Friday, June 25, 2010

Subtlety vs the Sledge Hammer

Part of the joy of reading is the journey of discovery. We like to think ahead and wonder what might happen next. We like to make our own minds up about characters, to learn about them as we would a new friend. It’s how we get involved and why we become so engaged.

To give this freedom to the reader, a writer must employ subtlety. Rather than revealing all the secrets at once, it’s more effective to leave hints and clues, and foreshadow what is to come.

Jaws was such a successful movie because we weren’t sledge-hammered by the shark. We didn’t even see the shark for the majority of the film. Our imaginations worked overtime.

The use of subtlety is important even if your novel isn’t a mystery or a thriller.

Subtlety requires a certain level of trust in your readers. They have long memories so you can trust they will remember the hints you leave lying around in your plot. It might even encourage them to read your novel more than once because they’ll want to go back and pick up on the clues again.

Subtlety also requires a certain level of trust in yourself as a writer. With that confidence you’ll be able to allow your words to ring true without the use of a sledge hammer. You’ll be more willing to show rather than to tell.

Do you agree that subtlety is a clever tool to keep your readers interested? Do you struggle with the confidence to keep your writing subtle?


  1. Subtlety is certainly a powerful technique in fiction writing. As a reader, I find that it's the self-realized impressions that stay with me the longest after I finish reading a story or novel. As a writer, I want to give my readers that same sense of long-lasting self-realization. You don't do that through blunt "telling." You do that through subtle and consistent hints.

  2. Yes, exactly. Self-realisation for the reader is the goal :)

  3. Subtlety is important. Clues would be telling if they weren't subtle. Hints would be screaming if they weren't subtle. And if your readers guess the end or the twist before you get to it, you'll lose them.

    Great post.

  4. Whenever I read screaming hints I just cringe and it taints the whole journey.

  5. Can there be richness in subtlety? If there is, then
    Angela Hunt's The Note delivers this beautifully. 'I never saw it coming' is the best cliche I can use to say what happened to me as a reader when I put the book down and only then, recognized all the hints for what they were. Yes, they were subtle, but heavy with reference and woven in like a true master storyteller. Sigh... :)

  6. I love a book that can do that :)


I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.