Thursday, September 4, 2008

Subtlety in Fiction

The world may listen to shouters, but we are changed by those who whisper...

Author Mary DeMuth is columnist for Christian Fiction Online, a new magazine for novelists and is a friend of mine. A day or so ago, she blogged a great piece on subtlety in fiction and I wanted to share it with you.

Subtlety is not a common topic in writing workshops and in books, but I thought this information would be very helpful for you to understand the idea of not telling too much. Writers often feel that if they don’t explain things to the reader they won’t understand, so the message is hammered at them in numerous ways. This is a common problem and continues to be one even with seasoned authors, so if you can begin to consider this while learning to write, you’ll have half the battle one.

Mary uses examples from her latest novel, Daisy Chain, illustrate the difference that subtlety makes in a novel. She begins her article with this line which makes reference to the opening line of this blog:
The world may listen to shouters, but we are changed by those who whisper...

Mary says:
I’m the out-there girl, saying it all, holding back nothing. Even in my prose.
When I sing, I’m loud.
When I bang on the piano or play the guitar, I resound.
When I tell a story, I shout to the reader’s face.

Last night as I listened to my daughter’s choir concert, a memory flashed inside me—my voice coach tutoring me in high school. He’d put a hand on my shoulder, tell me to focus and to restrain my voice. My problem was a strong break between my chest and head tones—so strong I fancied myself only an alto, and would shy away from those breaking notes, G or A, depending on the day. He taught me that I could nullify the break in my voice if I quieted down.

I still sing loud, still break at G or A. Thickheaded me!

Then I remembered my piano teacher in college. (Don’t get any wild ideas. I’m no pianist. This was beginning piano.) I’d treat every series of notes as a crescendo, pounding the poor piano to death. My teacher, an aging Jewish man who spoke with reverence and beauty, told me to relax, to breathe. “Breathe, Mary. Slow down. Life’s not about getting to the end of the piece. Enjoy playing it. Don’t rush.” He saw into my character even then and spoke wisdom into me, but I resisted.

Surely life couldn’t be about subtlety. Mustn’t it always be shouted? Proclaimed? Told boldly? Painted with red and black and blue and yellow?

In the quiet of my home on the grayest of Texas days, I see the wisdom of both my music teachers. The world may listen to shouters, but we are changed by those who whisper, who sweetly coerce. The stories that cling to soul are those that unfold gently, like an elderly mother unfolds her daughter’s yellowed christening gown. Layer upon subtle layer is the stuff we are made of. To believe otherwise is to cheapen our worth.

Just for a moment, I’d love to hear my teachers’ voices cautioning me to slow down, to quiet my voice, to listen to the rhythm of life beating its hushed drum. I’d like to think I’d stop and listen—and actually heed this time.

In my latest novel, Daisy Chain (releasing this December through Zondervan), I pounded that plot to death, shouting, hollering, pointing. My editor, wise man that he is, restrained me, daring me to let the story hush its way to climax. He wrote, “Overall, the book needs more subtlety and development instead of up-front flatness.”

So I spent months working through the subterranean plot of my book, creating subtlety and nuance. I worked to make the threads flow seamlessly. I stopped banging the reader over the head with a scene. I let the story unfold.
Too abstract? Here’s an example:

First draft:
There, facing the bush, he smiled. Mama had stolen again—this time from old Mrs. Ree, known for her tangles of championship roses. Hap never saw the need for flowers, but Mama thrived on them, so she took to “borrowing” them from neighbors at night.

Second draft:
Facing the bush, Jed spied clean cuts where the neighbor’s roses had been given a haircut. Mama didn’t garden; she pruned flowers from other folks in the neighborhood, being particularly smitten with Ethrea Ree’s tangle of roses.

My editor’s comments about the second draft:
Even though I knew the answer, I thought, Now, why the heck does Mama do that? Which means: that’s exactly it. That’s what I think will give your readers only enough to make them keep reading, and you phrased it just perfectly. Excellent.

Instead of spelling out (shouting!) the why of Mama’s actions, I left it mysterious, inviting, and less insulting to my reader’s intelligence.

Author Lewis Carroll wrote this:

When you are describing,
A shape, or sound, or tint;
Don’t state the matter plainly,
But put in it a hint;
And learn to look at things,
With a sort of mental squint.

I’ve framed that quote in my writing office to remind me to rein in my outlandish words, to revel in subtlety, to do the harder work of weaving, rather than thrashing, a story.

Subtlety doesn’t meander its way through me, I know. But that doesn’t mean God can’t weave those threads through my outlandish soul. And it doesn’t mean I can’t learn how to create a subtler story. Both fixes (soul and words) require listening, reflecting, thinking, and taking a deep breath. At the end of the day, I know my soul and my stories will be better for it.

Gail says:
Mary’s explanation hopefully gives you food for thought. How can you take your work in progress and create subtleties that capture your readers interest by allowing the to wonder and to ask questions. Take one page of your work and see if you can change even one thing to add this element to your work. It’s the same ideas that I’ve said over and over about backstory. Too much ruins the story. This is the same. Too much information ruins the excitement of your novel and takes a way the curiosity factor for your reader.

If you’d like to read more from this blog site, here’s the link:


Kristi Holl said...

Oh, this is excellent. I will pass it along to my critique group. Thank you!
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Kristi - Thanks so much for writing. I've been out of the state speaking again and leaving on Tuesday for American Christian Fiction Writers Conference where I'll be speaking -- so it's off again.

Wishing you the best,

Robin said...

I think Mary and I are twins when it comes to shouting! I definitely tend toward spelling out everything for the reader. But I took your advice and took one page of my novel, looking for opportunities to inject subtlety. Lo and behold, the first paragraph gave me my chance; I knew all along that I needed to add more subtlety but the drive to 'ensure the reader knew exactly where I was coming from' took over. I'm getting much more comfortable with the notion of 'less is better.' It really is okay if the reader is left wondering about something rather than spelling it out, especially if a sequel is involved (as in my case). Thanks again for your tips.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Mary - Glad you found the tips helpsful. I enjoy finding interesting blogs from other writers to add their ideas to this site. A variety of ideas and techniques are helpful.

Wishing you all good things.