Whatever Happened to Subtlety?
When 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.