Posts Tagged ‘writing fail’

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?