For example, recently I was listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of The Phantom of the Opera. Right before the climax of act one, the Phantom threatens the managers of the opera using these words (spoken not sung):
"Should these commands be ignored, a disaster beyond your imagination will occur."
This sentence pretty much stopped all my other thought processes. A disaster beyond my imagination? What sort of disaster is beyond my imagination?
I began to think about disasters. The oil spill? Definitely not beyond my imagination. I've read enough post apocalyptic literature to clearly imagine that. A awful hurricane like Katrina? Totally not beyond my imagination. I've lived in Mississippi. They frightened us quarterly in school with videos of hurricane Camille. (I'm sure the videos have all been upgraded to Katrina recently). But let's give the Phantom some credit. In context, clearly no one would have said he's going to somehow fabricate some sort of natural or major ecological disaster. The threat definitely comes across as a more personal disaster.
So what disaster's can I imagine for an opera house? Umm....quite a few. I've seen more than enough horror flicks in my time, and I could just imagine the Phantom picking off ballerinas one by one as they get separated from each other. Or maybe a worse disaster in the eyes of his managers - he would do something to all their money! Surely there is a bank vault in there that he could easily break into and steal everything. Or maybe he would have some sort of trap for all the guests that night. Maybe no one would make it out of the opera alive. Yes, if we're going for cataclysmic disasters that the Phantom might be able to pull off that could be "beyond my imagination" then I'm going to guess no one is coming out a live.
But what does the Phantom do instead?
He kills a behind the scenes guy, does something weird to Carlotta's voice, and takes down the chandelier.
Really? That's beyond my imagination? One dead guy. One hoarse woman. A broken chandelier? Sheesh.
His plan might have been beneath my imagination, since it was so small that I never would have considered it (though I could definitely have imagined it) but it certainly wasn't beyond my imagination. I mean that phrase insinuates that its something I can't begin to fathom.
And it really irritates me that the Phantom obviously thinks so little of my imagination.
Because that's what his words insinuate to me. They tell me either he thinks my imagination is completely pathetic or his imagination is so pathetic that this is the worst thing he can think of. (I somehow can't believe that of a character who writes an opera.)
And yes, I realize the words weren't directed at me but at his manager's, but it's something that those of us who command words need to realize. People take words seriously. Even if the words aren't exactly directed at them. Even if the words aren't meant to lead to a certain line of thought, they can.
This is why agents hate it when people start queries with rhetorical questions. Because you open up with "What if a disaster beyond your imagination occurred?" The agent imagines the worst disaster they can, and then read on to see said disaster. But your disaster is not beyond their imagination. It's beneath it. You just insulted your reader, who happens to be the prospective agent.
So be careful with your words especially when wielding such a strong phrase. Don't make the Phantom's mistake.