This Post is About Subtlety

I’m a big fan of subtlety. I love paying attention to small details in a book (or movie or tv show), trying to piece together all of the breadcrumbs the author (or director) is leaving for the audience. It’s a great feeling to solve the mystery before the characters do — well, not if I solve it at the beginning of the book. Then I want to bang my head against the wall or chuck the book across the room because the characters are too stupid to figure it out. (I’m looking at you, Cassandra Clare.)

There are also hints that you don’t get until a second read through. A great example is from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. His first night at Hogwarts, Harry has a dream where Quirrel’s turban is telling him that he has to switch to Slytherin. On your first read, it just reads like an anxiety dream echoing the Sorting Hat’s insistence that Harry would do well in that house. On your second read, you’re like “OMG Quirrel’s turban! It’s Voldemort!” And then once you learn about the mental bond between Harry and Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix and horcruxes in Half Blood Prince, the dream takes on an entirely different tone.

Not bad for a short paragraph in the first book, eh?

Now, my writing group doesn’t seem to be as fond of subtlety as I am. For the whole first quarter of the book, every time Eustace holds something or touches something, I mention that he’s wearing gloves. It doesn’t matter if he’s riding, or eating, or reading a book — he always wears leather gloves. If this was a book I was reading instead of writing, I’d think “oh my god, he’s wearing gloves, I get it already. Stop mentioning them.”

But not a single person in my writing group noticed.

I’ve got another thread going that I doubt anyone’s picked up on. I’m using a certain phrase to note when Pennington’s just changed something. I got the idea from Princess Tutu, an anime that plays with some of the same elements that Narrator does. I’m sure my writing group would insist that it’s too subtle, but I know the phrase works because I picked up on it while watching the anime.

So do me a favor. Next time you’re reading a book, pay attention. Pay strict attention. If the author knows what she’s doing, she’s leaving breadcrumbs for you to follow — with the lightest touch or the smallest movement. If you read the end of Goblet of Fire and noticed Dumbledore’s smile of “triumph” when Harry told him what happened with Voldemort in the graveyard, you did just right.

If you didn’t…you weren’t reading carefully enough.


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.