I’m being subtle! Look! Look how subtle I’m being!

Last night I joined my younger sister and the resident organist to go see Watchmen.  There were a number of things I liked about the movie, and other things I found interesting but not particularly enthralling, depending on whether I looked at it as an interpretation of the comic or as a movie on its own.  (Adaptations are a subject for another post, ideally by someone who knows more about film or TV than I do.)  But one particular idea came to mind while watching it.   At one point I leaned over to the resident organist and whispered “Understatement is just a word to the director, isn’t it?”

In this case, it mostly had to do with either soundtrack choice or fight choreography.  But in written fiction (ha!  see, I made this relevant after all!) there’s a lot of ways that subtlety can work well within a story or, if used clumsily, act as a complete roadblock.  I’ve read stories that had a beautifully understated tone, stories that paved the road for the readers but ultimately let them find the way, and stories that made me pull at my hair and gnaw the pages, trying to figure out what the hell was going on and why didn’t the author just say so?  And I’m not sure where the line is.  

Some of it undoubtedly has to do with the reader — I have more patience for subtlety now than when I was a teenager plowing through the library’s selection of anything that looked remotely fantastic — but a lot of it has to do with the mood of the story.  I think there are some clues in a story’s tone that can let the reader know that not all the answers will be spelled out on the page.  And, sometimes, an unstated conclusion can have even more of a punch if it’s surrounded by all the obvious conclusions.  

When I’m writing, though, I have real trouble figuring out what the balance should be.  Unfortunately, in early drafts I pretty much always get it wrong — I’m up front and clear about stuff that’s less important, and I hide the important, plot-relevant details.  If I’m working from an established source, like a fairy tale or a myth, I’ll often veer so far away from the source material that the story becomes opaque.  I’m afraid of giving away too much, particularly when trying to construct a mystery.  As a result I hide too much and obscure the rest with the equivalent of flashing lights and blaring music.  Usually my first critique finds this point and whacks me with it (“don’t be afraid to be obvious” is a frequent criticism within the writers’ group), but I’m still trying to figure out how to get it right.

What are some of your favorite understated stories, either science fiction and fantasy or other genres?  What subtle realizations work for you in a story — character backstory, history, ramifications of the ending?  And what attempts at understatement really didn’t work?

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