Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Like all other types of fiction, the horror genre creates, maintains, and heightens suspense--in other words, keeps readers reading or viewers viewing--by withholding facts or other information that is vital to the perception, understanding, and appreciation of the narrative’s context. Because the reader or the viewer does not (yet) know enough to know what is happening (or, more commonly, why what is happening is happening), he or she is intrigued. He or she wants to know what will happen next and, ultimately, why the series of (usually bizarre) incidents is happening at all.
In fiction, context is created through the presence and unification of all narrative elements: characters, setting, action, dialogue, conflict, theme. By temporarily withholding information concerning one or more of these critical elements, providing details little by little, over a period of time, at predetermined, strategic intervals, a novelist (or, for that matter, a short story writer, a narrative poet, or a screenwriter or playwright) creates mystery. The mystery, if it is compelling--for example, it concerns an intriguing character, an important conflict, or an unusual theme (or, better yet, all three)--will cause the reader or the viewer to continue to invest his or her time in pursuing the story that he or she is reading or watching.
In horror fiction, after establishing a sense of everydayness and routine, the plot usually introduces a series of bizarre (often, increasingly bizarre) incidents that, at first, appear to have no bearing upon or association with one another. Finally, the protagonist learns the cause of these incidents and, using this newfound knowledge, and usually aided by friends, he or she sets things right, restoring the status quo. This is a simple storyline, but the withholding of key information, whether concerning characters, setting, action, dialogue, conflict, theme, or several of these elements, complicates the action, creating, maintaining, and heightening the suspense that keeps readers reading and viewers viewing. The plot might look like this:
Everyday Routine--> Bizarre Incident 1--> Withholding of Information Concerning Character--> Bizarre Incident 2--> Bizarre Incident 3--> Bizarre Incident 4--> Bizarre Incident 5--> Withholding of Information Concerning Setting--> Bizarre Incident 6--> Withholding of Information Concerning Conflict--> Bizarre Incident 7--> Bizarre Incident 8--> Bizarre Incident--> Bizarre Incident 10--> Discovery of Cause of Bizarre Series of Incidents--> Bizarre incident 11--> Bizarre Incident 12--> Use of Knowledge to Overcome Threat--> Restoration of Status Quo