Writing Talk – Subtlety vs Laziness

While surfing the internet one day, I came across an old review of the Star Wars prequels.  Though out a review of Episode 3: RotS, the author kept making comparisons between that movie and the Lord of the Rings movie(s).  Normally I’d just laugh at the author and move on but then I watched the Nostalgia Critic’s comparison of Batman and The Dark Knight.  There NC claimed that the original Batman movie was more subtle than tDK.

Now I admit that I’ve always found Tim Burton to be a great visual director, but never found much ‘heart’ to his films.  Was there really subtlety to one of his films?  Is there subtlety to any of the Star Wars films?

For many audiences, having something not stated automatically equals subtlety.  What led to my disagreement with both NC and the nameless reviewer is that their statements that ___ was “more subtle” ultimately amounted to the storyteller leaving parts of the narrative out all together.  If we did not have a mythos rich character in American culture known as “Batman” would the movie of said name still have the same “subtlety”?  If the mythos of Star Wars didn’t have so many hardcore worshipers that desperately needed the story to be a coherent whole, would Lucas really be given as much credit?  The question remains: what is a subtle turn of the story, and what is sheer laziness from the storyteller?  Upon reflection, I think I figured it out.

Plot is at its most basic, an answer to the fundamental questions: Who, What, Where, When.
Who is involved?
What is happening?
Where is it happening?
When is it happening?
These are rather general and there is a lot of play within the questions.  Smart readers will notice I left two related questions out: How and Why.  It is these two questions that the principle of subtlety turn.

‘How’ is the least important part of the question.  Ideally, especially in speculative fiction, you want to answer the question of “How is this happening?” fairly clearly.  But subtlety can be worked into a story by giving hints about the ‘how’ without making it as obvious as ‘Who’, ‘What’, etc.  The key point is to keep in mind whether you want readers asking this question.  If it’s something that you want readers debating over, then keep it hidden.  If, however, you prefer the readers to worry more about the hero fighting the big bad and arguing less over the transportation mechanics the hero used to get to the evil fortress, then answer ‘how’ as quickly and clearly as possible.

This leaves us with the most important and fundamental aspect of subtlety in my opinion: ‘Why is this happening?’ This is one question I would invite most writers to never answer unless it involves the most mundane, technical aspects of the plot.  However, here is where the line between subtlety and laziness is most clear.  While you shouldn’t answer ‘why’, as a writer you should at least leave clues as to what the answer is or could be.  Every member of your audience should be able to deduce an answer to ‘why’ solely from your story (external materials are a no-no).  If a ‘why’ question has to be answered using a large set of invented suppositions, then you’re not being subtle, you’ve gotten lazy.

At least, this is what I think the difference is.  What do you think?

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*Many mind-screw stories involve drawing the audience into questioning the “what” or “when” of the plot along with the question.  However there is still the fundamental basis that something has happened.  The details of it are what matter.

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