Student writers often worry about being "too obvious. " They seem to believe that they should be as subtle as possible in describing characters or defining story goals.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and professional writers know it. Every time you try to be subtle, you run the risk of losing your reader's understanding.
If you ever do happen to be too obvious in an otherwise excellent story, you can be sure that an alert editor somewhere down the line can trim a few words or phrases to make something less obvious. On the other hand, if you try to be subtle and the editor doesn't get the point, the story is going to be rejected.
There are three places where writers most fear being obvious: in defining a character; in stating a character's goal; and in pointing out the significance of a plot development. These are interrelated, but for purpose of discussion let's separate them and look, one at a time.
Fear of being "too obvious" in delineating story characters seems to be the main fear of inexperienced writers. They try to write about delicate shadings of action and motivation, and, in so doing, get so vague and willowy that the readers don't get the point at all. Sometimes, too, the misguided subtle writer would rather go to the gallows than slip in some direct comment-even by another character-about what kind of person the more major character is supposed to be. Usually the result is a fuzzy character.
Character portrayal is no place to be subtle. As pointed out in Chapter Seven, characters often are brought to life only by exaggeration. But in addition to this, characters can be made so subtle as to be lost entirely if the writer overindulges in delicate nuance... sly shifts of meaning. Consider using barnbrush strokes. Please. If you want the character to be bad, don't just have his lip curl, for heaven's sake! I the reader won't get it. Consider having Mr. Bad smoke nasty black cigars, forget to bathe, hate little children, and kick kitty-cats. I the reader may think you're crude, but I'll get the message.
And also try to jettison your fear of the obvious in terms of what you may want to say about the character. If you have a good handle on the character's dominant impression, go ahead and risk introducing him with a direct author statement, such as:
James Marx was a mean man all his life, and no one had ever liked him. He never gave an inch in business, and he never gave a cent to charity. Of all who knew him, his wife liked him best; she merely detested him.
Crude? Sure. And of course the technique of direct author intrusion can easily be overdone. On the other hand, however, some mighty fine writers have been "guilty" of overt author intrusion no less blatant. Consider Sidney Sheldon. Consider Ernest Hemingway. Consider the greatest of them all, Charles Dickens. Is Ebenezer Scrooge subtle? Is Pip, in Great Expectations'? Is Oliver Twist? Or consider Uriah Heep, one of Dicken's greatest creations. How many times does the wily, crafty, lying Mr. Heep speak of how "umble" he is, how "umble" is his family, how "umble" he feels about his job, while all the time slinking around, rubbing bony hands together, almost reptilian in his self-abasing scheme to take over the entire company?
Great characters come from the fertility and power of the author's imagination. But in addition to the power to imagine such characters, the writer must have the wit to know when to be blunt and obvious-and the courage to face down the fear of being "obvious."
A good exercise for a learning writer in this area is indulging in the gentle art of Frankenstein. Remember the monster? Hardly a subtle fellow.
What you might profit greatly from doing as an exercise is to play Dr. Frankenstein on your own. Sit down and try to create the greatest monster of exaggeration you can imagine. Allow nothing in this character portrayal to be subtle. Exaggerate everything. Spell out every aspect of personality. Leave nothing to the reader's imagination.
Then, having created, write a scene or two putting your monster of exaggeration into action. Have him or her talk, act, perform. Are you getting a picture as you write? Is it... just... barely... possible... that you're having fun with this? Is it conceivable that you're writing about a far more vivid and interesting character than you ever wrote about before?
Subtlety, thy name is doom!
But refusal to be obvious in drawing character is only one possible flaw. Another potentially fatal error of subtlety often centers on character goal. I have no idea why so many new writers cringe at the idea of overtly stating what it is a character wants. Such writers would rather have the character drift in, smile a lot, and sort of accidentally reveal his intentions on page 66. Or possibly allow some other character to guess. Or sigh a lot and say he doesn't want to talk about it.
Whether in a scene or in a planning sequel, your character should think about his goal, worry about his goal, talk about his goal, and try to get his goal. And you the writer have to keep reminding me the reader what it is, because if I forget for a moment, I won't understand the story any more!
It's no place to be subtle. Subtlety will confuse the reader about the meaning of plot actions, but in addition it will fuzz the reader's perception of what kind of character is being portrayed. For yea and verily, it hath often been said, but almost as often forgotten: "Tell me what a character wants, and I shall tell you who and what the character is. "
Finally, don't make the mistake of trying to be subtle about what plot happenings mean -and don't ever downplay their significance! 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. I mean, if the family's pioneer home burns to the ground on a bitter winter night, don't assume the reader will get it. And don't be subtle. Either directly say something like: "Now the family faced death by exposure to the cold", or have one of the characters say something like, "I'm really scared now. Without shelter we won't last through the day. "
For some reason or other, as with other absolutely necessary comments which enter into every good story, many inexperienced writers are afraid to take the step. "The reader already knows that!" the poor author protests, or "I don't want to insult the reader's intelligence!" or "Wouldn't saying it clearly be sort of obvious?"
There is nothing wrong with "obvious" in these areas! Obvious is good. Obvious is mandatory. Obvious is next to cleanliness in the pantheon of fine qualities in fiction. Your story is not going to be pored over by textual detectives in the English Department at Stanford or Yale. 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.
Well, at least do this much for me, just as a trial: put down all the obvious stuff in first draft. Make sure there is no subtlety. Then, if you insist, take it all out -"subtle it up" like crazy-on revision.
This way you'll at least have written the draft of a readable story.
Or, to be more positive, let's state the point this way: what 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?
Check your copy. Ask yourself where you might have been carelessly or purposely subtle or unclear. Straighten it out. Make the point obvious! Drop your fears. If you're like almost all the learning writers I have ever known, being too obvious is the least of your problems. Being obscure - whether intentionally or by accident -may rank near the top of your woes.
My problem student, Wally, once brought me a scene in which his western hero was shot. The bullet hit the hero, knocking him down, and Wally then wrote:
Bart looked down at the gaping hole in his chest, and realized he was paralyzed from the neck down. He was bleeding to death. He decided this was serious. I told Wally I thought he might have overdone it.
But unless your story statement is in Wally's league of obviousness, don't worry about it. Anything short of the Wally standard is probably going to turn out just about right, bleeding to death.
Was this article helpful?