Jason Arnopp to fellow writers: don’t overdo the exposition!
When experiencing any given scary story, I prefer my heart to stop way more often than it sinks. And one particular scene is guaranteed to engender that sinking feeling, usually two-thirds of the way through. In the Too Much Information Library Scene, our traumatised heroes visit this establishment in a desperate bid to discover what the hell is going on in their house. Who or what is their resident phantom? What does it want? They have almost as many questions as grey hairs. Aided by a kindly old librarian who’s lived in this town for over 100 years and harbours the odd nugget of exposition herself, they find an incredibly fortuitous dusty tome or a ludicrously convenient roll of microfiche. This provides the spook’s entire backstory, shedding all too much light on present-day events.
“Hey!” says Hero A, looking up from the tome/microfiche/internet. “You know this entity that’s made our lives a terrifying misery for weeks on end?” Hero B shudders. “I’ll say I do!” “Well, according to these old news stories, our ghost is actually a wronged child who died in a fire.” “Wow, good to know! I don’t feel nearly so afraid now.” And then they toddle off to try and make a decent fist of an inevitably fear-lite finale.
Granted, this is partly about my own loathing of scary ghosts turning out to be benevolent (although clearly I don’t loathe it enough to stop me pulling that stunt in one of my own stories – writers can be such hypocrites), but the TMI Library nicely illuminates the tightrope facing all writers who aim to unnerve. How much to reveal and how much to hold back?
If I drew a pie chart depicting the causes of fear, over half would be stamped “The Unknown”. This is why so many low-budget fear flicks and Doctor Who serials through the ages have made a real virtue of having next-to-nothing to show us. They’ve withheld their spooks for as long as possible, to great effect. Delaying the audience’s gratification costs nothing. Saves cash, in fact.
Generally speaking, we are most transfixed and disturbed by the blank spaces on any narrative canvas. Uncertainty provides the cue for our subconscious minds to fill those gaps with unsettling worst-case scenarios. 1999’s found footage classic The Blair Witch Project ingeniously painted only the hollow outlines of a witch and a child-killing hermit onto its canvas, then forced us to supply the rest. But that’s an extreme (and polarising) example and writers couldn’t get away with that all the time. Leave too much blank space too often, and your audience rightly begins to suspect you don’t know the answers yourself.
So we writers must walk the tightrope with care. Sometimes we’ll need to play our cards and deliver the goods. But we should treat various failed attempts to revive horror movie franchises with “origin stories” (why would I ever want to learn how Freddy Krueger became Freddy Krueger?) as valuable cautionary tales and resist the temptation to over-share about our bogeymen. And whatever we do choose to reveal, it should ideally happen outside the walls of the TMI Library.
“WHY WOULD I WANT TO LEARN HOW FREDDY KRUEGER BECAME FREDDY KRUEGER?”
The Scooby-Doo Effect.