Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Subtlety

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 22•11

Subtlety

Jessica P. Morrell

“Serious writers, including comic writers, are interested in subtlety, in avoiding heavy-handed effects and obvious characterizations. They want to make reader pay close attention, and reader enjoy picking up on clues as subtle as a hesitation or a dropped glance.”    Jerome Stern

“If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is as with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” Robert Southey

           When it comes to writing, ‘less is more’ is a maxim that resonates with common sense.  I came to appreciate this wisdom during the years that I taught an on-line writing class where writers posted exercises that I’d assigned and asked questions about technique.  When several hundred writers complete the same assignment, you witness firsthand the variety of human creativity, but you also notice that similar bad habits befall writers.

           During that gig, the technique that I suggested most often, especially to beginning writers and often with a circuit preacher’s fervor, was that subtly is often the best approach.  Subtlety was needed on all levels: in diction, style, voice and grammar.  A lack of subtlety leads to bizarre or unbelievable characters, overblown dialogue, scenes that carry on instead of delivering dramatic events, and plots and subplots that take off like a runaway train.

        Excess and gimmickry stem from inexperience, but also because the writer doesn’t trust the reader.  Each reader brings his or her frame of reference, understanding of human behavior and how the world works to your pages.  If you leave out minor details or don’t stop to describe every sunrise or searing kiss, the reader can fill in the gaps with his imagination.  This does not suggest that the reader does your job for you.  Instead, he or she is an active participant in your story.  This is especially important for memoir writers because the overstated can sound like preachiness, ranting, and melodrama.

           Confusion enters the picture when we note the success of authors, particularly literary writers—Dickens, Melville, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and the like. Their stories are drowning in imagery, metaphor, symbolism.  They feature large casts; plots that wander and tangle and descriptions which go on for pages.  But these writers, while laudable, aren’t who we should emulate, mostly because we need to be firmly grounded in this century.  And today’s readers, assaulted by the sights and sounds of a multi-media world, can be trusted to fill in the blanks and often long for crispness, elegance and simplicity. So, your overall goal is sophistication because a lack of subtlety will result in prose that is graceless and dull.

            Writers make many lonely choices as they practice their craft.  In fact, writing is a tightrope walk of guiding the reader to an experience and yet somehow staying out of the way.  Your decisions about when to be bold and when to hold back stem from understanding when a story or piece needs to slow down, when it should whisper and when it needs to create blood-boiling intensity.  As you write, constantly ask yourself, what effect am I going for here?  

Consider these tips on subtlety when you struggle with what to leave in and what to leave out:

Readers will remember a single, poignant image rather than a complicated description.

 Don’t explain unless necessary for a deep understanding of some major element.  Most writing attempts to distill human experience, not create a recipe for it.

 Practice writing poetry.  The brief descriptions and images in poems, often stunningly understated, teach us to capture moments, people and places in only a few words.

 Scrutinize your final draft for overused words and redundancy.  

 Strive to use unexpected words and phrases, but sparingly.  The best writing doesn’t show off or call attention to itself.  Jargon, as well as unusual, invented, archaic, or onomatopoetic words are also inserted with care.

 Avoid adverbs, especially those that end in –ly.

 When writing in first person, don’t call attention to yourself as in, “I always say” or “yours truly.”

 In fiction create dialogue that is an abbreviated copy of real talk. In nonfiction use only quotes that matter.  For the memoir writer, remember that few people go through life with a tape recorder in hand, thus dialogue will not be the main means of telling your story.  Instead, use choice, revealing snippets. As in fiction, often the best dialogue contains conflict.

 In fiction and memoir, themes don’t need to be spelled out, but rather suggested.

Place emphatic words at the end of sentences and paragraphs.

Let experts, facts and statistics convince your reader rather than your opinion.

 Don’t overuse the dash and avoid exclamation marks and parenthesis.

 While book length fiction is a series of surprises, use surprise or a shift in direction or emotion in short stories, essays, poetry and articles. It’s especially effective midway or near the end.  Yet surprise must especially be wielded with a fine brush.  A switcheroo should not seem forced, in fact, while it momentarily jolts the reader, it doesn’t send him reeling in confusion.  And as the piece ends, the change in direction will seem intricately linked to the whole.

 Don’t force feed information to your readers. Describe or show people in action. Don’t explain why they do what they do or how they are feeling.

 Big truths are found in the smallest moments.  Search them out and use them as kind of shorthand.

 Getting the voice right is no easy matter, but in general, voice works best when you opt for subtlety.  A formal voice, as is sometimes found in literary fiction or reports, distances the reader.  Whenever practical, choose a simple voice, one that sounds like you, your character, or narrator speaking at the kitchen table.  This voice has naturalness, uses contractions and common speech. It fills the story with the breath of life.

 While all writing requires music, simplify the tune. For example, repetition is a terrific technique used to underline and emphasize. But when used too often, the reader wearies of it.

 “Be suspicious of an inclination to get tricky and jazzy with style; be especially suspicious when exotic grammar is used.” William Noble

 Life is often lived between the lines. Find ways to insert subtext—the unspoken, innuendo, the nuanced moments that are not directly represented.

 Attributions should be invisible, such as he said, replied or asked.  Avoid describing how someone is talking as in hissing, crooning, or gasping.

 Reveal nonverbal communication clues from time to time.

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3 Comments

  1. Olivia says:

    Hi Jessica.
    As usual, your writing inspires me. I love how your writing seems to flow seamlessly. Mine feels clunky and amateurish.
    I make some of these mistakes often in my writing, but now I can correct them.
    Thanks Olivia 🙂

  2. This post is very useful for me, much appreciated! 🙂