The art of subtlety in writing

I belong to a support group, and someone in that group recommended reading a YA book called ‘Jacob Have I Loved.’ It’s about a girl who grows up on an island in the Chesapeake Bay area with a twin sister who’s very different from her – favored and pampered by their parents and the community in general. The title refers to this Bible verse (even though it’s not a religious book):

As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ – Romans 9:13

To give context, in the Bible, Jacob and Esau are twins. Esau is the older one, but Jacob deceives him and receives a very important blessing from their elderly father. The book invokes the conflict between Jacob and Esau in the title; the narrator relates to Esau, as technically she’s the oldest, but it’s the youngest who manages to take attention away from her.

I was reading with a purpose – specifically to look at the dynamic between the siblings and within the family unit. Art reflects life, after all.

What I found were great examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ and subtlety in writing.

[No major spoilers ahead, but I am going to describe a few scenes.]

The narrator of the book, Louise, is often frustrated with the preferred treatment she sees her sister Caroline receiving. There’s a wonderful scene where her sister is making fun of a classmate. The classmate isn’t present, only the family – Louise, Caroline, their parents, and their grandmother.

As Caroline continues to ridicule this classmate, Louise states that she’s waiting for one of her parents to chide her sister, but they just ignore her – until, finally, her father smiles. Louise notes that as soon as Caroline got that validation, she immediately stopped because she’d gotten what she wanted. Louise is left frustrated.

It’s a really nice way of showing an uneven family dynamic – Louise knows, and the reader knows, that if she behaved similarly, she’d get in trouble. We know that her parents don’t (theoretically) approve of them making fun of people. And yet, in practice, they do nothing to put a stop to Caroline mocking another girl. Louise is frustrated, and the reader sympathizes – no matter how old we are, we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve watched someone get away with bad behavior.

There are other moments, too. When Louise, who has a side hustle catching and selling crabs, comes home after a morning on the bay, Caroline immediately and kind of mockingly tells her that she stinks. Who wouldn’t, after navigating a skiff around the bay and handling these guys?

Her mother, more subtly, says, By the time you wash up, dinner will be ready. Louise appreciates this and waxes poetic about her mother’s response vs. Caroline’s for a moment.

Because it’s childrens’ lit, the author has Louise explain why Caroline’s reaction annoyed her while her mother’s reaction made her feel better. But rewritten for an adult audience, one simply needs to remove the exposition, and you’ve got a beautiful example of how to show the dynamics between the different characters, highlight personalities, and reveal tensions.

Another great moment is when Louise, whose hands have become rough, splurges a bit on a jar of lotion. She hides it away in a drawer and only uses it when she’s alone. One day, she comes home and finds Caroline “generously slathering” it all over her hands. Louise loses her temper, yells at her sister to just take it and “take everything,” but ends up completely destroying the jar. Caroline, for her part, just sits there and sighs.

Again, there’s more explanation of Louise’s outburst due to it being meant for younger audiences, but that’s another great way of showing without telling. By now, you know Caroline has a massive sense of entitlement, and an adult reading this will realize it’s not her fault – it’s because her parents treat her like she’s special and allow her to get away with things. Therefore, Caroline feels perfectly okay about going through her sister’s drawer, and using something that Louise was clearly trying to keep for herself. When Louise catches her, Caroline doesn’t act surprised or guilty – in fact, she seems a bit confused by Louise’s reaction. This underscores that Caroline is likely not aware of why her invasion of Louise’s privacy invokes her sister’s rage.

I’ve enjoyed this book as a good example of showing, but it’s also a good example of ‘show and tell’. Telling is perfectly fine – in fact, it’s necessary. Good writing is writing that balances the two.

I use ‘tell then show’ it to move timelines along – I have a story where a character is abducted, escapes her captors, and has to find her way home. It takes her months. I’m not going to show every step of that journey – I’m going to tell you it’s been a month, and show you where she is now.

As I’m starting to dip more seriously back into writing, I find myself really appreciating scenes that can show you a lot simply by presenting the situation then moving on, or slipping in a subtle moment that’s revealing in some way. That kind of showing and subtlety is what draws people in – even very young people. We are surrounded by moments like this all the time, and even before we can articulate the complexity of a scene, we intuitively understand it.

This is also an example of reading as a writer – finding scenes that strike you and thinking about why you like them, why they work, what they reveal.

I’ll end without giving anything away, but I will say, the way this book ends in intriguing. When I read is as a kid, I didn’t quite understand how…adult the ending is, in that there are things that I think would be lost on a kid. Reading it now, I find I keep returning to the ending, and digging through all the beautiful complexities that the author was able to draw together right at the conclusion.

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