Thursday, December 13, 2012

Subtle Things #4: Thank you, Captain Obvious

(That's the snark I hear when I hit the publish button on my blog.)

I like subtle. I like writers who can lay out all the subtle clues on the table and then string them together into an interesting plot climax. Stories that rely on witholding some vital clue until the last moment don't have the same punch. I saw a good example of this, recently, in the movie Wreck-it Ralph -- who expects subtlety from Disney, right? Non-Pixar Disney, that is. Maybe because I didn't go in expecting it, it was a pleasant surprise.

Drama? Where?
What constitutes subtle, though? There's a continuum from the most blindingly obvious things like:

“Your foolishness will make you weak, and then there will be a winnowing.”

down to things that are only meaningful in hindsight, if at all:

I reached for him again, meaning to check his kir, but Kiefan handed me the book instead. “I am well enough, for now.”

Do you throw out plot clues subtly? Or should a character point a finger and announce: "He's trying to distract her with a book! That means he's fibbing!" It's a question of genre style and personal style.

What draws the reader's attention to things and makes them obvious? In an early draft of Disciple, Part I, one of my betas pointed out to me that something needed more emphasis. Here is the original text:
“’Twas your father who opposed?” Lady Lorcana weighed that. “But did not prevent, else you would not be here.” 
“The piglet died,” I said, and then had to go on to explain. “Father brought me home from the Order after my two years of learning, even though Master Parselev wanted me for his apprentice...
What deserved emphasis was the piglet's death -- the title of Part I is "For Want of a Piglet" -- and here it's kinda buried in the dialogue. So I revised the dialogue to single it out:
“’Twas your father who opposed?” M’lady Lorcana weighed that. “But did not prevent, else you would not be here.”  
“The piglet died,” I said.  
“A piglet?” Leix chuckled when she said it. “How did a piglet sway your father?” 
“Father brought me home from the Order ... 
The emphasis is provided by repeating "piglet" and asking a question that the reader might reasonably be thinking at that moment.

Some things that I've noticed writers can use to draw the reader's attention to things without blatantly pointing and announcing "This is important!":
  • Repetition, but don't do it too much.
  • Using formal, foreboding, "prophetic" language, as in my example about winnowing. This is on the less subtle side, and the more formal and stuffy the language, the less subtle it is. But this sort of thing can fit in well with the style/voice/genre of the story, or the character, so... use with care.
  • Lavish description above and beyond other story elements. Be careful not to break voice or bog down the action, though. 
  • Physically setting it apart, if it's an object or a person, so that there's nothing else to focus on. If this is an action or an event, then it's a relatively uncluttered one -- no interruptions, no ancillary plotlines involved. 
  • Drawing the character's attention to it, through movement or some important detail. This is different from the narrative drawing attention to things -- if your (convincingly real, sympathetic) character pays attention about something, hopefully the reader will too.  
What techniques do you use? What would you add to my list?


Liz said...

I'm not so good at the subtle. Blatant and obvious, those I've got down.

Gene Phillips said...

To me the best way to foreground things subtly is a variation on your last strategy. You draw the reader's attention to a story-element which has perhaps some limited significance to a given character, without that character being aware of just how important it will prove to the plot as a whole. If it's done well, he doesn't see it, but the reader can anticipate that the element will have great importance down the line. It's preferable to the "prophecy" angle, though I've certainly made use of that myself.

L. Blankenship said...

That sounds like a good technique, I like it. That would add layers of meaning to the element -- what different characters think of it, different levels of importance. Thanks for mentioning it!

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