Subtlety in Conflict

Subtlety in Conflict


Ask the Author: How do you come up with the title of your book? Michael Sforza ‏(via twitter)

Aaron: Good question! I like Flannery O’Connor’s advice on this. That’s to find a line of imagery or a description that encompasses the story and use that. I usually find titles for short stories in the stories themselves. Novels are a little different, though the theory still works for them. Bret Anthony Johnston says that the title should serve as a layer of “distraction.” I try to avoid “thematic” titles. He changed my title “Appeasement.” Rather, he told me to change it. I came up with “Leaving Tennessee,” which is somewhat thematic when you read the story, but also serves as a layer of distraction.

Al: Most writers start with a working title. They need a reference when talking about the work with an agent or editor. The working title sticks with the book until the book is finished. How it works in publishing.

  1. Working titles are merely a way to reference a work in progress.
  2. A working title will be the tile used in the publisher’s contract.
  3. Titles often change when the book is finished.
  4. You can use any title you want. Titles cannot be protected by copyright.
  5. The publisher gets the final say about the title, not the author unless the publisher agrees to it in the contract.
  6. The publisher will gather opinions from editors, marketing people, and the sales staff. [My strangest publisher change on a title (Prodigy).] I’ve been able to keep all my original titles for my novels; not so much with nonfiction.
  7. I’ve made long lists of potential titles. I brain storm them. (Aaron give me the title for my book Marked for Mercy.
  8. In my proposals, I usually offer several alternative titles.

MJ: What Aaron said. I’ve found that my writings tend to title themselves. That is, I start the project without a title and it comes out of the writing. Often for poetry or microfiction, the title acts as a stand-alone line. I’ve received a bit of flack for “The Unemployment Cookbook” but even with that, I wouldn’t change it. It’s an attention grabber, and that makes it good marketing.

CONFLICT: Subtlety in Conflict

  • What is subtlety?
  • MJ: I’m a word person. I like knowing the root of words, the history of them. So I looked into the definition of subtlety and this is what I found: 1. The state or quality of being subtle. 2. Delicacy of nicety of character or meaning. Thesaurus: innuendo, distinction, intricacy, craftiness, subterfuge. Antonyms: honesty, openness.
    • Subtlety is “trusting the reader.” That means that you don’t overwrite. It’s actively seeking to avoid melodrama and “purple prose.”
    • What is melodrama and purple prose? The overwriting of a scene. It’s shouting “BE SAD!” rather than simply showing the sad thing. Ex: “I’m sad,” she said. v The tears rolled down her cheeks as she sucked air in gulps.
    • My son Levi is very stoic. When he’s sick, he doesn’t complain, but I can tell he’s “off,” and it breaks my heart. Other children are more dramatic “I’m DYING!” When they have a hangnail.
    • MJ: Is that a bit like the boy who cried wolf?
    • Harder to feel sorry for them because the overdrawing of emotion disallows me the opportunity to feel empathy.
  • How does subtlety work in conflict?
    • There is an unwritten contract between writer and reader. In fiction that contract includes:
      1. I’m gonna tell ya a story.
      2. I will do my best to keep your interest and make you feel like you got your money’s worth.
      3. I will treat you like a thinking adult. I will not spoon feed you.
      4. I will resist the urge to explain but I will give you all the information you need to understand.
      5. I will let you react; I will not not tell you how to react.
      6. I will paint the picture clearly but not include so much detail that the picture lost.
      7. I will not overstate the obvious. (They were surrounded by trees: elm, oak, maple, and white barked birch. They were in a forest.) Or, (the arrow plunged deep into his shoulder. It hurt.)
      8. When possible I will show you action, not tell you about the action.
    • Chekhov once said, “When you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader’s heart, try to be cold. It gives the grief, as it were, a background…Yes, you must be cold.”
      1. Simply put, it allows space for the reader to emote. It shows, rather than tells. It does not demand, it presents for further inspection.
      2. We can think of this as “reader investment.” Readers consume fiction because they want to experience something through the protagonist. This means they must be allowed to “read into” the story.
    • “Crowbar Fiction”–that is, fiction that goes over the top and beats the idea into the reader–only leaves us bruised and abused.
      1. Al’s Axom #15: Insult not thy reader. No one likes to be treated like they’re stupid. (Al’s trip to Best Buy for a monitor.)
      2. Some stories make this difficult. The writer must be creative in his/her approach. (My experience with writing military fiction with all its special terminology, abbreviations and initialisms. There would be readers who know much more than I, and readers who would have no idea what the terms meant.)
    • Avoid “almost” over explaining:
      1. “It was almost enough to make him love her. Almost.”
      2. SIGH. I saw it the first time…
      3. This type of over explaining makes for wordy novels, and also creates conflict in the reader (like, “Why am I reading this?”)
    • Raymond Carver was a master of subtlety and conflict. By not overwriting, his prose was sparse and powerful.
      • Popular Mechanics 
      • Tell the Women We’re Going
        • Both stories end with conflict. These are open resolutions. We can use similar techniques at the ends of chapters.


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