The Art of Subtlety

For writers learning the craft, subtlety may be one of the most difficult concepts to hone – not because it’s hard to do, but because it’s difficult to realize we need to do it. We see the details in our minds, and we feel every one of them is important. First drafts are usually detail overload. Full of adverbs and dialogue tags. Whole sentences, paragraphs, pages that need to be cut. Getting it all out is natural to free the story from our minds. We can only begin to clear away the clutter once it’s all out on the screen.

Subtlety is Chapter 15 of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. It’s worth buying this book just for these six pages.

Subtlety is the mark of confidence… A writer who is confident need not prove anything, need not try to grab attention with spates of stylism or hyperbole or melodrama… He will often leave things unsaid, may even employ a bit of confusion, and often allow you to come to your own conclusions.

Lukeman goes on to say that books written by unsubtle writers leave you with a short-lasting fix. Once finished, you haven’t been fully satisfied. You’ll forget the book and move on to something better. It won’t leave an impression.

If you can master subtlety, your books will stay with readers for a long time.

How to be subtle? It’s easier than you think. Less is more. Don’t serve out words as if your readers are starving. Serve them to readers who just ate Thanksgiving dinner and only need one last taste of pie. Make that taste really matter, and make it small. Make them ask for more. And don’t give them every kind of pie. Just give them one. A really, really good one. Your best. Resist the urge to tell the reader, “This is my best pie. The recipe has been handed down for seven generations. You are going to love it.” Just let your reader taste it and make that decision himself. Pretend this reader is a world-famous chef who understands fine cuisine, maybe even better than you.

Readers don’t need to know everything. The more you beat them over the head with information, the less interested they are going to be. Play hard to get. And don’t underestimate your reader.

“Showing not telling” goes hand in hand with subtlety.

But don’t take it too far. There’s a line, and if you cross it you’ll have worse problems.

I wish I had know all this when I was working on the second or third draft. It would have saved me a lot of time with the parts that just weren’t right.

Do any of you specifically write for subtlety, or is this something you work out in a later draft by cutting?

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “The Art of Subtlety

  1. Awsome post.
    “How to be subtle? It’s easier than you think. Less is more. Don’t serve out words as if your readers are starving. Serve them to readers who just ate…” that is so well put.

    I believe in getting the first draft down no matter what. The magic is in the edit.

  2. ‘First drafts are usually detail overload. Full of adverbs and dialogue tags. Whole sentences, paragraphs, pages that need to be cut.’

    How very true! It’s that whole Stephen King ‘Kill your darlings’ phenomenom. Personally I absolutely have to write the whole lot out and then cut, slash, prune later when I don’t feel so horribly possessive about all these ‘wonderful’ thoughts that initially I feel MUST stay. I estimate it takes about four months leaving the manuscript in a drawer and then I can start the cutting process.

    A writer I admire for exactly this laconic style, who uses exquisite phrases simply as throwaway lines, is Rudyard Kipling. He uses the most perfect word, short sentence or phrase and then moves swiftly on, where I would be tempted to hang around and milk the words for all they are worth, adding, decorating, gilding. I just read one of his short stories – On Greenhow Hill – and it was a perfect example to me just what you are talking about.

  3. Yes. Kill your darlings. I think for most writers, the process of spewing it all out comes so naturally. It just feels so good. Four months in a drawer = yes. Or, work on another project. Then pull out the original and slice and dice.

    I will have to check out Rudyard Kipling. Thanks for the recommendation. And thanks for commenting!

    • A good way to find the line (I think the line is different for every writer and every novel) is to give it to a no-nonsense type person. This is what I did. I gave him a hard copy of my synopsis and said, “Cross out anything that doesn’t matter. I need to shorten this by 3 pages.”

      He gave it back to me with a ton crossed off, and it was like an epiphany. I cut it all and could not believe how much better the synopsis was after that. Not only did it help me shorten my synopsis, it showed me exactly where I have a tendency to overwrite in such a black and white way. Now I can apply this to everything I write in the future.

Comments are closed.