December 14, 2015

Talking Shop: The Power of Subtlety

In the past we’ve talked about Showing versus Telling, and Overdoing Your Characters. Today we’ll put together some of the points discussed on these subjects, and work on developing our powers of subtlety.

Nobody likes to be hit over the head with something, and readers are no exception. Have you ever found yourself reading a story and rolling your eyes at some overbearing message or detail the author wants to get across? Let’s examine one of the most common offenders: the Mary Sue.
If you’re not familiar with The Mary Sue, here’s a quick rundown. A Mary Sue is a character overdone in their glorious perfection to the point of being nauseating. They are the best at everything they do; they rarely struggle at anything; they’re admired, worshiped, or inspire jealousy in anyone they come across; and they’re often completely unaware of their own near-perfection, resulting in lots of undeserved self-doubt and utter disbelief that anyone thinks them great.
Bella Swan is a terrific example of a Mary Sue.
·                   She’s exceptional: the only person in the world whose mind Edward Cullen can’t read. Why is this? No one knows. In fact, there is no reason. She just is (because it’s plot-convenient).
·                   She’s irresistible. Why? Again, no reason. She’s described as plain, introverted, and makes little attempt to reach out to anyone. Edward says she is like heroin to him. That’s a really strong comparison. And again, why? Because she’s Bella. On a related note,
·                   Everyone instantly likes her. Boys fall over themselves to try and get her attention. Girls adopt her as their bestie almost immediately. She never puts effort into interacting and making friends; they all flock to her.
·                   Despite all these facts, she remains unable to believe she could be special or that anyone could find her interesting.
The key detail here is none of these qualities have any foundation. There are reasons for things to happen in stories, and that goes for characters as much as anything else. Another defining quality of a Mary Sue, by the way, is that all of these details are told to the reader, and they’re rarely shown through action.
Going back to the “why”: there’s never any explanation for Bella’s mysterious ability to keep her thoughts from Edward. The books say she’s just special.
This is telling at its laziest. There’s always a reason things are the way they are, and in my opinion, the journey to understand those reasons is one of the best parts of character development and story. Characters with such unique qualities present a mystery. Good mysteries come with satisfying and meaningful conclusions. Personally, as a reader, I find the best authors are the ones who can lay down clues along the way to a clever reveal, tying up the loose ends of why something is as it is.
Next “why”: despite the absolute lack of any investment or attempt on Bella’s part to interact with or make connections with her peers, everyone flocks to her and instantly like her. Without details in the development of these friendships and the complexity of human interaction, we are simply told Bella is likable and winning. Nothing is shown to us, and nothing is really set on a solid foundation.
As I mentioned last week, just because an author tells me something doesn’t make it true. What the author shows is what I’m going to believe. In the case of Bella, the author tells us, through other characters, that Bella is likable and attractive, potentially charismatic since she draws people so much. But what are we shown? What do Bella’s actions exhibit? Her words and body language are often cold; her thoughts towards others are often disparaging and superior. She hardly ever initiates interaction, and when she does it’s often because she wants to avoid some form of criticism. When you sit down and look at these aspects of Bella’s character, you see that they aren’t the actions of someone likable and winning. She does nothing to deserve the reactions she inspires.
I point these things out to highlight the lack of subtlety common in the Mary Sue trope, and the laziness of storytelling which lacks foundation. This is why authors are encouraged to show, not tell: it requires more complexity and structure to communicate details this way, and when readers form their understanding of the character or concept, it’s a stronger, more believable result.
Another reason subtlety is important is because it gives your story layers. One author who is extremely talented at this is JK Rowling.
I’ll admit, in the beginning I rejected the Harry Potter series out of hand, certain it was overhyped and would turn out to be lazy, childish writing. The very first book destroyed my expectations, and I was won over almost immediately. But why? It wasn’t the enchanting story (though yes, I find Harry Potter incredibly enchanting). It was the talent with which JK Rowling employed subtlety and anticipated reader response, in order to build a more thrilling climax and conclusion.
In my initial expectation that Harry Potter was a child’s book and would therefore lack subtlety and complexity, as I read Philosopher’s Stone I confidently concluded that of course Snape was the villain. Rowling blew my mind when it turned out to be someone else entirely...and not just because it wasn’t as I expected. Because when you go back through Philosopher’s Stone, you realize Rowling didn’t just pull a bait-and-switch. She lays out details even in the very earliest chapters pointing to where the real villain hides, and when the time comes for the big reveal, you realize it makes perfect sense. Details you may have overlooked, because they were so subtle, come back to reveal themselves in a dramatic rush. Not a bait-and-switch, but clever misdirection.
 The reason this is so effective is because it draws the reader deeper in. Rowling strikes an excellent balance of clever elusiveness without ever telling us an outright lie. She could have made her clues a touch more obvious, or even a lot more obvious: she might have drawn greater attention to Professor Quirrel in all the moments he acted most suspicious. But would this have had as much impact in the end? Rowling makes sure to hide the most important details in careful smokescreen, anticipating readers will overlook or find excuses for them in the context of their scenes. Might readers have caught out the twist ahead of time? Sure, some. But the majority of readers are likely to miss the subtlest clues, and be—as I was—blown away when the curtain is drawn back at last. That’s the power of subtlety.
The easier it is to “guess” at the ending, I think, the less satisfying it is. However, when the author works in intricacies and careful clues, not too easy to catch, but definitely there, the reader will be more engaged.
One of my favorite series is The Dresden Files, and Jim Butcher is another author who incorporates subtlety fairly well. He’s never blown me away quite as well as JK Rowling (I swear I never predicted just about any of her twists), and I can usually put together the clues behind the plot and guess at the conclusions. It’s never easy, though. I’m still kept guessing until the very end. I love this. This is the sort of thing that hooks readers and keeps them coming back for more.
So how do you incorporate subtlety? It takes mindfulness and a global awareness. Sometimes I finish a manuscript entirely before I go back and find places to work in my subtler details, so I know exactly where they’re meant to lead.
This is where showing instead of telling becomes very important. Remember, nothing you tell me is true unless you back it up. I would suggest aiming for a breakdown of only 20% “Tell”, 80% “Show”.  That may sound like a lot but remember that showing happens everywhere in your story. You simply have to learn to harness it and make it work to your advantage, and then incorporate it more.
So then, show me details. Work them in as naturally as you can; the way Rowling worked in Professor Quirrell’s strange behaviors in careful ways as to make them seem natural to the context at the time. Don’t bury them, but administer them with a light touch. Remember another gem of editor’s advice: “Less is More”.
Don’t try and hit your reader over the head with anything. We call this “the Clue Bat”. Reader’s aren’t stupid; in fact, they tend to be very creative minds and very perceptive. It’s especially true that you don’t want to come down overbearing on your deeper themes and messages. If you blatantly overstate something like prejudice or abuse in your stories, the importance of the message gets lost in the hyperbole. 
If your character is at odds with a parent, for example, readers can get impatient if every interaction between the character and their parent is about their conflict. Subtlety means weaving in the details of conflict among realistic circumstances. Don’t feel you have to remind your reader of the situation every time the opportunity comes up. Find places where the details are most important, and where it is natural for them to occur.
Ask yourself “Why?” often. Make conscious choices in your writing and do everything for a reason. This will lead to a stronger story, and a stronger talent, all around.
(Okay, so Dresden isn't always very subtle)

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