At our critique session yesterday, some of us discussed our tendency toward minimalist writing—putting far less on the page than we know about our characters, settings, or story situations.
“I know the backstory,” one writer commented. “I’m completely comfortable with what my characters are doing and saying, because I know everything that’s motivating them. I know the whole situation. It’s perfectly clear—in my mind.”
But will it be clear to the reader who does not have access to the writer’s inside information? Ah, there’s the question.
The discussion reminded me of the diametrically opposed advice I read in Noah Lukeman’s excellent book, The First Five Pages (which covers way more than its title might suggest); and Jack M. Bickham’s practical how-to, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them).
The Case for Subtlety
“[I]f we were to stop and ask what best signals the proficient writer, the answer would be subtlety. … A writer who is subtle … can hint, foreshadow ever so slightly, set things up hundreds of pages in advance. He will often leave things unsaid, may even employ a bit of confusion, and often allow you to come to your own conclusions.“The main lesson the unsubtle writer must learn is that less is always more. These writers will often argue to their deathbeds that such and such information absolutely need be included; they will say, Think of the consequences if the reader doesn’t know such and such. But they never stop to consider the other consequence, the consequence of the reader knowing too much …“Achieving subtlety is all about gaining confidence, not only in yourself but in the reader. … Picture the reader as brilliant, perceptive, having a photographic memory, taking everything in the first time he reads it, able to grasp ideas before you even begin to say them, able to see where things are leading before you begin to lay them out.“Look back over your manuscript and ask yourself if you spell anything out, if you are too blatant. If so, cut and replace with something more low key.“It can take time to become proficient in detecting and cutting your own excess, and even the most proficient will not be able to catch it all. You will need an astute outside reader to point out what’s overdone, what’s extraneous.”
Which is why a good critique group is a pearl without price. Critique partners who are watching for overly obvious writing can point out redundancies—passages the writer might view as necessary, but which are, in fact, repetitious or superfluous.
The Case for Being Obvious
Now, listen to Bickham saying: “Don’t worry about being obvious.”
“Every time you try to be subtle, you run the risk of losing your reader’s understanding.“[D]on’t make the mistake of trying to be subtle about what plot happenings mean … Readers confuse easily. If you have any doubt that the reader will understand the meaning of what someone in the story says or does, you must work in at once some method of pointing out what you may think is obvious.“Your reader is going to be careless, lazy, in a hurry, distracted and none too patient when she reads your copy. She isn’t going to get anything you don’t put down there pretty clearly.“[W]hat seems obvious to the writer may be obscure as hell to the poor reader. And you’re writing for the reader, not for yourself. Aren’t you?”
Who's Your Audience?
That last bit is the crux of the matter: Who are you writing for?
If you’re writing for someone like Noah Lukeman (a literary agent whose clients include Pulitzer Prize nominees, Pushcart Prize recipients, and American Book Award winners), then you’d best be a master of subtlety.
But if you’re writing for fidgety young readers or distracted readers (folks who grab paperbacks off the racks at grocery stores or airport gift shops), you’re likely to confuse—and lose—them if you’re even slightly subtle. Bickham says: “Make the point obvious!”
Once a writer has mostly mastered the fundamentals of her craft, her next big challenge, on her way to becoming a truly proficient writer, is to identify—and walk—the fine line between telling too much and telling too little.
In my WATERSPELL trilogy, I’ve labored mightily to find, and follow, that line. My critique partners have been immensely helpful—invaluable—in pointing out places where I’ve repeated myself, where I’ve told them things they already know, where I’ve beat them about the head and shoulders with obvious information.
They’ve also caught me when I’ve been too subtle, when I’ve failed to give them necessary information: when I’ve expected them to read my mind.
I know every detail about my fantasy world and the people who populate it. The trick is to decide—with the help of my excellent critique partners—which of those details must be committed to paper, and which of them are nuances that are best left to the reader’s imagination.
“Language is not an algebra and … there is no single right answer to any given predicament with words.” —Jacques Barzun