Oh the Horror! Maybe.

I was recently reading a book that got me thinking when it used a particular narrative device.  I’ve noticed this before, but I don’t know if there’s a name for it.  Maybe I’ll coin one.  Let’s call it the Hidden Horror.  And since I’ve been posting about spooky books for Halloween, it seems like the appropriate time to talk about this!

The Hidden Horror is when SOMETHING happens (or has happened).  A character knows about it and reacts, saying, “Oh, the horror!”  Sometimes that’s literally what they say 🙂 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, of course, it’s 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 get a complete anticlimax.  My reaction is usually, “Really?  That’s not that bad.”

I think the problem is that as soon as the character reacts, I start imagining what horrible thing it could be.  Horror is in a way a strangely 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, while I’m much more upset by snakes.  So when I start imagining the horrible thing, 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?  While if I hadn’t had time to imagine it, I probably would have appreciated the author’s horrible event.

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 love 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 in the same way 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.

I think reading helps writing in so many ways–it helps build a feel for language, sparks ideas, and lets us see clever things other writers have done.  And sometimes, it’s just as helpful to see what doesn’t work.

Oh, and despite the recent discussion on suspense in The Hound of the Baskervilles, that wasn’t the book that inspired this post.  Doyle knows how to do suspense.

4 thoughts on “Oh the Horror! Maybe.

  1. I like your line about how it’s just as helpful to see what doesn’t work in writing a book. What’s amazing to me is how often what doesn’t work still gets published! Somebody at the publisher’s must’ve read it and thought it was worthy to be published, but as a reader you wonder what they were thinking when they okay’d the book – and what the secret is to get into the “published author” world!

    1. That is definitely the eternal question–how do such dreadful books get published, when it’s so hard to be published? I’m never sure whether to be irritated or encouraged when I read a book and feel sure I could write a much better one!

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