Subtlety in Writing

Today, a friend told me that my writing style comes across as subtle and restrained.

Once I stopped laughing, I started thinking about it. I always feel like I’m hitting emotional beats and foreshadowing with a hammer- following advice from- I think- Dave Freer: if you want the reader to really ‘get’ something, you have to mention it three times, in different ways. This makes sense to me, because when I’m really into a story, I sometimes read so fast that I might miss a single moment of subtle foreshadowing. That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to do it in my own work. Or rather, it feels weird when I reread my own stuff and see the same thing crop up a few times.

But as the author, you know your world better than anyone else. You know what’s in the characters’ heads, and all the background that doesn’t make it onto the page. So mentioning something more than once can feel ridiculous- ‘why don’t the readers already know this? I know it; I’ve known it for ever; why don’t they?’

Take pity on your poor readers. It’s their first introduction to the world you’ve explored for weeks or months or years of writing. And they can’t see inside your head. You have to show and tell them what’s going on.

This is advice I follow only with difficulty. As my DH will tell you, getting thoughts out of my head and into a form that other people can understand is not my strong point. Growing up, I was immersed in a culture that values emotional restraint and understatement. Hitting people over the head with a hammer- no matter how metaphorical- feels weird to me.

I’m working on it. My latest project is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever written- time travel romance- so I want to get the ‘craft’ bits correct- things like continuity and putting in emotional beats. That way, I have more attention left over for the actual story. We’ll see. I’m going to see if I can make some progress on it today, so I’ll leave you alone for now. Ta for now!

4 comments

  1. Yes. It’s wildly irritating when I read a passage and I don’t understand why the characters did such and such. It comes out of the blue and I’m supposed to magically know.

    I never know.

  2. On the other hand, Blake, I get irritated when a writer keeps foreshadowing the same thing over and over. You may have to choose between the readers who are paying attention and those who are semi-skimming.

  3. I had to learn from Sarah & Dave the putting things in 3 times, because readers kept missing things I’d put in there. I don’t think I have it quite right, because I’m still getting reviews saying “don’t skim or you’ll miss things”…

    But on the other hand, some people really like that they have to pay attention, and leave reviews saying it’s like a mystery, where they have to pay attention and put the clues together. So they think that’s a benefit. I suppose if I ever get it perfectly right for the average reader, I’ll disappoint the current ones.

    Some of it, too, I’m learning isn’t just “I have the world in my head and know what’s going on”, it’s “I know enough about this culture / scientific data / economics / history that I can make connections and draw inferences that not everyone else can.”

    For example, when friends were discussing someone else’s book, in which the protagonist fails every single simulation in their academic setting, I said, “The hazing comes through loud and clear.”
    “What hazing?”
    “If you have a failure rate greater than 70%, that’s not training, that’s hazing. No matter the personality of the student or the context, if the student does not win at least 30% of the time, they will lose all motivation to try, and stop paying attention or learning. Continuing any exercises without seeing what the root cause is, at that point, is counterproductive, burns the student out, and is emotional abuse. In fact, depending on the students, you usually don’t want to get below 50/50 win/loss, because of the drop in motivations and retention below 50%…. Doesn’t everyone know this?”

    Apparently, not everyone knows this. Apparently, you have to point this out to most readers. Oops?

    That’s where I really don’t know how much I have to tell people what they don’t know. I mean, if I’m explaining trophic levels in aquaculture and therefore why this section of the colony world has to work up to ahi (tuna) stocks, I know that most people may not be aware tuna are carnivorous and require a plentiful supply of feeder fish, but… what do you mean, I have to explain the idea of a food chain? Or bad fishing policy like the EU is currently inflicting on the oceans?

Comments are closed.