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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Art of Subtlety in Fiction

For those who don't know, I'm a supervisor. I have interns from our local university who subject willing place themselves to my tutelage as they seek to learn the art and craft of being a therapist. Every so often, I have to deliver news to these interns that they may or may not want to hear.

Usually these lessons are cut and, you can't tell anyone outside the facility about your session...yes, you made a mistake when you laughed out loud at that person in, you shouldn't give your cell phone out.

But not too long ago, I had to teach an intern about subtlety. When what you're wearing eclipses what you say, it's a problem. Clients shouldn't be focused on you, but on themselves. Subtlety has its place.

I got to thinking that writers can learn a lesson in subtlety, as well. Just like therapists, writers want to heal the world, touch hearts, reach people, make a difference. We have a message yet we're told not to be preachy, or beat a person over the head with our political, spiritual, or moral message.

So here's some advice, by way of a well-meaning intern, about subtlety.

1)  Don't Use "Crowbar Prose."

Best I can tell, Aaron Gansky penned this phrase. It's when the author thinks to himself, "In case you missed it the first time, I'll repeat it." Here's an example: "It was almost enough to make her knees go weak. Almost."

Yes, we do it for the dramatic effect, which, in and of itself, is the opposite of subtle. You're writing a novel, not poetry or angst-y songs. This approach also tends to relegate your reader to a mindless nincompoop. Trust them to have picked up the word in the first sentence!

2) Less IS More.

I know you've heard this before. Nothing new. We go overboard and get especially verbose when we're trying to describe tragedy or trauma. We'll devote a paragraph or two to the actual event and then pages to the character's response. Tears, wailing, gnashing of teeth, etc....ugh. I get more from a single tear or no tear at all than all that jazz.

Be selective. It's not high school English when flowery adverbs and adjectives showed everyone how smart you were. You're vocabulary isn't being graded. The thesaurus should be your best friend, to find stronger, more specific verbs and nouns to eradicate extra, useless, lifeless words.

3) Leave Something to Your Reader's Imagination.

There is something intoxicating about trying to construct a story. Having it spelled out for you, word for word, leaves nothing for the reader to engage with. This is definitely true for mysteries and thrillers, but also for other genres. When your heroine falls in love too fast in a romance, a little sparkle is lost from the book as a whole. When you give too much backstory up front, it's information overload and bogs the reader down.  

4) Your Message is the Spice of Your Fiction, not the Main Dish.

Let your message fuel your passion to sit down and hammer out word counts. Let visions and dreams of people reading your work of art and coming away changed give you a passion for traveling this journey to publication.

During the process of writing, the long hours and tediousness of it, I believe writers lose track of how often they mention their theme or they'll slip in another reference to it, just in case it's been "too long" since the last one. This little dash of salt over and over again can literally ruin the whole dish.

Let's Analyze:

What do you think about the art of subtlety in fiction? Are there any other suggestions you would add to my list?