Subtle vs Obscure

frosted window

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.

Franzen’s 10 Rules: You What, Mate?

Jonathan Franzen has suggested 10 rules for novelists. Some of his points are quite interesting, some are more questionable, and some seem to be from fortune cookies. Let’s take a look!

1) The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

OK. This sounds like a good perspective, letting readers have their reactions to the text without swooping in with NO WHAT I MEANT WAS or IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU’RE TOO DUMB TO GET IT. It’s a bit vague though.

2) Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

Well, getting outside comfort zones and exploring topics and styles is a good thing to do. But can we not reinforce the whole ‘starving artist’ thing? Poverty for the sake of art isn’t romantic. Unfortunately, people need cash.

3) Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

Haha, no.

‘Then’ does have a subtly different meaning from ‘and’. ‘The character did this, then did that’ is actually distinct from ‘The character did this, and did that.’ The former places more emphasis on only one thing happening at a time, each being fully finished before starting the next; while with the latter the character could be multitasking.

I take the point that conjunctions can be misused to paper over awkwardness, perceived or real. The solution isn’t to ban certain conjunctions.

4) Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

The nugget of insight here is that a first-person narrative needs a strong voice to bring the character to life. However, POV can’t be reduced to a sentence.

Here’s a whole post I wrote on it. Here’s one by Michael James, K.M. Allan , Marcha,  M.L. Davis, and Meg Dowell.

5) When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

When I’m reading something that obviously had good research behind it, I don’t appreciate it less because the author used google. It would be impressive if they got their research by sneaking into the hidden catacombs under the Vatican, fighting off corrupt cardinals perverting the power of a fragment of the True Cross and the undead Templar knights raised using it… but it doesn’t make the actual book any better than if they got the same information online or in a library.

6) The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Some element of the writer is bound to come up in what they write, but this seems taken a bit far for the sake of a hot take. Probably some of Kafka’s thoughts and life experience are in there, but Anne Frank’s diary or Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is likely more autobiographical than a story about a dude turning into a giant beetle.

It is a cool story – you can read it here.

7) You see more sitting still than chasing after.

confused face meme

8) It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

The internet can be procrastination, yes, but… luddite much? Also, ‘his workplace’. Huh. Either that second X chromosome has the useful ‘no, get off twitter you’re meant to be writing’ gene, or women don’t write, or something.

9) Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I agree. Verbs pulled from a thesaurus can be a lazy way to try to give an event more pizzaz without actually presenting it differently. The important word here is ‘seldom’ – thinking back to Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions. So long as we don’t go mad here, this is solid advice.

10) You have to love before you can be relentless.


Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions

There’s a lot of very rigid writing advice out there: never do this, always do that. And there’s a lot of receivers of advice who take points too literally, like those who listen to criticism of purple prose and think they’re being told that description is bad, full-stop. And there’s a lot of people who ask questions starting, ‘Am I allowed to?’ or ‘Is it okay if?’ as though they’re glancing around a dark alley for cops ready to pounce on writers who do the wrong thing.

Unnecessary adverb! Ten years in writing gulag, bucko!

Whenever you read advice, mentally insert a ‘this is what works for them/that context/that genre/often but not universally’ disclaimer.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

It wasn’t until later, when I read Stephen King’s On Writing, that I really realised plotters vs. pantsers or Gardeners vs. Architects was a thing. I adjusted my approach, and it worked.

But this doesn’t mean that plotters are wrong! And I don’t agree with everything said in On Writing either, not because I know better than Stephen King, but simply because I am not him. He may find that ‘2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%’, and you may too, but I don’t, and that’s fine.

There are no ironclad rules – only general principles, guidelines, and suggestions. You’re allowed to try anything. Understanding why things are generally done a certain way will make the times you choose to ignore or subvert them more likely to be successful, but what you do with your own laptop, pen, charcoal stick, or quill dipped in centaur blood is entirely up to you.

You’re allowed to tell things rather than show them, use exposition, use dialogue attributions other than ‘said’, take days off, use adverbs and prologues, include dream sequences, describe narrators when they look in the mirror, and anything else you can think of. Just use your judgment.

But wait, I thought that show-don’t-tell-

The reason these rules exist isn’t because they’re universal constants. It’s because they’re often helpful, and because they counteract some common bad habits.

Show-don’t-tell is a very useful guideline, as are the ones about not being too expository, not making every dialogue attribution a different crazy verb to inject fake drama where well-written dialogue with an unobtrusive ‘said’ works better, and the one about adverbs not being used where a more specific verb or subtext could be used instead.

But there is also a place for anything anyone will tell you to avoid. That place is where the venn diagrams ‘I wanna do this’ and ‘that worked’ overlap. If a trope or technique is cringy 99% of the time, that means it sometimes isn’t.

If you try it and it doesn’t work, you will not be arrested.