Thursday, 23 September 2010

Subtlety in Writing

Anyone remember Alan Rickman playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood? Was there ever a more over-the-top performance given by a classically trained actor? (So much more enjoyable than the recent Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott version.) Alan received the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, and came up to make his speech. He clutched the award in his hands and intoned in that distinctive sonorous voice: "I shall keep this award always, to remind me that subtlety is not everything in acting."

And subtlety is not everything in writing. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the idea of show not tell, that we go all subtle about everything, even stuff that doesn't need to be subtle. I had this with a student last term. The character was doing...something to something, I couldn't quite work out what. It turned out that the mysterious object was a chair, and the character was sitting down on it.

'Why didn't you just say that?' I asked.

'I wanted to be subtle about it, to make the reader work and engage with my writing.'

Hmm. That's fine in principle, but this wasn't an important plot device or an allusion to motivation. Sometimes we can be too clever. Sometimes a chair is a chair, and just gets sat on.


Dan Holloway said...

It's sometimes such a fine line between not patronising the reader and leaving them clueless. And other times it's, well, not.

I love Alan Rickman in most things (Truly Madly Deeply especially) - Robin Hood was the first film I saw in Oxford as a student (the thing I remember most was that everyone in the cinema stood up when Sean Connery came on as Richard at the end) - some wonderful lines "with a spoon" being even more memorable than calling off Christmas.

I think the key is that sometimes as writers we think everything needs to be subtle, so the things that really DO need to be subtle get lost in the overall sea of grey. The key is to make the inessentials so transparent that as readers we become attuned to genuine subtlety - it's about variation and rhythm as so often.

Sarah Duncan said...

The spoon line is brilliant, as is AR generally.

I know it can be tricky getting the balance right, but I'm seeing quite a lot of writing where it's gone so far into subtlety it's incomprehensible.