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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Conference Recap--The Art of Subtlety

LDStorymakers 2014 Writer's Conference Recap

The intensive classes sold out quickly at this conference, but I managed to get J. Scott Savage's class on the art of subtlety. It was an amazing two hours because he showed and example and then had us write. I'll try and do that today--Show you an example of good or bad subtlety and then give you an exercise. All of the examples and exercises come from Savage's presentation. Feel free to share in the comments!

Thesis Statement (A DON'T)--This is where you tell what's going on and then show/tell it again. It's important to remember that we are not trying to prove something to our reader. In fact, we don't want them to see us at all. Trust your reader--80% of what a reader "gets" is not on the page.

Crystal was exhausted. Her head ached. Her legs felt as if someone had been beating her calves with a baseball bat. And her feet pounded like a pair of sweat-stinky tell-tale hearts.

An easy fix would be to drop the first sentence. "Crystal was exhausted" is a thesis statement that tells what the reader can figure out from the following lines.

How can you make this better?
Trouble was coming. Kids had been getting together in small groups and whispering. Most of their food was gone. And he could swear he’d seen some of the older boys and girls carrying weapons.

Thought Verbs (Another DON'T)--"From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use." -Chuck Palahniuk

Bart wondered if anyone liked him.
Rich knew he’d never make the baseball team.
Tim remembered what it had been like when his mom was alive.

Pick one of them and make it better.

So--my personal crutch. This is the lazy way out and points to telling.

Julie was so pretty all the boys followed her around the school.

How can you SHOW us that Julie is pretty without saying it.

Taking Shortcuts (Another lazy way)--This is straight up telling. Although it looks like an "economy" of words, showing will bring your readers deeper into the story.

Tyler was kind of a nerd.

Tyler picked wrapped the Doctor Who scarf around his neck, wondering if it was too much. It didn’t really go with his Star Trek shirt. But he knew the other guys in his chess club would be as jealous as a weaponless Jedi in a light saber convention.

How can you make it better? Pick one:
Dave was taller than anyone in his grade.
Tristi was a total snob.
Mike smelled bad.

Foreshadowing--The trick here is not to be heavy handed. You don't want to call attention to the foreshadowing tidbit, if the reader notices at all they shouldn't know what's being foreshadowed.

In "The Hunger Games" there is one short section as follows...
At least Katniss knew Primrose wouldn’t get picked for the Hunger Games. After all, she only had one ticket. It would be impossible for her to get picked.
It is then followed by a page of going on about how you get more tickets in the reaping and how many Katniss has. She believes that her chances of getting picked are much greater than her sister's. Because she believes she might get picked the reader starts to fear that as well. That is what makes it so powerful when Prim's name is drawn.

How could you foreshadow this?
Mike’s dad is a thief, and Mike hates crime. But he will soon be forced into a life of crime himself.

This leads easily to the tactic of Misdirection. What can your character believe that might not be true? Avoid the Obvious at all costs. If you go with the first thing that comes to mind it's probably a cliche. 

Here are a few more things I wrote down...
  • Enter the scene late and leave early.
  • Avoid unearned emotion--MC's best friend gets shot in the first chapter. We don't care yet.
  • "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.” ~Anton Chekhov


mshatch said...

These are great examples. I have a hard time with the wondering and thinking and remembering.

Liz A. said...

Lately, I've been obsessed with Chekhov's Gun. I look for them everywhere. And I love "enter the scene late and leave early". I've been working on that one as well.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Some excellent advice and examples here... Thanks!

Kristin Smith said...

This is great, Charity! Now I need to go back through my manuscripts... :)