Thursday 9 January 2014

Subtlety: The Art of Making Your Readers do the Hard Work

The image on the left tells a story without spelling it out for the viewer, and the beauty of it is that the story has far more potential by virtue of its ambiguity. Did the woman in the background set those glasses out? Is she waiting for a companion to join her? Is he or she late? Has she already been waiting for hours? Is she leaving, abandoning those glasses on the beach after a lover failed to join her? Or perhaps she has nothing to do with the glasses at all. Perhaps someone else set them out, left them abandoned, and the woman in the background is just a passer by, failing to notice this bittersweet sight as the sun slowly goes down on our two glasses.

This photo is subtle in what it implies, and as a result we the viewers are given the task of doing the leg work to attribute meaning and narrative to it. Subtlety is a wonderful technique to employ in the arts, because it allows the artist to convey ideas that go beyond what they're capable of showing directly.

Readers will always, *always* have their own personal preferences when it comes to a story, and most of us will have small details about even our favourite titles that we'd love to see changed. With a little subtlety, an author is able to fulfil those personal wishes of the reader and speak to them in a way that would otherwise be impossible to convey in words.

Perhaps the most direct examples of effective subtlety can be found within the horror genre. Horror is a deeply personal thing; what scares one person can often be laughable to another. I myself am a massive arachnophobe, yet there are plenty of people who keep the very creatures I find terrifying as cherished pets. This is why a lot of the most effective horror is subtle and ambiguous. We will always scare ourselves far better than another person will be able to, since our deepest fears are always so intimate and personal. It's why a good horror movie hides the reveal of the monster until the last moment; the monster is always far, far scarier when we don't know what it looks like, when we're doing the hard work of creating its image in our own minds, rather than relying on the film makers to do it for us.

A little bit of ambiguity and subtlety offers the audience a challenge, a little puzzle to figure out in their own head, and the reward for solving it is an experience that speaks to you on a more personal level than any artist will ever be able to convey directly.

Of course, getting subtlety right is no easy feat. Too much ambiguity and your audience will start to get confused and disconnected from the experience; too little and it runs the risk of becoming predictable and boring. This is linked in very closely with the adage of Show vs Tell. Showing implies a degree of subtlety, conveying information via association rather than laying it out in black and white for the audience to see, whereas telling offers little to no ambiguity at all.

While conventional wisdom prizes showing over telling, a good author knows that both of these techniques have their own time and place, just as a good author knows just how much subtlety is appropriate in their work.

One of my favourite examples of this is Peter Cheung's 1995 animated series Aeon Flux, a show wherein every episode is heavily driven by metaphor and thematic significance on a visual, narrative, and character level. In fact, this show is so subtle and frantically paced that it often becomes very difficult to follow. It's hard to sit back and enjoy the episodes as individual stories, because your brain has to be constantly double-checking what's happening in every scene to make sure you're not missing something important. On an artistic level it's an incredibly interesting show, but on a pure entertainment level it often succeeds in being too artistic for its own good.

So subtlety is a fine line to tread, and it's certainly something that I'm hoping to get better at myself as a writer this coming year. It's one of those things that really has the potential to cripple and elevate your work in equal measures, but when you get it right, it's one of the most powerful ways for an author to connect with their readers. When you take a story off the page and into the reader's mind, make them think and consider and interpret, then you really start to reach a place that goes beyond simple entertainment value.

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