I am going to throw down my ink-stained gauntlet and proclaim that the ultimate skill a storyteller can cultivate is a command of subtlety.
*draws not-so-subtle line in the sand*
Subtlety improves every aspect of a story. And before you uncap your pens, sharpen your nibs, and challenge me to a death-dealing duel, her me out-
When working with plot…
Subtlety takes all the threads of a story and weaves them together into a coherent tapestry. If a story is too predictable or used as a thematic anvil to hammer an idea into the skulls of the audience, it will alienate readers.
Subtlety allows you to build excitement. It’s the carrot on the stick that keeps the reader engaged, ideally giving her just enough foreshadowing to figure out where the story is going a line or two before it gets there in the text.
Subtlety is the keystone of plot twists. Like a stage magician, a storyteller distracts the reader with one hand while magically crafting an unexpected (yet inevitable) ending in the other. A well-executed plot twist is, at least in my mind, the definitive characteristic of a memorable ending. (Think: Han saving Luke at the end of A New Hope. Frodo not to throwing the ring into Mount Doom. Sirius Black is actually Harry’s Godfather.)
When building characters…
A great artist can draw a believable person with a few lines; a bad artist can’t draw one with an entire pencil’s worth of graphite. The same idea applies to writers. Subtlety allows an author to describe a character without forcing his audience to read the description of a police portfolio sketch. Those sketches are ugly. A written description of them is even worse.
Subtlety creates and defines a character’s viewpoint and persona. A lack of subtlety will make a character feel two-dimensional, like he was constructed to fill a role and ham-handedly thrust into the story as a foil for other characters. (See “redshirt”)
The core of any story is the conflict of its characters and the changes that conflict evokes. Short of extreme trauma, characters (like people) are more believable if they change subtly over time. If a character changes too dramatically or lacks a believable stimulus, the reader’s empathy for the character will be deader than the expressions in a Botox clinic.
Subtlety with character development is crucial for writing believable characters, engaging the reader, and cultivating a sense of empathy between the two.
When constructing setting…
Subtlety allows for worldbuilding without miring readers in the boggy depths of info dumps. A command of subtle description allows you to immerse the reader and engage her senses without breaking the momentum of the story.
Brandon Sanderson suggests that the grand skill of writing epic fantasy is the ability to worldbuild without the reader knowing you’re worldbuilding, and I believe his success is largely a product of his ability to do just that (of course disciplined prolificacy helps too).
From a reader’s perspective…
Subtlety is participatory.
When used properly, subtlety engages the reader, spins the gears of a reader’s mind in a way that has the potential to provide insights into his or her own life.
Subtlety allows for endless iterations of a scene in the imaginations of the audience, which I think is the real magic of literature – the ability to construct an infinite variety of imagined people and places using a finite set of words and details.
So how do you achieve subtlety?
Unfortunately it’s frustrating as hell. Like developing your voice, the only way to cultivate a command of subtlety is through persistent practice. Like a little blonde girl looking for porridge in a bear cave, finding the right balance between too little and too much detail is a process of trial and error.
You can always go back and edit, removing areas with too much description and adding hints where vague lines need to be sharpened. An outside perspective from readers and writing groups can help with this fine tuning, but that requires pushing past the periods of self doubt and finishing what you begin.
Writing is when you make the words. Editing is when you make the words not shitty.
– Chuck Wendig
Recently I have discovered that my involvement with every element of the story is paramount to crafting subtlety into my writing. The more I know my settings, the more easily I can provide a few key details that position my characters somewhere concrete. The more I know my characters, the better I can write cohesive actions that fit their specific personas, which often leads to new discoveries or takes a scene in a completely different direction than I had intended (though almost always for the better). And the more I know my plot, the more easily I can foreshadow without being too blatant.
Basically, subtlety comes down to expertise and audience.
The more you know about something, the fewer words you need to explain or describe it, but you still need to provide enough detail for the reader without be patronizing. If you can find that sweet spot, your writing will possess an element of genius.
The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.
– Albert Einstein