Subtle vs Obscure

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Here’s the interesting essay On Subtlety by Meghan O’Gieblyn. (h/t The Singing Lights)

I wanted to write stories that were like the stories I loved: oblique in their approach, buttressed by themes that revealed themselves upon multiple readings. But in workshops, my classmates were vocal about the many problems lurking in my stories: the character’s motivation was not clear; the backstory should be addressed, not alluded to; the conclusion was too cryptic. For a while, I dismissed this as obtuseness. People wanted things spelled out. They weren’t reading closely. But there comes a point when a reproach is repeated so often it become impossible to dismiss. […]

I suppose I’ve been trying to suggest that subtlety is always a sign of mystery, and that our attitude toward the former is roughly commensurate to our tolerance for the latter. I have come to regard it as something of a dark art, a force of nature that can be summoned but never fully harnessed, and can backfire at the slightest misstep. Anyone can pick up a bullhorn and make her intent clear to all, but to attempt something subtle is to step blindfolded into the unknown.

A writing teacher in a class I attended responded to a workshop story by saying something like: ‘It’s interesting to be subtle about which character is right, the symbols, the themes. Let people discuss what they think it means. But you have to be clear about what happened.’

That stuck in my head as a decent rule of thumb (with standard proviso). Readers debating whether Bob or Alice or neither were right in what they did sounds like a better result for a writer than readers scratching their heads trying to figure out what they did.

A really subtle story to have a look at is Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. It gives you very little overt information to go on – and it seems to be an exception to the rule of thumb, because the reader is like someone listening in, trying to figure out what the characters are talking about. In this case ‘what is happening?’ is an intriguing mystery, rather than an obstacle to engaging with the story.

Subtlety can work really well. As I said before: ‘The big risk with trying to Say Something is that you bash the reader over the head with it. An overwrought attempt at theme can come across as the unholy pretentious spawn of a story and an essay.’ There can be a pleasure to uncovering the subtext.

The question is how to trust the reader enough without over-estimating how clear your intentions are in the text. If a few people don’t understand, maybe they missed something. If nobody understands, it’s silly to blame the audience.

3 thoughts on “Subtle vs Obscure

  1. ‘The big risk with trying to Say Something is that you bash the reader over the head with it. An overwrought attempt at theme can come across as the unholy pretentious spawn of a story and an essay.’- oh gosh yes to this!
    And really agree with your last point as well!

    Liked by 1 person

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