Subtlety in Fiction

You probably know a story that has subtle elements in it. Think: have you ever read a story that had some kind of theme, symbolized by the characters? Or some kind of secret Easter egg reference? Have you ever noticed a “oh-I-know-where-that’s-from” word, phrase, or object that wasn’t immediately obvious?

As a reader, I would encourage you to enjoy subtlety in writing. Learn to recognize what points should be delivered more subtly and which ones should be more obvious. Critique stories based on how subtle they can make points that should be or already are. And as a writer, I’m going to give you some advice on how to write subtly.

First of all, why is there a need for subtlety in writing? Well, if you think about it, all storytelling is predicated off creating a problem and then finding a way around said problem. If all storytelling was encapsulated in a blunt, brief, efficient, and non-subtle way, the story might read as follows: “Good guy beats bad guy the end”.

Subtlety is all about detail. Things become more and more nuanced as more and more subtlety is introduced. Believe it or not, all plot twists are based in subtlety: you’re concealing some details while revealing others. The better plot twists are the ones that reveal your painstaking subtlety.

The more detailed your world is, the better you can manipulate those details, the better you can practice your arts of subtlety. Believe it or not, readers like to be fooled. They enjoy it when you reveal that the bank robber wasn’t who they suspected it was, but was actually the hero’s best friend or something. Readers like surprises: oblige them.

Secondly, when should subtlety be employed? Fortunately, not many circumstances would be harmed by the introduction of a little subtlety. Unfortunately, however, this is left up to your discretion: it’s not (so much, that is) about when subtlety is placed as much as it is how and where it should be.

To answer the question, subtlety can be employed anywhere at anytime, and (almost) always enriches the story when used. However, it’s an unspoken fact that subtlety might be better employed elsewhere: if you put it in the wrong spot at the wrong time, then it’s impotent and weak.

And to (really, this time) answer the question, subtlety can be employed at times when there is tension or turmoil, but the best-case scenario for someone looking to employ subtlety is when it’s used in a time of confusion. This usually gives you the chance to introduce a lot of data (both false and true) into the system so that you can confuse and trick the reader, later revealing which of the flooded-in data was true.

Question three: where exactly should I place subtlety? If you’ve ever talked to someone who sets traps for pests on his property, you probably know that placement is essential. As with traps, you not only want to place your subtleties in strategic places, but you also want to bait your reader with tasty tidbits that make them feel like they’ve clamped down on the truth, but really haven’t.

Place your traps around what the reader does not know. If it’s a murder mystery, place tons of traps around the real murderer, shielding them from suspicion. If it’s a zombie story, place traps around the nature of the zombies. Whatever the reader fears and/or what they don’t know, use it against them.

I’ll touch briefly on the topic of traps: traps (despite the name) are not the subtleties themselves (although those could also be described as such). The subtlety is the untruth, and the traps are the supporting “facts” to help bolster the untruths. When the truth is revealed, the traps all spring and are revealed to be lies or misleading–exactly as we want them to be.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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