I was listening to Pixar’s Andrew Stanton in a Ted Talk about a concept of storytelling he called the ‘Two plus Two’ method. If you’re not aware, Pixar pretty much hits it out of the park for every movie they make. Their stories are solid and consistently entertaining, and I believe that the storytelling craft of people like Andrew Stanton is largely responsible for Pixar’s success (not to detract from the hundreds of other talented folks involved in the animation and production, of course).
I bring it up because when I heard him outline the concept of ‘Two Plus Two’ I realised I’d been using it for ages, only the name I had given it myself was The Spoon (I’ll explain in a second). It’s an important idea not just because of it’s value as a storytelling tool, but specifically because of how it applies to horror.
Here’s how it works. The way Stanton describes it in a nutshell is this: The audience wants to work for the story, but they don’t want to know they’re working. Therefore, for maximum impact, don’t give them four, give them two plus two and let them add it up.
That’s it. Those who are well versed in oft-given advice for fiction authors and the like will recognize this rule because it’s basically a re-wording of the old ‘Show, don’t Tell’ mantra. What the latter doesn’t explain, I think, is that there are actually times when you do tell. For example, you have to ‘tell’ two plus two. In the telling of these things, you are showing the four.
If that seems confusing or vague, here’s my Spoon Method for comparison…
Back in school I had a cool English Teacher – we’ll call her Liz. You know the type: wordy, thick glasses, excessively jolly and articulate – the Fun Aunt. She was one for games, Liz: she would make us speak for a minute on Bananas or the colour Yellow without repeating ourselves or saying ‘um’, or she would make us list as many uses for a brick as possible. One game which stuck with me was what she called the Spoon game.
A spoon is just an example – the game could be with any random object. She would pick the object and whisper it to someone, and that someone would have to describe it to the rest of the class until someone guessed what it was. The catch was that Liz would also give the person a list of words or phrases they weren’t allowed to use when describing the object. So, if Spoon was the object, the banned words might be: cutlery, concave, eating, metal, spoon, scoop… And hilarity ensued as people tried their hardest to guess what an excavating device for soft edibles might be.
So how does this apply to writing horror? Well, the spoon is the Terrible Thing, The Monster, and/or The Darkness. You, as the one in charge of getting the message across, already know everything about this Evil. But if you want the reader to be afraid, you can’t just give them all you know. That would be like the student just yelling out ‘It’s a spoon!’ Where’s the fun in that? So don’t show the monster; show the tracks in the mud. Don’t show the teeth; show the bite marks.
In Stephen King’s IT, before we really know anything about the monster, here are the parts King decides to show us: 1. A young boy, Georgie, getting his arm bitten off by a clown in a drain. 2. A series of incidents of little children going missing in a small town. 3. Six phone calls to the main characters, an old friend telling them that ‘It’ has returned and they must go back to the small town. In all cases the characters are terrified, and one even commits suicide rather than face the monster.
Note that in none of these cases are we told about the nature of IT or what it is or anything really about the monster itself. But we are terrified, because what the hell is so bad that someone would rather kill themselves than face it? There-in lies the rub: we have to ask a question, and not only that but it is a question to which we don’t know the answer, and all fear stems from the unknown.
As for how much to show, I think the answer can best be summarised in two words: ‘Just Enough’. First of all, give the reader credit – they can work out quite a lot from a small amount of information. Chances are, you can be more subtle than you think. Remember, the more they have to think, the further they have to reach, the greater the emotional impact when they finally get there.
The most effective things to show, as I mentioned earlier, are those which do not so much illicit a conclusion in the reader’s mind as a question. At it’s core, this question is always the same: ‘What is the horror?’ But it manifests itself in various ways, such as: ‘What kind of monster could do that to a human body?’ ‘What kind of thing would make those tracks in the mud?’ ‘What could someone have seen to make them gauge their own eyes out?’ etc.
So, to conclude: Two plus two equals a spoon. Show the reader just enough to make them ask questions. And finally: don’t show the killer, show the bodies.