A Surprising Truth—Subtlety Makes Fiction Stronger

I recently critiqued an excellent short story for a fellow Critter, a soft sci-fi piece with some hard sci-fi elements, which takes place on a distant world and has a … unique twist. From the moment I started reading it, I was hooked. The author doled out hints and clues about this world in tantalizing nibbles so that if I wanted to know what the heck was going on, I had to keep reading. (Not that I’m complaining. I loved every minute.) In my critique, I lauded her use of subtlety in this short story, to which she replied that others had described her work as “too subtle.” They wanted to be told up front what was going on and how it was going to differ from other stories.

I’ve heard the same thing from critiques of some of my own works. Even in pieces with an end twist that was part of the story’s entire point, I’ve gotten comments that a reader wished they’d known that little surprise detail up front.

Seriously…where is the mystery in a story where every little thing is defined? Who wants to read a fictional tale where everything is known from the outset?

Okay, let me step back. Readers of fiction span the spectrum of likes and dislikes, so I suppose there are probably readers who do want little mystery. Who do want everything explained. Who don’t want to have to figure out for themselves what is happening.

I am not one of them. I like the challenge of trying to put the clues and hints together for myself. I’m not talking about narrative that confuses when it isn’t intended to. That is a problem. But for me, a book that spells out every point in excruciating detail is B O R I N G and most likely to end up in my “did not finish” category.

For me, there are a number of reasons why subtlety makes for a better story. I’ll share four.

1. I love a good puzzle or game that makes me think. Same with fiction. I like to find clues in a narrative and piece them together myself, bit by bit. Even when every new clue disproves my prior theories. No, especially when new clues twist the enigma and make me reconsider everything I thought I knew. Not just in mysteries or thrillers—other genres can also have an element of surprise for the reader. The challenge of figuring it out on my own devours me, stretches my brain, keeps me turning pages. A story that explains itself assumes I am not capable of connecting the dots for myself. Please do not insult my intelligence. Thanks.

2. I prefer the “less is more” approach. I want to imagine at least part of the setting, aspects of the character, for myself. Give me the overview – sights, smells, sounds, atmosphere—but just enough that I can deduce the rest as the action unfolds. I’ll grant that some types of stories require more description. Second world fantasies, where the world itself, as well as its culture, are entirely fictional may require more description to properly ground the reader in this new place. Or perhaps there is a specific characteristic or detail that is essential to the plot, one which the reader must comprehend if they are to grasp the basic foundation of the story. Fine. Do what’s necessary to establish requirements. Once that’s done, however, step back and give the reader room to picture the rest on her own.

3. I like to make my own way into a story. To experience it at my own pace. To find and follow the breadcrumbs that lead me from beginning to end in a natural progression, even when they seem to be out of order and make no sense. For me, obvious directional signs left in the narrative because the writer doesn’t think I as a reader will understand where the story is taking me are like B-movies where actors overexaggerate facial expressions and stage or post-production crew leave clearly inappropriate elements in the scenes – an airplane in the background sky of a medieval fantasy. As components of story, such blatant pointers don’t help, and they can certainly detract from the flow.

4. Remember that old saying from school? “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.” The same applies in fiction. I don’t want to be told how a character is feeling. I want to at least see it on the page. Better yet, I want to feel it with them. I want to be so engrossed in the story that the world around me disappears. Showing and drawing in the reader requires a higher word count than a simple telling, but it is so much more effective. Telling is the sledgehammer. Involving requires subtle turns of phrase, exacting word choices, nuanced meaning.

In a novel or story where I am given too much explanation, I tend to skim over large segments that seem to rehash what I’ve already been told, or that seem filled with irrelevant backstory. Works like this are, for me, like a room full of shouting people. After a while, you stop hearing the noise.

On the other hand, in a story where clues are delicately laced throughout, where every word is perfectly matched to its intent and each is necessary to the story, I don’t skip a single one. Books like these are akin to a whisper, one that focuses your entire attention on its point. You lean toward it, not away. For me, this sort of subtlety in fiction tends to grab—and hold—my interest longer.

But I am only one type of reader. Your mileage may vary.

What about you? What role do you think subtlety should have in our writing or in fiction overall? In your opinion, which books and stories apply it well, and which do not? Do you feel subtlety is overrated in fiction? Why or why not?

Talk back!

See you next week…

Sledgehammer Egg photo courtesy of pexels
PuzzleHead photo courtesy of pixabay

2 Replies to “A Surprising Truth—Subtlety Makes Fiction Stronger”

  1. Your final point reminds me of a story we read in “Fast and Furious” back in July. I don’t have it in front of me, but it was the story of the woman dealing with her abusive uncle. Part way through the woman delivers a line of near sympathy about his death, and it was so subtly phrased that half the class missed this was her admission of killing him.
    It was a remarkable moment to see her finally grow out of a perpetually defensive posture with the uncle and take control of their destiny.
    Subtlety made her turn all the more savory.

    1. John, it did indeed. Whereas if she’d just told us outright that she’d killed the abusive uncle, we wouldn’t have felt that. Good point.

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