Ja­son Arnopp to fel­low writ­ers: don’t overdo the ex­po­si­tion!

SFX - - Contents - Ja­son Arnopp’s The Last Days Of Jack Sparks is out now from Or­bit Books. Visit his web­site at ja­sonarnopp.com

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.


The Scooby-Doo Ef­fect.

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