I’ve been thinking a lot lately about subtlety in writing, both in characterization and on the small-scale prose level, and why it is so affecting.
My husband and I have made a project of watching all of the AFI top 100 movies. A few nights ago we watched The Searchers. I’d seen it once before, but I was struck anew at just how beautifully and subtly the film paints character. John Wayne plays Ethan, a man clearly in love with his sister-in-law Martha. Yet, no character ever makes reference to their relationship. The film never actually confirms it. We only have an awareness of this layer of story due to a handful of subtle cues: a long look, her carefully folding his jacket, the fact that, when their house is burning, he shouts “Martha” instead of his brother’s name.
This kind of story telling creates something special for a viewer or a reader. It invites us to take part in the story, to add to it, to make it our own. Even if everyone watches The Searchers and comes to the exact same conclusion—which I’m sure most people do—the fact that I was able to find a level of the story never explicitly revealed makes The Searchers, in a small way, my own.
This is an exceptionally powerful thing, especially when it comes to character. There’s a difference between a knowledge of a character and an understanding of a character. If the movie had just told me about Martha and Ethan, I would have had the same information but not the same feeling of connectedness. I know Ethan’s secret, not because anyone told me, but because I discovered it for myself. For starters, this makes me feel smart—and who doesn’t love that?—but more importantly, it makes me feel as though I have an intimate relationship with the protagonist. I get John Wayne.
The people in my life who I know well—my close friends and family—have tells. Well, we all have tells. Only, it requires a level of familiarity to notice and interpret them. When it comes to my friends and family, I understand their nature; I know about their life experiences and so am able to pickup on subtle nuances in behavior, am able to interpret more significant meaning in what they say. The fact that The Searchers asked me to do the same for John Wayne’s character rendered him familiar to me. Sure, he’s a racist with a prickly disposition. But now, thanks to my sense of familiarity with him, he’s my prickly racist.
Certainly, this isn’t a trait unique to The Searchers, but I wish it were more common. Authors frequently feel the need to tell me everything about a character, often right in the first chapter. I completely understand the inclination to do this. It seems counterintuitive, that to say less might actually mean more. But the fact is that, when I read a long info dump of background information in the first chapter, not only am I pulled out of the momentum of the story, but I’m denied the ability to develop that intimate understanding with the character. It weakens my connection with him or her.
Subtlety, I think, is more difficult to achieve in novels than in movies. Or, perhaps, it’s not more difficult but only less necessary. A character in a movie can’t look into the camera and say “I’m annoyed!” or pause the plot to offer a long backstory. As authors, however, this is a tempting possibility. After all, it’s a heck of a lot easier.
I’m not talking, necessarily, about the “show don’t tell” mantra. That is too broad, bland, and often flat out wrong to be of much help. The scene in The Searchers of Martha carefully folding Ethan’s Confederate uniform isn’t affecting merely because it is visual. It works because it offers a candid peek into the character’s soul—a glimpse small enough to afford shades of interpretation, but marked enough to demand notice.
I want to feel this way about more characters. I want authors to invite that level of connection. Hell, I want to be a craftsman with a light enough touch to offer such an experience for my own readers. There’s a difference between knowing a thing and understanding it. Understanding is much more powerful.Mahir Uysal