How to Engage your Readers with Subtlety

I am not a great writer. I am, arguably, not even a good one. I’ve never been to school for writing; I’ve had zero formal training. I haven’t even read Stephen King’s On Writing, which as I understand it is mandatory reading in order to succeed as an author of any kind.

I’m the equivalent of someone who thinks they know how to produce a TV show because they watch a lot of TV. I know what I like, and what engages me, so I pastiche the hell out of that in an effort to create something worth investing in. Hell – even my ideas are hardly original.

I’m prefacing with this because I’m about to give advice; and as Douglas Adams once said, “The quality of any advice anybody has to offer has to be judged against the quality of life they actually lead.”

But here’s the thing. I’ve actually never read anything quite like my own writing. With my fantasy work under the name Satis I’m heavily influenced by Tolkien, but my work-in-progress, The Broken, like 22 Scars before it, is really 100% me. The use of sparse, action-based present tense, the lack of dialogue tags, the expectation of the reader to be dropped into a situation and keep up – I didn’t copy that from anyone. There might be unintentional parallels (see my previous article), but the style of writing is my own invention.

Is this a bad thing? Hard to say. I’ve had mixed reviews on the writing quality; some people have enjoyed it immensely, calling it “unique” and “fast-paced”; others have criticized it for reading like a screenplay, and one even mentioned it was full of grammatical errors (I believe my editor did a fantastic job, so I have to assume these ‘errors’ are actually my own stylistic choices).

When it comes to those choices, I try – emphasis on ‘try’ – to think carefully about every word, sentence and phrase I commit to paper (or screen). For example, here’s a passage from The Broken:

Malcolm stands above his father, knuckles white around the bottle, fury behind his eyes. “Did you hit Mikey?”

Jerome’s eyes shift from the bottle to Malcolm’s face. “Did I tap that little shit, show him who’s boss? Sure.” Tongue sticks in his cheek. “Whatcha going to do, hit me back?”

Malcolm’s jaw clenches. He leans forward, face to Jerome’s. “You piece of shit. You selfish, drunk piece of shit. I always figured Mom was too stupid to leave you, but what’s Mikey’s excuse? He’s fucking fifteen, you asshole. There’s nowhere for him to go—”

On the floor, nose bleeding; Malcolm blinks and shakes his head. “The fuck—”

Jerome is standing tall over Malcolm, an accusing finger toward him: “I don’t give a fuck who you think you are, too good for the home and the clothes I give you; ain’t nobody talking to me like that in my own house.” He sweeps a foot back, kicks out at Malcolm’s ribs.

From ‘The Broken’ © C.M. North

Here, Malcolm is confronting his father after learning that he beat his younger brother, putting him in hospital. It took a while to decide how to write this passage, which eventually leads to an all-out brawl between father and son. I knew I needed Jerome to hit Malcolm, but I didn’t want to outright describe the punch; it felt too clinical, too ‘action-y’. Instead, I opted in the end to simply cut the action entirely – going from a line of dialogue, Malcolm is simply on the floor, nose bleeding. No ‘Jerome lashed out’; no ‘Malcolm fell’; he’s just there.

I don’t know if this is a genuine technique – probably is – but to me it’s the literary equivalent of a jump cut in film: skipping all that’s unnecessary to focus as directly as possible on the characters and their plight.

I found as I write that I prefer to make the reader join the dots; I want my readers to work for their reward. I find this sort of writing engaging myself, which is probably why I do it – although I agree that it can become tiring. There’s a balance between what’s said and what isn’t, and that balance is where subtlety comes in. In 22 Scars, there’s an entire chapter that is a two-way conversation without a single dialogue tag. That was probably one of the hardest chapters to write, simply because it called for extremely precise differentiation between the two characters so that the reader would know who was speaking.

The same concept applies to the characters’ descriptions, flaws, motivations and personalities. In The Broken, Malcolm suffers from bipolar disorder. I think the closest I come to calling it out is during a therapy session where the therapist refers to ‘manic episodes.’ Otherwise, it’s up to the reader to observe his behaviors and come to a conclusion from that. In 22 Scars there are several gay/sexually ambiguous characters, and even there I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my handling of it; I refer to a man’s husband, or a girl having a crush on her friend, but I don’t have the characters go around talking about it – because in real life, you don’t.

In the end, reflecting reality is important to me – at least in my YA work – and one of the things that frequently frustrates me about literature is the level of suspension of disbelief that is expected of the reader. If I’m reading a James Bond novel, then yes – I’m not expecting real life. But if I’m reading about messed-up teenagers and bisexual guitar players, I expect – of myself – that the narrative be as close to a real-world scenario as possible. Stories like 22 Scars and The Broken are about things that really, really do happen – and I’d be doing a disservice to these realities if I did anything else.

So if that means having characters who are uncertain as to their own sexuality; if it means writing dialogue where people don’t always have a comeback; if it means avoiding confrontation because that’s what people do in real life; then that’s what I need to write.

The details are in the subtlety; I try to ensure that the reader can get as much out of what isn’t written as they can out of what is. I may not be perfect at it, but at least I have an aim.

What do you think? Do you prefer things to be spelled out in your literature, or do you not mind working a little to put the pieces together?

One thought on “How to Engage your Readers with Subtlety

  1. I prefer natural dialogue, which often times is not grammatically correct. And sparse descriptive narrative which gives just enough to then allow me to go from there, in my own mind. There is nothing worse (in my opinion) than wooden dialogue and reading an entire page, or more, describing what a room looks like. I also like when characters are developed through their dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

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