As a writer of fiction, particularly of scary stories, the issue arrives time and time again. What is better, seeing the monster revealed, or leaving it in sounds and shadows? Is it better to see the ax wound, with all of the blood that splatters, or to simply see the swing of the ax, and to have to imagine the wound afterward?
Stephen King has a book, entitled Danse Macabre, which has some words on the very themes I’m talking about. If you haven’t read the book, and you are in any way a fan of things that go bump in the night, I must insist that you pick it up. At least, go to the library and see if they have it. Regahdless, I will attempt to give my own opinions on the matter.
I guess, it all depends what emotions you are trying to evoke. If you want your reader to be appalled at all the shocking details of the grisly vehicular homicide, then by all means, you should mention every broken bone and road rashed abrasion on every bloody and bruised body. These descriptions will, if thought out and executed successfully, gross your reader out to no end. They will feel at the mercy of your power of gory description. However, this does not act upon the most powerful tool at any writers disposal, the reader’s imagination.
If I was to talk about the same situation with vehicular homicide, but to simply say that the bodies found at the scene were mangled and torn, you, the reader, would come up with how mangled and torn they actually were, in your head. You would form a rough picture of what each victim looked like. Do they have broken bones, and which ones? You are the only one that knows that. I have my own vision, which involves broken leg and arm bones, and all sorts of scraped down skin.
I guess it’s hard to say which is better, if indeed, you can even do such a thing. I go back and forth with each type of writing, though admittedly now I seem to be in a hyper descriptive phase, where I want to talk about the gore and the monsters for sentence after sentence. Yet, there is a certain power in hinting at horrors indescribable, in a certain Lovecraftian way. Keep in mind though, Lovecraft would usually go on to describe everything, right after his long and atmospheric build ups about how hard to describe everything was.
I’d say it depends how you want to string the reader along. For a true crime type of horror story, I would say that everything in vivid detail is in order. Disgusting realism will ring true. However, with supernatural stories, it’s really all just personal opinion. Anyone who says otherwise, that there is one way to write supernatural horror better than the next, well, that person clearly doesn’t read enough. I happen to enjoy both. I love hearing about the entities, or creatures, and I also love being teased with only small glimpses and descriptions of the things.
In the end, it all comes down to making it engaging. However you can draw a reader in, be it through intestines ripped from cadavers, or the mere mention of bodies being ripped apart most foully. It all comes down to what you are strong with, what you’re most comfortable with. Go with your instincts.
The same applies to screenwriting and movies. You have movies like Jaws, and The Mist, where there is a good combination of seen and unseen horrors. Both are great films. However, then you have movies like A Serbian Film and the short film Aftermath, which revel in the gross out, and show you quite a lot. Also, good, if not incredibly disturbing, films. Then, you have movies like The Blair Witch and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which really don’t show you much of anything (it always makes me laugh when people talk about how “bloody” the original TCM is). All of these movies are equally effective. So, there is no one way to build tension, and scare your audience with film, the same as there is no set way to scare a reader. Again, it all comes down to getting your audience emotionally invested, and terrified, whichever way you can. It probably wouldn’t hurt to make sure your character’s are vivid and interesting. It’s far easier to gain emotional investment with a character people want to know about. Ultimately, this is where the audience is first drawn in. Besides, it’s far easier to make someone anxious about a strangler, when one of his or her potential victims is someone you don’t want to get choked out.
This may not be anything you don’t already know. Just putting it out there, for those just starting out, or for those that need a reminder.