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Take Our Word For It / Literature

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Characters insisting you take their word for it in literature.

  • In the The Gunslinger, first of The Dark Tower novels, Walter revives a man from death and tells Allie that the once dead man will say what lies beyond death if Allie says "19." When she tells him 19, we don't hear his response, but apparently it's so traumatic that she begs Roland to shoot her dead. He does.
  • H. P. Lovecraft and other contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos wrote of fictional books, such as the Necronomicon, which drive men mad upon reading them; we, of course, are "spared" any more exposure to their contents than a few short excerpts and quotations.
    • The actual creatures in Lovecraft and his followers are barely described to evoke the feeling that the protagonist just can't understand what he or she is seeing and is too terrified to look.
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    • Jorge Luis Borges deliberately echoed this conceit, as concerns unspeakable creatures, in the short story (in English translation) There Are More Things, which is dedicated "To the memory of H. P. Lovecraft". It ends with the lines "My feet were just touching the next to last rung when I heard something coming up the ramp - something heavy and slow and plural. Curiosity got the better of fear, and I did not close my eyes."
    • Likewise, Greg Farshtey, writer of the BIONICLE books, comics, and serials with his Shout-Out to Lovecraft, Tren Krom. He only gave us a vague description, stating we'd go mad if we ever saw a picture of him. One thing's for sure, the characters in-story freaked out and fainted upon seeing him. Those that didn't were either extremely strong-minded, or already cuckoo.
  • Robert W. Chambers' collection of short stories The King in Yellow focused around a play called, you guessed it, The King in Yellow. Characters in the book would often discuss the events of the play, mention a few names, quote it a little, and yet the audience never gets any idea what the play is about. Like the Necronomicon, it is a Brown Note of madness and/or death. We only get to hear bits from the first act, but... "The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect."
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  • In The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, detective Dirk Gently has to explain the supernatural murder of a client as an elaborate suicide to the skeptical police. His explanation is sufficient to convince the forensics team, but we never get to hear what exactly the explanation was. Take Our Word For It comes in, not because of any qualities of the explanation itself, but that there was any explanation at all.
  • In the original "Beauty and the Beast", the Beast was not described so the reader would think of him as whatever scared them most. Of course, when the story was adapted to film and television, it became necessary to show him.
  • Appears a number of times in the Discworld novels.
    • It's the point of Granny Weatherwax. She's got a reputation as one of the greatest witches of her age. Whenever we do get to see her do real magic it's generally not that impressive. She really is that strong, however, but she knows that using her 'headology' tends to be a lot easier and effective. (It's a key theme of both stories of the witches of Lancre and the wizards of Unseen University that the major part of magic is knowing when not to use it, because it always comes at a cost, and it's likely to be much more than you can afford.)
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    • The Stick and Bucket Dance from Lords and Ladies is supposedly not only suggestive (performing it with women present can lead to charges of "sexual morrisment") but dangerous: "We are not doing the Stick and Bucket Dance! I still get twinges in my knee!"
    • In Jingo, Nobby Nobbs tells off-color jokes to a bevy of women, who are rolling on the floor laughing. Although we get a few of the general ideas as being rather famous real-world jokes (like the one about the "small man and the piano"), we only get the punchline for the one Nobbs is telling when we come on the scene.
    • And in The Last Hero the bard writes the most beautiful, most moving heroic saga ever. And then claims to be able to improve it even further. For obvious reasons, we never actually get to know what it sounds like or what the words are, though it might be power metal. We do know what it's about at least. At least there's a picture of him singing it that looks totally credible.
    • We hear bits and pieces of it, but never the entirety of what Granny Weatherwax refers to as "that song" — "The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered at All". This has, of course, led to the fandom coming up with their own versions of it. The animated adaption of Wyrd Sisters also gives us a stanza, perhaps the opening lines, of another infamous innuendo-filled song of the Disc, "A Wizard's Staff" ("... has a knob on the end.") Wizards traditionally don't get the innuendo, and are known to occasionally demand people explain what's so funny about there being a knob on the end of their staffs, their being proud of their staffs and polishing them so often, or how the size of the knob/length of the staff is important.
    • Of Lorenzo the Kind, a former king of Ankh-Morpork who met his fate at the hands of Suffer-Not-Injustice Vimes, we learn little save that he was "very fond of children" and had "machines for-" (the speaker is cut off mid-sentence).
  • Much like Lovecraftian monsters, the Minotaur in House of Leaves is never depicted, only described in terms of the fear it strikes in people contemplating it. There's one point when it might be reaching out of the wall to grab the dead body of Holloway Roberts, or maybe that was a glitch in the dying video camera.
  • In a probable Shout-Out to Lovecraft, who he'd apparently read and liked, Tolkien invoked this trope to (refrain from) describing Gandalf's trip Beneath the Earth, in The Lord of the Rings:
    Gandalf: Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.
    • (Keep in mind, Sauron is older than the entire universe, and he helped build it.)
    • Beren's trip through the Mountains of Terror, Ungoliant's old lair, in The Silmarillion, where none had ever gone and lived to tell the tale. Possibly due to Tolkien's own fear of spiders.
    • Gollum's ordeal in Mordor at the hands of Sauron's torturers ... we never find out exactly what they did to him, just that he is afraid to the point of psychosis of entering Mordor again.
    • The origin story of the orcs ... it's difficult to put in words what an elf would have to go through to fall that far.
    • The wars between the Valar and Morgoth are skimmed over, mostly because the sheer scale of the forces involved are impossible to visualise.
  • In The Hobbit, Bilbo bonks his head at the beginning of the Battle of Five Armies (the climax of the book) and misses the whole darn thing. This is convenient for the animated version, which didn't have the budget for a full-scale battle scene.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Pippin misses a battle and has to be told about it by his comrades when he wakes up.
  • In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Cask of Amontillado", the narrator Montresor complains of "a thousand injuries" inflicted on him by Fortunato before sealing him in a catacomb to starve to death. Since Fortunato treats Montresor as a friend, and Montresor's behavior is rather unbalanced, it's implied that the injuries were either trivial or completely imagined.
  • Similarly, in Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum", we never see what's actually in the pit.
  • This blog deconstructs the Left Behind novels page-by-page, repeatedly pointing out where the authors mention huge events (like the Rapture and attempted Nuclear War) with extremely little detail.
  • Graham Chapman in A Liar's Autobiography lampshades the trope more than once, describing something as "fortunately indescribable" because it saves him the trouble of describing it.
  • P. D. James' detective Adam Dalgliesh is a famous poet when he isn't being a policeman. James refrains from giving us any examples of Dalgliesh's verse, which is probably all for the best. The author once stated that she'd got W. H. Auden to agree to provide a small piece of poetry to be used for Dalgliesh's, but it never came to pass. James said that she only wanted to bait the critics into sneering at her presumption to attempt poetry so she could laugh at them and reveal the truth.
  • The Todal, in James Thurber's The 13 Clocks. What little description is given of it is deliberately either nebulous or nonsensical. And it gleeps... which is never actually explained, although it's strongly hinted that you don't want to know.
  • In Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John short story "The Desrick on Yandro", the narrator sees "the Behinder":
    The Behinder flung itself on his shoulders. Then I knew why nobody's supposed to see one. I wish I hadn't. To this day I can see it, as plain as a fence at noon, and forever I will be able to see it. But talking about it's another matter. Thank you, I won't try.
  • This was necessary to an extent in The Fountainhead, to get around the difficulty in depicting buildings through prose. Howard Roark, who is for all intents and purposes one of the greatest architects of all time, designs many buildings during the course of the book, only a handful of which are described in detail (and even then, many of the descriptions are delivered by his antagonists with an obvious negative bias).
  • The Sherlock Holmes mysteries do this with the case of "the giant rat of Sumatra" and other stories "for which the world is not yet prepared."
  • At the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne spends some time telling his readers how moving Dimmesdale's final sermon is, and how hardly a person in the crowd is unmoved, but we don't see a word of the speech.
  • At the end of Sidney Sheldon's Master of the Game, Eve's disfigurement at the hands of her plastic surgeon husband is never described in detail, though the effects it has on the character in question and those around her are.
  • In Jack Vance's Liane the Wayfarer, the title character makes the mistake of going on a quest to recover a tapestry stolen by the mysterious Chun the Unavoidable. Vance never describes what Chun looks like (aside from the cloak of eyeballs), but judging from Liane's reaction, Chun's features are horrific.
  • In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield's description (or lack thereof) of an attack by a group of bullies on a weaker classmate tells us all we need to know—"I won't even tell you what they did to him, it's too repulsive." The only thing left unclear is whether the boy's eventual death (he jumps from a window) is the result of suicide or murder.
  • In Edward Monkton's The Penguin of Death, said penguin kills its victims by saying one word, a word of such incredible beauty and power that the victims simply explode from the brilliance of it. We never find out this word.
  • Lampshaded in Vladimir Nabokov's Bend Sinister. At one point the protagonist, a famous philosopher, wonders if his supposed brilliance really amounts to anything, then thinks of this trope.
  • In Rilla of Ingleside, the final Anne of Green Gables book, Anne's son Walter is credited with writing a magnificent poem (a la John McCrae) that inspires and stirs the hearts of soldiers everywhere. We never get to read a word of it.
  • The title game of The Glass Bead Game is never described in much detail due to its complexity.
  • Much the same thing happens in The Player of Games with Azad. The brief descriptions seem to imply that the three major boards are akin to tabletop wargames or a Civilization game, but with the addition of card-based sub-games which are played beforehand to determine who starts off with the advantage.
  • The manuscript in The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers is simply the best story ever written. (Nearly) everyone who reads it goes through a series of ecstasy, melancholy, incredible joyfulness, worst sadness and finally lapses into hours of silence. The only thing we ever get to know about the story is the general theme and the last sentence.
  • A similar thing is done with the manuscript for Mobile, America in Ben Bova's Cyberbooks. We never see any of the text, or even discover what it's about. All we know is that it's The Great American Novel and a great work of literature.
  • Malevil uses this during the off-screen nuclear war, the narrator struggling to describe the sound produced by the detonating nukes. He states that any familiar example like thunder or a sonic boom are "ludicrously inadequate" and claims that the sound is simply beyond human perception. He also reminds the reader he is experiencing all this from inside the cellar of his castle: a story underground and between seven-foot thick stone walls.
  • C. S. Lewis used this a few times in The Chronicles of Narnia, and one of the first to come to mind was in The Last Battle with his description of the fruit in Aslan's country.
  • In "Cold Snap", a prehistoric elemental being is awoken and starts spreading havoc, more or less inadvertantly as it's never seen humans before and barely notices they're there; unchecked, it will wipe out the entire human race within weeks. At the climax of the story, the hero is able to establish communication with it, and asks it not to destroy the human race; it asks "Why not?" The story then immediately cuts to another plot strand, and the rest of the conversation is not depicted. We're told that Richard had to be eloquent and convincing in his response, but no details of what he said or how he said it.
  • The Divine Comedy:
    • At the end of Inferno, Dante pleads with his reader not to ask him to describe how he felt in the cold of the bottom of Hell. The most he can say is that he wasn't alive and he wasn't dead.
    • From the beginning of Paradiso, Dante makes it clear that he will fail to communicate the infinite wonder of Heaven.
      To represent transhumanise in words
      Impossible were; the example, then, suffice
      Him for whom Grace the experience reserves.
    • At the end of Paradiso, Dante prefaces his description of God by comparing his memory to the passion one feels after a dream they can't quite remember and admits he is so inadequate at describing the glory of "the Eternal Light" into words that he might as well have the tongue of an infant.
      Shorter henceforward will my language fall
      Of what I yet remember, than an infant's
      Who still his tongue doth moisten at the breast.
  • The Dresden Files does this a couple of times. Considering what is described, this effectively tells the reader that they really don't want to know
  • Hazel and Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars agree that "An Imperial Affliction" is the one book that describes what it's really like to have cancer, therefore the book means a lot to them. But we, the readers, only get a dim idea of the plot, a few characters, and the line "Pain demands to be felt." Oh, it's also a Door Stopper.
  • In It's a Good Life, before burying "bad man" Dan Hollis in the cornfield, Anthony mentally transforms him into "something like nothing anyone would have believed possible." This disturbing event is not further described except through the horrified reactions of other characters (who can only say that what happened was a good thing), though its adaptation in The Twilight Zone depicts the transformed Dan as a jack-in-the-box and has Anthony call it one.
  • The book How NOT to Write a Novel advises against this when describing a location in the section titled "Words Fail Me". The example the authors use is a man describing Paris, of all cities, with very vague terms that amount to "it's awesome".
    It is the equivalent of showing slides of your visit to Machu Picchu, in which you stand in the foreground of each shot, smiling and gesturing at Machu Picchu but also blocking Machu Picchu from view. Your reader is not sharing your experience. Your reader is thinking, "What the hell is that behind him? It looks like it might be Machu Picchu. Or maybe a McDonald's."
  • In the Apprentice Adept novel, Robot Adept, Agape (in Fleta the Unicorn's body) plays matchmaker between Trool, the Red Adept and his vampiress companion, Suchevane. Because important things tend to happen on both Phaze and Photon, everyone assumes Fleta must have performed a similar act for Citizen Red and Suchevane's serf counterpart. Fleta doesn't recall doing any such thing.
  • In Millea Kenin's short story "Scarlet Eyes", protagonist Den-Tyren Scorry doesn't want to look at what's in the Evil Sorcerer's summoning circle, but they assure us that the headless carcass of a sacrificial rooster is "about the prettiest thing" there.
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: At Quality Quidditch Supplies, the top-of-the-line Firebolt is a broom so expensive its price is only available "upon request".
    • Urban Legend had it that when one of J.K Rowling’s editors asked how a Horcrux (A Soul Jar) is made, the method was so graphic it caused him to vomit.


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