Is subtlety a good thing for writers to insert into their stories?
Subtlety is a tightrope, sometimes a tightrope in a windstorm. When you write subtlety into your story and ask someone to be a beta reader, if that person is another writer, probably they will get your subtlety. If you ask someone who just likes to read, probably they won’t. The issue with having a writer read your story or novel is that they have spent hours, days, and often years evaluating stories for just such subtlety. If you ask a friend or colleague who is not a writer, they don’t have that experience. These folks may not have the writer’s vocabulary to tell you what does and doesn’t work, but if you listen to them carefully, you can glean what problems your writing may or may not have, including too much subtlety.
To write with subtlety is, as I mentioned above, a tightrope. A story with not so much subtlety could give your story popularity with a wide audience, however a story with a great deal of subtlety can be extremely powerful, but not everyone will get it.
It is at this point that you, the writer, must make a decision in regards to power versus popularity. Something to keep in mind here is this: if you tip too far into the Subtle Sea, and you get reader feedback that they didn’t understand your story, it is not the fault of the reader. This is the writer’s story and so any decisions we make as writers fall strictly in our laps. If our readers do not understand, it is our error, not theirs. So be strategic. Think about what you really want. Do you want everyone to love your book? Then less subtlety. Do you want a very powerful story to knock the socks off some of your readers? Then more is better.
Has subtlety always been part of storytelling?
Intuitively we may want to answer ‘Yes, of course!’ but we would be wrong. In fact, it was not until the last century that adding subtlety became fashionable. In the 19th century, almost all of writers wrote in third person omniscient making subtlety unnecessary. The omniscient POV allows the reader to look into the minds of ALL the characters. Think Jane Austen or the Bröntes. At the very end of the 19th century, Henry James began releasing stories written in the 3rd-person limited POV. In doing this, the readers no longer had the ability to see completely into the minds of all the characters. Even the protagonist can be unreliable for the reader. The reader can only truly be aware of what the protagonist is aware of. This is where subtlety can be important to the understanding of the theme, or even the basic plotline. Certainly, the growing popularity of the theories of Sigmund Freud had an impact on this change. People were slowly coming to realize that people don’t always know why they do what they do. In this case, subtlety becomes important. Your characters may never figure out their own motivations but as long as your readers can, then you are fine.
What can subtlety add to your writing?
As I said above, subtlety can make your story much more powerful. A very short story that has been incorrectly attributed to Hemingway is this:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
This is the height of subtlety. We do not know what the story is until the final two words—the death of a baby before she began to walk—and even then, a reader not used to subtlety might miss the meaning.
“The Chrysanthemum” by Steinbeck is a story rich with subtlety. This multi-layered story hints at the relationship between the protagonist and her husband as well as the protagonist’s inner workings. You have to read very carefully between the lines, but if you can get the subtlety, it is a very powerful story.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber shows us a protagonist who is, to the reader, clearly ridiculous, but Walter Mitty is oblivious. Actually, oblivious is not quite the right word. He is vaguely aware of his ridiculousness, but he chooses to ignore it. So, instead of ‘oblivious’, it seems that ‘in denial’ would be a better choice. The subtlety comes in the intersection between Mitty’s real world and his imaginary world.
“The Story of an Hour” AKA “The Dream of an Hour” by Kate Chopin is only three pages long, making it as short as some flash fiction. This story is ambiguous and because of that, intriguing. In three short pages, she hints at an analysis of death, marriage, and personal needs and desires. It is an hour in the life of a woman who has just been told that her husband is apparently dead. Because the story is so short, Chopin could only hint at these themes, but in doing so gives us a powerful story.
Another author who wrote with subtlety was Yukio Mishima. His collection of short stories under the title Death in Midsummer is masterful. He was able to write stories that are almost painfully subtle, however his readers are relieved of the burden of figuring out the underlying message because Mishima had complete control, not only over his entire story, but also over his last lines. These final lines are so strong, they feel like the proverbial punch in the gut. I found myself frowning when I first read his stories. I struggled to understand, and then–BOOM–the last line knocks you flat. In doing this he has the best of both worlds—the subtle and the obvious—making his stories truly powerful. The description on Amazon for Death in Midsummer sums up everything nicely:
Nine of Yukio Mishima’s finest stories were selected by Mishima himself for translation in this book; they represent his extraordinary ability to depict a wide variety of human beings in moments of significance. Often his characters are sophisticated modern Japanese who turn out to be not so liberated from the past as they had thought.
I strongly recommend reading Mishima’s short stories, or even his full-length novels.
I will wrap this up by saying, yes, be subtle, but not about anything that is critical to the understanding of your story. Another writer might figure out the intricacies but a nonwriter might just miss that which is critical. So jump on that tightrope and enjoy your balancing act as you swing to that perfect balance between powerful writing and popularity.