Leaving things unexplained in horror

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  1. #1

    Leaving things unexplained in horror

    I have read plenty of horror stories and seen even more movies. One thing I see that, in my view, separates the greats from the average writers, is that the average writers explain far too much.

    Now, explaining things is fine if your goal is pure suspense (there's a monster in the house. Will they get out in time). But in order to leave the reader with a lasting sense of dread, the horror may very well reside in what we don't know. This is not controversial. Lovecraft mentioned it back in his days too.

    In my novel, I have a scene where the main character is about to go to bed. This is after I have set the character up with several previous scenes, where I establish him as a very routine-bound little boy, who always goes to bed at the exact same hour. This time, however, he refuses to enter his bed and ends up sleeping on the couch. I never explain this, because I want the book to give a feeling of "something is very wrong here, and I do not get it."

    What do you think? Are there merits to being purposefully vague in horror? Do we really need to know that "there are ghosts", rather than just leaving it at "I sometimes see things... well... I think I see them. Maybe I don't"?

    I would also like to say that I got this from reading a text by Freud about the homely and the unhomely. The idea I got from it, was that situations make us really uncomfortable when they behave close to that which we recognize, but not quite. The horror I want to create deals more with the ambiguity of threat, more than the threat itself.
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  2. #2
    I think it really depends upon the story. I've also written several pieces where I was deliberately vague about the mechanics of how things happened. It's sometimes better that way in my opinion, as yes, it creates a better sense of dread, as well as perpetuating the feeling that some things are better left unexplained. This is where I think Lovecraft came into his own. In my own writing, I am often try to create an air of (morbid) inevitability - the idea that you just know that things are going to go horribly wrong, it's just a matter of how and when.

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  3. #3
    I'm not much of a horror writer, but I agree that uncertainty is a great way to illicit dread.

    You're essentially creating loose threads in a creepy way, dangling them in front of the reader. Ideally, they'll keep turning those pages, eager to see how those threads will finally get tied off.

    Just make sure that you do tie them off, somehow, otherwise the reader's dread might simply turn into frustration.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyle R View Post
    I'm not much of a horror writer, but I agree that uncertainty is a great way to illicit dread.

    You're essentially creating loose threads in a creepy way, dangling them in front of the reader. Ideally, they'll keep turning those pages, eager to see how those threads will finally get tied off.

    Just make sure that you do tie them off, somehow, otherwise the reader's dread might simply turn into frustration.
    Agreed. My strategy is to tie some of the threads off, but not all of them since I'm writing a series.
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  5. #5
    As much as I like horror stories and movies, I always experience a bit of a let-down once everything is explained, especially if it's done too early. I don't really "want" to see the monster because he's scarier in my head.


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  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by AdrianBraysy View Post
    I have read plenty of horror stories and seen even more movies. One thing I see that, in my view, separates the greats from the average writers, is that the average writers explain far too much.

    Now, explaining things is fine if your goal is pure suspense (there's a monster in the house. Will they get out in time). But in order to leave the reader with a lasting sense of dread, the horror may very well reside in what we don't know.
    I believe that allusion can be far more powerful than direct explanations in horror. I find psychological horror to be far more effective than the blood, guts, and gore stuff. I believe that using allusion is a more skilful way to write it too.


  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by AdrianBraysy View Post
    I would also like to say that I got this from reading a text by Freud about the homely and the unhomely. The idea I got from it, was that situations make us really uncomfortable when they behave close to that which we recognize, but not quite. The horror I want to create deals more with the ambiguity of threat, more than the threat itself.
    What was the Freud text? Sounds interesting

    I'd agree on all points. I think it's a fine line - if things are left too vague and unexplained you're left with an incoherent mess, but if you spell things in too much detail there's little for the reader to speculate on. I think the key is to know what things you're leaving open and why, leaving the reader with a sense of unease that comes from not having things fully resolved.

    Your short story sounds like it does this - establishing a norm (the kid's bedtime) and then breaching it without giving an explicit reason and so leaving the reader free to speculate.

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  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Jonthom View Post
    What was the Freud text? Sounds interesting

    I'd agree on all points. I think it's a fine line - if things are left too vague and unexplained you're left with an incoherent mess, but if you spell things in too much detail there's little for the reader to speculate on. I think the key is to know what things you're leaving open and why, leaving the reader with a sense of unease that comes from not having things fully resolved.

    Your short story sounds like it does this - establishing a norm (the kid's bedtime) and then breaching it without giving an explicit reason and so leaving the reader free to speculate.

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    It was a text called: "The Uncanny". It was quite interesting indeed.
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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by AdrianBraysy View Post
    I have read plenty of horror stories and seen even more movies. One thing I see that, in my view, separates the greats from the average writers, is that the average writers explain far too much.

    Now, explaining things is fine if your goal is pure suspense (there's a monster in the house. Will they get out in time). But in order to leave the reader with a lasting sense of dread, the horror may very well reside in what we don't know. This is not controversial. Lovecraft mentioned it back in his days too.

    In my novel, I have a scene where the main character is about to go to bed. This is after I have set the character up with several previous scenes, where I establish him as a very routine-bound little boy, who always goes to bed at the exact same hour. This time, however, he refuses to enter his bed and ends up sleeping on the couch. I never explain this, because I want the book to give a feeling of "something is very wrong here, and I do not get it."

    What do you think? Are there merits to being purposefully vague in horror? Do we really need to know that "there are ghosts", rather than just leaving it at "I sometimes see things... well... I think I see them. Maybe I don't"?

    I would also like to say that I got this from reading a text by Freud about the homely and the unhomely. The idea I got from it, was that situations make us really uncomfortable when they behave close to that which we recognize, but not quite. The horror I want to create deals more with the ambiguity of threat, more than the threat itself.
    I don't know a huge amount about horror either...but I think we can all agree Stephen King does. He writes: “Nightmares exist outside of logic and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”

    A good quote. However a novel, even a horror novel, is not a nightmare and I see the problems of vagueness in horror as much the same as in other genres. It is risky, with turning a blind eye to obvious logical questions always dangerous. Besides the obvious confusion a constant shying away from explaining anything will likely lead to lack of confidence on the part of the reader that you, the writer, actually know your own story. That is a death sentence for any book. I must also say that often I see these kinds of gimmicks as being more about the writer wishing to avoid having to think things through and be held accountable for their own bottom-gravy. I am not saying that is you whatsoever, but that is often the case.

    On the other hand you are 100% correct that when correctly judged intentional vagueness (I would prefer to call it "withholding detail") is incredibly powerful. An example that springs to mind is "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka, usually called absurdism but in many respects a horror story. If you have not read it I absolutely recommend it -- it is fairly short and very easy read. The gist is that a young man wakes up one day and finds himself turned into a huge insect and has to contend with reactions of revulsion among his family and society. Kafka never explains how this happened. Crucially, the lack of explanation adds to the horror because it plays to a natural fear everybody could relate to that this could happen to anybody. If Kafka had tried to explain the "metamorphosis" through scientific, religious or otherwise magical means suddenly we would be in a situation of having various genre tropes and scientific realities (or non-realities) with which to evaluate the story's central premise. Next thing you know, it's just another piece of sci-fi, body horror, magic realism or whatever other arbitrary labels one feels appropriate. Labels and genres, by definition, are there to encourage a sense of familiarity and safety. In horror fiction, one generally wants their work to feel strange. Sometimes dangerous.

    In the scene you described from your own work, I must resort to the old response of "it depends how you write it". There are just too many variables to know if it will work or not. All that said, the idea of an otherwise diligent child whose behavior inexplicably changes is a staple of horror so obviously you are on fertile ground here and because it is a staple, I would probably agree that avoiding stereotypical ghost-stuff is probably wise.

    The problem is that people ARE going to want to know. They always do, even if it is against the interests of the story. I still want to know why the young man turned into a beetle. So while you may be able to "do a Kafka" and avoid incurring frustration or a sense of being cheated to the point people do not like your work, bear in mind that Kafka's idea was inherently more original than yours. A boy having difficulty sleeping because "something" has been done to death (no pun intended). Also his story was short so there was significantly less investment required and lower expectations of explanation as a result.

    Readers have a short fuse when it comes to perceived lack of a story being "worth it." There is a reason why ending stories with the explanation of "it was all a dream" tends to be unpopular and therefore discouraged if possible. Rapidly "the main character is actually dead and does not realize it" is going the same way. Your main issue is setting is your story apart from from, say, Henry James's Turn Of The Screw? How is it different from Shirley Jackson? From Bruce Willis's The Sixth Sense? The Babadook? Poltergeist? The plethora of garbage that comes out every Halloween from Blumhouse Studios etc - Paranormal Activity 17 or whatever it is now?

    You need to come up with an answer and that answer has to be something that does not resort to familiar tropes and bogeymen. If you cannot answer it then how vague your work is or isn't does not matter. Perhaps the answer is that the strength of your writing and something endearing about this child's character is the answer. You obviously don't have to reinvent the plot-wheel if your narrative is strong enough and your characters irrestistable. Unfortunately with this crumb of information I see nothing that makes me want to say it sounds like ANY approach will make it a good story, so whether it is explained thoroughly or not is rather a moot point.

    The very best of luck!
    Last edited by luckyscars; August 8th, 2018 at 05:48 AM.
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