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Subtlety—Speaking the Real Truth

Updated: Apr 6

Good fiction writers are scheming,

devious, and manipulative control freaks.

What a terrible thing to say about such kind and thoughtful people.

Instead of being open and forthright, authors present only bits of information at a time, leading people blindly to unknown places. Only creeps treat people like that. Authors are paid lots of money for their artifice, and their readers only want more. How indirect and plotting authors are, and how attractive their wiles are made to look!

Subtlety is making use of indirect and clever

methods to communicate something.

While subtlety is bad in real life, it’s priceless in fiction. Every word, punctuation mark, sentence length, and paragraph indent in a story is often laced with subtlety.

Subtlety is persuasion without

the reader’s awareness.

Subtlety allows the reader to become anxious, concerned, and emotionally invested. Why would the reader keep reading if everything is made clear on the first page?

Proper use of subtlety in fiction,

  • Draws the reader into the story by creating questions in her mind

  • Helps provide a smooth crescendo from calmness to uncertainty

  • Helps provide a gradual increase in tension and suspense

  • Helps hide what is really going on (for a while)

  • Increases nuance and complexity

  • Helps postpone resolution

  • Provides deeper meanings

Good fiction causes the reader to think about nothing in her life but the story. An author’s ultimate dream is to receive angry calls and emails from spouses who say, “Your stories are ruining my husband! All he does all day is read your books!”

I’m still waiting for one of those calls.

Subtlety exists at the edge

of the reader’s perception.

Subtlety is not ambiguity, confusion, or poor communication

Don’t dare confuse subtlety with ambiguity.

Ambiguity is information left out of (or added to) the story for no purpose.

Subtlety is information left out of (or added to) the story for no purpose for a while.

Example of Ambiguity:

Cindy periodically clenches her jaw.

This is never explained or addressed.

Example of Subtlety:

Cindy periodically clenches her jaw.

The reader eventually learns that the victims

in the story hear the grinding of teeth

just before being robbed.

Ambiguity undermines a story by creating conditions of permanent, unresolved understanding that distract the reader from its point.

Subtlety eventually tells the truth, while ambiguity never communicates anything.

Confusion is, at its heart, an aimless experience. It is either the lack of or too much information with no purpose. Subtlety eventually satiates the reader's questioning mind.

Subtlety in fiction is what indirectly exposes a bit of hidden truth under mounds of deceit.

Subtlety is good; ambiguity is bad. Do you understand the difference, or am I being too subtle?


The subtext is the real meaning behind a character’s action:

  • When Sasha says she doesn’t like Zach, she puts her hand on his.

  • The villain says things that most certainly are nefarious but is smiling while he says them.

  • Subtext tells the truth the reader doesn’t easily perceive because she’s overwhelmed with the lie.

Readers like to try to detect subtext and wonder which bits of information are the truth and which aren’t. This is especially true in mystery novels.

How do you write more subtly?

The way to write with more subtlety is to write as you normally would. Then, go back and make the sentence’s message less obvious. Subtlety is when people try to hide from other people or from themselves what they really feel out of guilt or embarrassment or whatever motive, but some truth comes out anyway. Here are some examples:

Original: “I don’t think we should move to Texas.”

More subtle: “Didn’t Grandma die in San Antonio?”

Original: “Let’s not go see that horror movie.”

More subtle: “I had a dream last night that a man came into our house and tried to kill me.”

Original: John had an urge to look into the window.

More subtle: John always felt that somehow, he couldn’t see what everyone else could.

Original: Stephany noticed that the top of her new desk was smooth.

More subtle: New possessions should never be touched because once they are, they’ll never be the same.

Maybe in the last example above, Stephany had just been promoted to manager and was afraid of committing her first mistake.

In general, replace the outwardly visible scene, feeling, or thought with a brief look into what is really felt or could be felt.

With subtlety, readers—just for an instant—begin to think something else, something hiding, something faintly suggested might be happening. They realize they may not be reading one story but two—twice the discovery, twice the experience, twice the enjoyment.

Subtlety prompts readers to see things from a different perspective, which only makes them more interested so long as the new information is barely perceivable. When expressing inner leanings, you don’t want to come across as heavy-handed.

Movies that make heavy use of subtlety

I believe that subtlety in movies is slowly being replaced with jump scares, which are as far away from subtlety as you can get. Jump scares tell the viewers that they’re not capable of understanding nuance, slyness, or innuendo. What a degrading insult.

The following is a short list of movies that employ a great amount of subtlety. Needless to say, they contain few jump scares.

  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Evil characters are portrayed as likable to the unknowing Rosemary. Rosemary eats raw liver (not obviously clear) as a midnight snack as if that were not out of the ordinary.

  • The Game (1997) – Everything in the movie is manipulation.

  • The Sixth Sense (1999) – Paying close attention to details in the movie will reveal what is really going on.

  • The Others (2001)

  • Mulholland Drive (2001) – So full of subtlety and symbolism that people have made videos trying to explain it. (Don’t watch this video until after seeing the movie.)

  • Black Swan (2010)

  • Get Out (2017) – There is much truth in this scene (and others in the movie), except the viewers don't know which truth it is.

Watch the scene linked below. Every detail is meticulously packed with mounds of manipulation being heaped upon the main character:

I can’t point out the subtlety in most of these movies without giving away their plots. Thus, you’re just going to have to watch these movies yourselves.

Subtlety is sautéed asparagus,

while a jump scare is a pie in the face.

Double Standard

Authors are judged by higher standards than the average person as they should be. If authors affect people’s lives, then their works should be highly scrutinized at every level.

However, there is one vice authors are allowed to possess without punishment. They can be deceiving liars if they eventually provide readers with something good in exchange, such as inspiration, encouragement, enlightenment, resolve, or wisdom.

Only authors are justified in employing the ethic "The ends justify the means.” Everyone else must be open and forthright.

I speak the truth.

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