Subtlety is important in good writing, and requires you to trust your readers to catch on to things. In the first part of this series, we saw examples of problem #1: showing and then telling. Now we'll look at a bigger-picture problem.
Problem #2: Beating Your Reader Over the Head with Big Themes
When you write, you need to make sure your readers understand—and remember—major elements in your story: plot points, secondary characters, your hero's strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and what's at stake. You will probably also be weaving in overall themes, questions, or messages.
As with anything important, the temptation is to overemphasize these elements. The result? Beating your readers over the head.
One common area this occurs is with character traits. If, for example, you character is afraid of getting emotionally involved with other people, establish it well when you first reveal it, preferably through showing instead of telling, then give your readers credit for remembering. Reinforce it with your character's actions now and then, as natural to the plot, but if you keep hammering it in, especially in narration, your reader will get annoyed.
Overall themes and messages can drown in repetition too. If your character is a sickly, selfish, unhappy thing, and through the course of the book she starts helping and thus caring about other people, and slowly becomes healthier and happier, your reader will understand the connection. You can reinforce it through specific things she does for others, and how she feels afterwards, but refrain from statements like "the selfish, unhappy, sickly woman had discovered that helping other people made her happy. Her health had returned and her life had meaning." Not only does this bang a frying pan on your reader's head; it ventures into the realm of preachiness.
If your aim is to influence readers, preaching is one of the least effective way to do so. Nobody likes a lecture, but people do like good stories where characters make positive changes in their lives or suffer through mistakes that the readers might do well to avoid. When readers sympathize with characters different from themselves, or learn about situations they knew nothing about, perspectives can change. All this will only have a real effect, however, if the reader is left alone to make the connections.
There's often a fine line between overexplanation and underexplanation. In trying to be subtle and cut out repetition, you can stray into underexplanation, something just as deadly. You, as the writer, might not be the best judge of how much reminding is enough, since you know your ideas and characters so well. This is where beta readers and critiquers come in so handy.
Solution to Beating your Reader Over the Head
Find several people who can read your entire manuscript carefully and give constructive feedback. This may be a local critique group, fellow writers or avid readers you met online, or friends and family who will be honest yet kind and whose critiques won't ruin your relationship. Ask them specifically to look for areas of repetition, and make careful note of them.
Add to their lists any other story elements you believe you may have hit home too hard. Then sit down and read the whole book, cover to cover, within a few days. Mark the page numbers where you touch on these ideas. Then go back and trim, trim, trim.
After you're all done, find a few people who have never read you book. If it still makes sense to them, and communicates what you want it to, you've done your job well.
Subtlety takes work, but it's vital for good writing. As the famous saying goes, "If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." Take the time to write that shorter, tighter, more subtle story, and you'll be rewarded.
Melinda Brasher writes in many genres. This month's issue of Spark Anthology (Volume IV) will include one of her science fiction short stories, about an ill-fated colonization project. To get a 35% discount, use the code BRASHER-FRIENDS. Offer expires January 31. She is also the author of Far-Knowing, a YA fantasy novel, and Leaving Home, a collection of short stories, travel essays, and flash fiction. Visit her blog for all the latest: http://www.melindabrasher.com