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?