Sublety

Jan. 4th, 2005 07:32 am
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The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.



Subtlety

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

But popular fiction is often based on extremely unsubtle effects. Heroes and villains are drawn in sharp extremes. Relationships between characters are reiterated. Characters are created by repeating a certain cluster of adjectives. Thus we are told that a character is tempestuous and passionate, passionate and tempestuous, wild and passionate, wild and tempestuous, and that character rarely appears in the books without a reference to those traits. The reader, through sheer repetition, accepts the character as tempestuous. In fact, in best-selling popular fiction, repetition is no flaw. The reader is continually reminded who the heroine (or hero) is secretly in love with and what reservations the beloved has about fulfilling the lover's tempestuous desire.

The premium on subtlety can be a trap for writers, who -- in order to avoid being obvious or repetitive -- become fearful and anemic, as if they were most concerned with their image as fine and subtle people than in telling a story. Instead of finding appropriate ways to imply as much as possible, such writers wind up hardly having implied anything. These writers worry too much about telling rather than showing, and don't let their characters reveal enough.

That notion of subtlety is a mistake. Subtlety means being as richly informative as possible within the fabric of the narrative. Writers like John Cheever and Anne Tyler bury important thematic statements in the middle of paragraphs, give important insights to minor characters, and embed wisdom in jokes or seemingly pointless anecdotes. Subtlety lies in the adroitness with which you embed perceptions in the text.

See Character, Endings, Irony, Narrative.

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