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The art of subtle fiction

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Subtlety is an abstract art form. It takes intuition and trust to know what not to say in your writing. You have to trust that your intended audience will be able to pull together the details with which you've provided them to gain a larger understanding of your story. This, like many aspects of writing, feeds right back in to the number one rule, "Show. Don't tell."

As a reader and an editor, I have been seeing this subtler aspect of the rule lying in metaphorical ditches across the genres. But forgoing the art of subtlety prevents readers from discovering the story for themselves. I recently started Cassandra Clare's young adult book, City of Bones. It only took me a minute to figure out why I was struggling to make it through the first several chapters and that was because she failed to edit for subtlety. For example, one of the main characters felt it was necessary to define the word “demon” to a demon that he was about to kill. Doesn’t that sound a bit unnecessary? It was entirely. Clare used this as a tool to reveal the fae world to another main character and to explain her take on the fae world's lexicology to the reader.

Unfortunately, Clare failed to realize that she had already succeeded in defining this lexicology through the characters' actions, reducing her efforts to redundancy. Still, her Mortal Instruments series is popular. Though she could stand to edit out the telling, she did add quite a bit of showing to the mix, too, which probably saved her series. However, by relying so heavily on both showing and telling points that could have described in a subtler light, I doubt it will gain the general acclaim of, say, the Harry Potter series.

I don’t actually hate the authors for failing to edit for subtlety though. I feel bad for them. I know what it is like to write a story. You get so close that you blind yourself to Captain Obvious' appearances. But, it is something to look out for during the editing phase. Many mystery novels may be criticized for being too formulaic, but at least they keep the author guessing.

I'm not going to write a long list of tips this time, because I have only two:

  • During the drafting phase, be as obvious as you can. This will help you remember various aspects of your characters, the scene, or the overall plot that are integral to your story.
  • But, when you return to your draft during the editing phase, look specifically for these sections and see how you can either build on the characters' actions or the atmosphere to show rather than tell the parts that need to be more subtle.
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