“Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door.”
That’s a quote from William F. Nolan, often cited by horror writers in debating how to craft reveals. It’s a horror writer’s debate, but one that all writers ought to keep in mind.
I first encountered Nolan’s quote through Stephen King, who wades into the debate in Danse Macabre. The audience’s terror grows as the protagonist approaches the door in the old deserted house, hears something scratching behind it, reaches for the knob, throws the door open, and …
… and what?
That’s the writers dilemma. As Nolan describes it, if there’s a ten-foot bug the audience screams, but they’re really screaming in relief, because they were worried that the bug might be a hundred feet tall. And if the bug’s revealed as a hundred feet tall, the audience screams in relief that the bug isn’t a thousand feet tall.
So do you open the door, or not? I read Danse Macabre as a kid and that dilemma stuck with me. King offers a passionate defense of the case that the writer must throw the door open eventually — he likens not doing so to playing for a tie. But other writers (King cites H.P. Lovecraft) opt for opening it just a crack, or not opening it at all.
The last idea was what really intrigued me — particularly when King himself made the case for it effectively. His example of a door left shut is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, filmed as The Haunting. (See the 1963 version, not the 1999 remake.) In The Haunting, the key doors are literally never opened, though something hammers on them in the night and they distort in ways that seem to violate physics. Most frightening of all, the characters Eleanor and Theo endure one episode by holding hands in the dark — only to wake up and realize they are too far apart to have been touching. “Whose hand was I holding?” Eleanor asks.
It’s been years since I read Danse Macabre and saw The Haunting, and Eleanor’s question still bothers me, in a way that the nastiest creation of makeup and CGI wizards no longer can. Ultimately, I don’t agree with King — or at least, I don’t agree that the door should always be opened. Sometimes it’s better not to.
But wait, you’re saying — I’m not a horror writer. Fine, but the question of whether or not to open the door applies to exposition and backstory, too.
It came up for me with Prometheus, the Alien prequel Ridley Scott refuses to call an Alien prequel. (I’m going to ignore that.) One of the most evocative images in Alien is the space jockey, a giant skeleton forever reclining beneath the controls of the wishbone-like derelict. We know the space jockey is very, very old — Dallas even notes it’s fossilized — but we never find out anything else about it.
Or at least that was true until Prometheus, which revealed (in the movie and the original Jon Spaihts script) that the skeleton is actually a suit, and the derelict is a centuries-old death ship, a juggernaut laden with biological weapons intended for Earth.
That’s cool — it’s really cool, in fact. But I’d argue it’s not as cool as a million-year-old skeleton and a derelict whose purpose would never be known. Because it can’t be. I didn’t feel cheated when I had no idea what the space jockey was. I did feel cheated once the door was finally opened.
Or consider the backstory of Boba Fett, the faceless bounty hunter of The Empire Strikes Back, with his scarred armor and clanking spurs. Who was he? My friends and I speculated endlessly in the early 1980s. In 2002 we got an answer: He’s human and a clone of his “father,” whom he saw struck down by Jedi while he was a boy.
Again, that’s pretty cool — but inevitably, it’s a ten-foot bug where imagination had sketched the outlines of a hundred-foot bug.
It’s very hard to avoid this trap, and maybe impossible. So what’s my answer? If you’re writing up to a big reveal, long-awaited passage of exposition or an intriguing bit of backstory, stop and think while your hand’s still on the knob. It’s true that some narrative doors must be opened or the audience feels cheated. But others are better left shut.