Subtlety in Writing

There are dozens of skills often seen as essential when it comes to writing. A lot of them are actually quite contentious. Being able to show through your writing rather than over-explain for instance. Exposition isn’t as frowned upon in literature as it is in film or TV, though it is often encouraged not to over-explain in writing.
However, easily one of the most argued skills is subtlety in storytelling. It’s an interesting one, because there are those who swear by subtlety being completely unnecessary in writing. So let’s discuss.

I think the thing people often immediately think of in regards to subtlety is horror. This is where it’s least contentious, and it’s where it’s most obvious to point out how it can be effective. Is it scary if you just show the monster right away? No. Is it scary to have ridiculous amounts of blood and gore? No. It even loses the disturbing edge and becomes comical before long if it’s done to a certain extent. No, subtlety is arguably the most important skill for a horror writer.
Knowing what to hold back is far more important than knowing what you should show. You’ll scare a reader a lot more by implying something horrific just out of sight, or something horrendous happening to a character. You won’t get the same response by overtly describing it.

This is all fairly agreed-upon stuff, though. Most people know this. Where it starts to get contentious is that it is entirely possible to follow these same steps for any kind of writing - and achieve the same result!
It’s always someone’s first instinct to over-explain graphic violence, or substance abuse, or intimate acts. It makes the story seem more mature to a beginner writer. However, the opposite ends up being the case. Approaching sensitive subjects especially tends to end up seeming juvenile when it’s all just laid out. Especially things like substance abuse and domestic violence.

So how can you fix this? How do you actually help writing seem more mature when tackling issues like these? It’s quite simple really. Imply. Substance abuse can destroy a person’s life. The effects are obvious, and disastrous. Imply the effects rather than detailing the substances or their habits. The effects they have on the character and those around them are the important thing for the story anyway, if you’re subtle enough about it, trust me. The reader’s imagination will do a far better job imagining what the character does in their free time than a writer could ever manage with a lengthy explanation.
Using subtlety is an imporant skill. Laying all of your cards out and over-explaining right off the bat leads to writing seeming juvenile, and makes a reader not really want to read further if they already know everything you know? Whereas if you hint at things. If you imply that there’s more going on, a reader will be hooked. Their imagination will be fired up and working overdrive. They’ll be engaged.

So what do you think? Do you disagree with my assessment?
If so, why? Let’s discuss!


I agree with what you said about horror stories needing subtlety! I have read horrors where I just feel like the author has done too much too soon which meant the flame they had been trying to ignite in terms of building up suspense died out far too quickly so they lost my attention.

With that said I do like when a short horror story goes into detail about something bad because I enjoy devouring different short stories that burn out then die down so I can move onto the next.

In terms of long horror though I want to actually be scared for the period of time it takes me to read the story. Not just read a 300 page long bloodfest.


Big agree \o/

But also for short stories, I’ve found that never revealing what something looks like or going into graphic detail can work just as well. The short stories that stuck with me were the ones that implied something terrible lurking just beyond the edge of the page, or something horrific happening just after that last point.

Implication is scarier than description :smile:

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That’s true too! That’s why I like this one story called Hisaruki (well it’s an urban legend) only kids can see it but it’s implied to be really bad. It gave me the chills. here is the story btw for anyone interested.

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I knew I’d heard this one before, yeah, the Kirakira variant was the one I’d heard.

Neat stuff!

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I think that subtlety is very important, because it makes stories a lot more interesting and reinforce their message better when the audience is being challenged to think about the work.

@Writers ~ Is subtlety important in writing? Do you struggle with subtlety in your own work?


It is important. In The One, Élise and I put very subtle references to who the killer(s) is/are throughout the Episodes.


Yes, it’s too important. It keeps the reader in suspense. … I think that I can be way too subtle sometimes

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Subtlety can be really difficult, especially when you have the ideas in your mind of how you want something to go in a story. Because of your knowledge, it can be hard to keep things subtle the other extreme of making sure it’s not too subtle where nobody can notice it if they don’t know about it. Its a small window of giving enough information, and not being too clear.

also added some tags

I think subtlety is important if you’re trying to share a message… preachiness usually never works!

Sometimes, though, it does pay to not be subtle imo. Unfortunately people aren’t always going to know what you mean, and it’d suck if they completely misinterpret everything.