Every aspiring writer is at one point treated to the ancient adage of “show, don’t tell”. The idea is that rather than telling us that Sam is an impressive diplomat, it works better if the writer describes her being a great diplomat. It gets boring (and annoying) if a writer keeps on saying that a character is a certain way but never actually shows them acting according to said characterization.
That’s well and good for characterization, but what about for plot points and events? Or scares and other monstrosities?
A lot of the time tension and interest is raised more by what you don’t see than what you actually do. The viewer’s imagination is far less limited than a special effects budget or the creativity of the art department. See, your imagination is fantastic at creating a tailor-made horror for you. You just need the implication.
The original Predator from 1987 is an excellent example of how tension can be heightened by simply not seeing the ‘monster’. For most of the film we watch Dutch’s squad get killed by some unknown creature. Tension keeps rising as we wonder just who or what this is. We finally see the Predator himself as the climax approaches, but by then his reputation as a masterful killer (with a tendency to rip people’s skulls and spines from their body) has already been well established. Since we’ve been shown what he’s capable of his appearance is now the embodiment of our anxiety.
Had we seen the Predator raging into view at the start, yes, we’d still be intimidated, but we wouldn’t have the amazingly high tension that makes the movie so good. It’s worth mentioning that in the 2010 sequel Predators, the titular Predators are barely glimpsed at first, but before long we see them in full. We already know what a Predator looks like, no sense in putting us through the same beats again.
Cloverfield did it too, to a different effect. In most monster-attacks-city films we watch the spectacle from the point of view of people in power (mayors, generals, ace fighter pilots, etc) or the littlest cancer patient. In this film it’s just a small group of survivors trying desperately to keep that prize status. We don’t get any good shots of the monster (until the very end) but we do see the destruction and the characters’ responses.
It’s an intense film, thanks not just to the shaky cam point of view, but also due to the fact that we’re never sure just what it is they’re running from (and that anyone can die). Though the monster itself isn’t a particularly terrible abomination, we’ve already had a good ride by the time we see it..
This extends to other mediums, too. Video games, for example. Now, I’m not a player of survival horror games, so I’m ignoring that genre. In Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Nathan Drake finds himself on a mysterious island long since deserted by its Spanish settlers. He encounters a trap like other ancient ones only not made from wood but the wreckage of his recently-crashed plane. An antagonist says that his men have been disappearing in the jungle. We see strange footprints in the jungle and we encounter bodies strewn up on traps.
Drake finds himself exploring underground catacombs and at last the monsters are revealed: cursed zombies. Or something. But now the game, like Predator, switches gears from the tension of the unknown to shooting your way to safety. Uncharted used implication when it needed that sort of tension and switched back to normal combat tension after the former dissipated.
So we can use implication to invoke a form of terror or tension, but it can also be used to keep interest alive. Lost made use of reaction shots and frequently hid just what it was the characters saw and forced us to rely on their descriptions or reaction. It accentuated the mystery of the show. We got our share of apprehension as we waited for the camera to show just what it is Jack saw. Sometimes we’d get to see just what it was, sometimes not. But the point was that there was something out there that could change something; something that caused that character to react the way they did.
Like everything in Lost, it wasn’t so important what the item/reveal was, just the way the character reacted. Nonetheless, the implication served its purpose and keeps you glued to the serial.
Implication is another tool in a storyteller’s toolbox. Really not much more to say than that. Tensions tend to run higher when we don’t know what it is we’re afraid of/interested in, but have enough hints and clues to know that we should be.
The trick is, of course, to be careful that we don’t wind up with a massive let down. ‘cause that, well, that pretty much sucks.
Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors who sometimes use implication (but not in that book)!