Whatever Happened to Subtlety?

baby cryingWhen you finally take the plunge into your writing career (that is—you begin to think of yourself and define yourself as a writer, published or not), the first thing that should change is the way in which you read. While you will continue to read for enjoyment, if you’re a responsible writer, you will also study the craft that the author has used in the particular piece you’re reading. Whether you love it or hate it, you should be able to identify why.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in my reading. If it isn’t dead, subtlety is terminal. I mourn for it’s eventual loss, and make an earnest plea: Do your part to keep it alive. Maybe we should make some fancy rubber bracelets for people to wear. “Subtlety Awareness.” We could make them bright colors, like yellow or orange or pink, if for no other reason than irony’s sake.

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.”

I bring this up because it’s one of two areas where I see subtlety massacred in popular fiction. In our attempts to make the reader feel, we go into far too much detail and slip straight into melodrama. More often than not, we do this when we want to show our characters’ sorrow or loneliness. I love you all, but I REALLY don’t need seven pages of someone crying “rivers of tears” (melodrama in a cliché to boot!).

Raymond Carver (with the help of his editor Gordon Lish) seemed to really grasp that. In his super short story, Popular Mechanics and his longer but still as chilling Tell the Women We’re Going, Carver exercises an incredible control of his prose. Both stories chill me like no horror story I’ve ever read, and neither features a monster or a ghost or an axe murderer. Both are in his collection of shorts entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Without ruining it for you, I’ll simply say that they’re stories that stick with you, for better or worse.

Why are they so powerful? Because they are subtle. They don’t use what I like to call “Crowbar Prose.” You may know what I’m talking about here—the “in case you didn’t see it the first time, I’ll repeat it.” How many times have you read something like this: “It was almost enough to make him love her. Almost.”

Here’s where I get irritated as a reader. It’s as if the author is saying, “I’m sorry you’re not attentive enough to have seen the word in the previous sentence, so I’ll have it stand alone.” As a writer, please understand your reader is far smarter than you may originally anticipate.

I had an old professor who taught me this. He must have written “trust the reader” about a dozen times on each page of the first few pages I sent him to critique. I’m slightly embarrassed to realize what an offender of this principle I was when I began, mainly because it annoyed me so. His keen eye helped me find the moments I overwrote. Remember that less is more in your prose. Fewer words, the right words, are always better than hundreds of poorly thought-out adjectives and adverbs. Give me the right nouns and verbs. Be specific, and be cold.

14 Comments on Whatever Happened to Subtlety?

  1. Great lesson for all of us. Every single one. 🙂

  2. Great article! I know I overwrite. Overwrite often that is. I mean I repeat too much. Understand? 🙂 Thanks for all your great articles…

  3. Interesting to note that I had a conversation with a good friend who talked about a “sex” scene that elevated the blood pressure. He wondered if he should repent then realized the author had written nothing prurient in nature. The scene hinged on the subtlety of fingers touching.

    Well written, Aaron, and good advice.

  4. When writing, sometimes it is hard not to wright something like, “a river of tears”. How would you set your mind frame into wighing someing that will stick to someone? Because I often fell like I tend to lose the readers attenchion. When i read I do get irretated when the witer loses my attenchion, or just starts to ramble on.

  5. This is some great advice. Repetitive prose irritates the reader, sometimes even to the point that they literally feel like the writer is insulting his or her intelligence, and put the book down. That’s not good.
    It’s one thing to repeat certain details in the right places, for example if a detective finds a code to a safe but doesn’t actually find said safe until 300 pages later, it might be a good idea to remind the reader what the code was.
    It’s entirely different from having a story about, for instance a girl who watches her best friend get into a serious accident and more or less shoving each and every melodramatic little detail in the reader’s face.
    “The woman had been holding her lover’s hand for an hour before she realized that he was no longer breathing” is much more powerful than ten pages of some lady crying her eyes out over some dude’s deathbed.
    In short, be cold, heartless, and don’t insult your reader.

  6. This is exactly like a show I was watching, although it isn’t much to the point where it annoys you, it’s that is keeps showing the same flash back of the characters memory over and over, because she never really got over the event and because she is so entwined over it, it almost as if everything in her life she reflects off of was that flash back. It shows it almost all the way through the first season, and less in the second season. But it is still, one of those things where you just want to slap the main character and go “GET OVER IT, IT WAS LIKE FOUR YEARS AGO MOVE ON, YES A VAMPIRE TRIED TO EAT YOU”

  7. I agree Gansky, I don’t like when the author repeats themselves because its just like “okay, I read it the first time”

  8. Amber (Squirrel) Hynes | August 31, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Reply

    i totally agree with the enitre concept, and i do tend to repeat myself. i think the idea of being cold is good advice as well, and i’ve seen examples of being cold in books. it keeps me hooked 🙂

  9. It’s true that I would say things like “rivers of tears” or repeat myself. I catch that sometimes when I reread my stories but I try to change it into something else that sounds more unique and not so common.
    This post is really helpful! 🙂

  10. This is so true. Sometimes when you are reading if they keep on repeating something, it tends to get a little bit irritating.

  11. Good post. Yikes, I think some of my writing resembles the overkill. Good choice of tools to work on. And as a reader, I love it when I spot a subtle clue the writer strategically places for the smart ones to pick up on.

    This is one of the reasons I like to write – always something to work on.

  12. Jonathan Calzada | September 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Reply

    I like the idea of “being cold”. It lets people know that even though you have a lovable, positive role model as a character, he can still be broken down to a normal, weak person that will die in the end. Just my thoughts, I like it that way more than any.

  13. I appreciate that they remind the reader of what happened, BUT ONLY ONCE AFTER IT HAPPENED. Or else it’s like watching commercial when your favorite show just got to the good part. I got irritated with one of my favorite series, the house of night series, because they repeated themselves so many times. But it was almost unique the way they chose to remind readers, they did it through mentioning it to other characters about the “news” and giving only the brief reminder. I’m good with that, but ‘sides that I drop the book. Well played though Gansky, I mean aint that the truth.

  14. This makes sense to me. If you do want to be a responsible and successful writer then you should critique other writers’ work in your mind. Whether it was great or terrible, you should store that opinion and knowledge in your mind AFTER you tell yourself why its great or terrible.

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