “Oh, the horror!  Now I see what was so awful!”

The trouble is, usually I don’t.  Most of the time, if a writer makes me wait to find out what the Hidden Horror is, I end up with a complete anticlimax.  My reaction is usually, “Really?  That’s not that bad.”

And for the record—I am not someone with a high threshold for horror.  It’s really not that hard to make me squirm with blood and death and so on.  But if you make me wait to find out the details…it doesn’t work.

I encountered one of the clearest examples of this reading The Da Vinci Code.  There are some seriously horrifying things happening (quite apart from the horrifyingly inaccurate Biblical scholarship), but Dan Brown uses this trick of the Hidden Horror again and again…and gives me anticlimactic moments again and again.

I do have a theory on why this doesn’t work.  As soon as the character reacts, I start imagining what horribleness could have happened.  Horror is in some ways a personal thing.  One scenario may feel far more horrible to me than it would to you–and something that would seriously disturb you wouldn’t really bother me.  Maybe you can’t stand spiders but don’t mind slasher films, while I feel friendly towards spiders but would rather not hear vivid descriptions of…well, the things that come up in slasher films.  We’ll skip the details—I don’t like them!

The point is, when I start imagining the Hidden Horror, I imagine whatever would be most horrible to me.  And after I’ve had time to imagine that, how can the horrible imagining of the author—distant, third-party, impersonal—compare to whatever I conjured up?

I love plot twists (even when I guess them), and I love knowing there’s some secret in the narrative that I have to keep reading to learn.  I also enjoy suspense–when you know the story is building up towards something, which will probably be horrible when it arrives.  Perhaps the key difference is that, if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not being hidden.  It’s just approaching, and I’m not trying to imagine it because I’m still waiting for it to arrive.

It may also be a problem of over-emphasis.  When the characters go on and on about the awfulness, when the author goes to great lengths to convince me it’s horrible, almost anything would be an anticlimax when the Hidden Horror is finally revealed.

So—am I the only one this is true for?  Do you like when an author makes you wait for a big reveal of awfulness, or is it often an anticlimax for you too?

  1. Matthew Ridenour says:

    I agree, Cheryl. I find the best time to reveal the “horror of it all” is the moment the character reacts. I empathize with the character, (or have at least a certain emotional investment), and therefore I will have a larger reaction when the character experiences said horrors.

    • Ah, I hadn’t thought of that aspect…if we react *after* the characters do, we’re no longer tied into their emotional arc. It’s harder for the author to manipulate us emotionally at that point, and we’ve been thrown out of the story by being in a different emotional place than the characters.

  2. bwfoster78 says:


    You are not the only one. I think that a writer has to be extremely careful in withholding any information from the reader that a viewpoint character knows. In my experience, most of the time the writer ends up annoying the reader more than creating any kind of suspense or tension.



    • Yes–I think the annoyance factor is also a problem! I tend to mind less with other kinds of information, but when a character is reacting emotionally and hiding the source of the horror…I do get annoyed.

  3. As the a smack you in the face with the horror guy, I tend to agree with you on this device. About the only time I feel differently is if the hidden horror is the main plot point. So a prologue that suggests some sort of awfulness in 1872 leading to a nasty haunting that the protagonist must figure out sometimes works. Little hidden horrors scattered though out a story do tend to be unsatisfying.

    • I agree–I think a central mystery is often far more effective than moment-by-moment horrors that are being withheld. It can be a difficult balance though–sometimes if I figure out too much about a mystery before it’s finally revealed, it still falls flat for me.

      • Foreshadowing in that sort of scenario is a really difficult skill to master. How to suggest without giving it away? I tend to feel like it’s better for foreshadowing to hit the reader subliminally rather than give away too much. Hard, hard, hard to do though.

      • Matthew Ridenour says:

        Foreshadowing is definitely tricky. I find that sprinking it in throughout the piece works well. Nothing is given anything away one bit at a time – but if those bits are compiled and read on a single page or two, a bigger picture is seen. Trick is, how often do we foreshadow? How much do we reveal in those bits? I find that this varies widely from story to story.

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