Subtlety

I might have recently mentioned that I am currently indulging in a reading of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables, which, although according to my kindle app I am only 53% done with, I have come to regard as one of the best works of literature I’ve ever perused.

One reason I have grown to like it so much is because it excels at being subtle and trusting in the intelligence and observation of the reader.  Subtlety, I believe, is one of the strongest properties a written work can have, partly because of it being self-demonstrating: To use subtlety is to show that you trust your reader to be able to figure out something based on the information they possess without it being spelled out to them.

Take, for instance, Chapter 14 of Book 8 of Volume 3 of Les Mis, entitled “In Which a Police Agent Bestows Two Fistfuls on a Lawyer”; in this fragment of the story, Marius goes to meet a police inspector who, the reader is likely to realise as soon as it is mentioned he is an inspector, or at the very least when the first detail of his description is given, is Inspector Javert. This fact, however, is not stated anywhere until the end of the chapter, once the characters’ conversation has already concluded. In the same vein, the reader is only too likely to realise, as soon as they are mentioned, that the “Jondrettes” lodging next to Marius are in fact the Thénardiers from earlier in the story.

Now, as much as I like this particular style of storytelling, I feel that it has become a bit underused, since I cannot really recall any other piece of literature I’ve read recently to have had such an effect on me (note that I speak of works whose subtlety is self-contained, and stuff such as references to mythology or other external stories are not included). Perhaps this is because it is more difficult to pull off than most people would expect, or perhaps it’s simply that people don’t plan to include it in their stories when they are first being crafted? Whatever the reason, I certainly hope more people get around to noticing this tool of storytelling.

Of course, this is not just restricted to literature. Some examples of this can also be found in film and television, where it is apparently more prone to be combined with misdirection, treating the idea of subtlety as a trope; getting the people to believe something without outright stating it, then revealing that it was false all along. In that sense, I believe it could be said that subtlety also forms a pivotal part of plot twists and surprises, although in that sense it has also shaped itself into a different kind of trope.

Knowing that, how do you believe subtlety could best be used to subvert people’s expectations and bring about the unexpected? Has there been any example of subtlety in anything you’ve read recently that has managed to stick out in your mind? In any case, I do hope you can bring yourself to possess a more thorough understanding of this concept, if not an application for it within your work.

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About ikerrivercast

Iker Rivercast is a natural born loner with a knack for writing and programming. When he's not sleeping or otherwise putting off being productive, you'll likely find him trying something new with his written work. View all posts by ikerrivercast

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