Give subtlety a loud shout! – Vinita Dawra Nangia

In art and in real life, the power of subtlety cannot be underestimated.


The best type of writing is subtle, rather than too much in the face. Nuances work far more powerfully than hyperboles. A quiet frown is more effective than an angry protest, a pleased smile more memorable than spoken thanks. Actions do speak louder than words. And affectionate gestures and caring ways are a more sincere way of expressing love than mere words. A fleeting touch on the hand sometimes is more meaningful than a hug.

It is more pleasurable to hear the rustle of the leaves rather than know that a wind is blowing. The smell of the earth and the sound of pitter-patter is more pleasing than being told “it is raining heavily”.

To tease the minds of readers and please their senses is the art of a masterful storyteller. From here, to working the readers’ emotions is the next step. This cannot be achieved by merely describing a scene. A better writer will write of his own senses and emotions responding to an incident by putting himself right there. Even more masterful would be to get into the skin of the character and stir the reader by displaying the effect of the incident on the character.

Masterful writers have used the technique of pathetic fallacy, where human emotions are attributed to nature – the wind howls when tragedy strikes, dark clouds gather to depict sadness, a storm rages to portray violence, and of course the sun shines for happy moments. However today it is more common for writers to explore the emotions of characters in relation to events and circumstances. It makes it easier to relate and empathise with characters when they reel under tragedy, crumple with sadness, shake with aggression or feel light and airy with happiness.

In art too, the best works are those that bring in an element of subtlety and hint at something rather than show it. In a painting, the reflection of sunlight bouncing off water or the colours of the sky reflected in a lake are more appealing than showing the actual sun or sky. Great masters reflect more their vision and understanding rather than depicting what the world sees anyway. No wonder then that the hint of mystery and a suggestive Mona Lisa smile enthralls millions down the years.

Since art depicts life, would it be true to say that humans too follow the same principle? In our interaction with each other, is subtle more effective and lasting than the blatant? Ask those who have made an art of the practice. Those who use the nuances of silence as their most effective communication tool. Indeed how well we use silence in communication is an indicator of our emotional intelligence. Those who speak less are heard with more care and taken more seriously.

In matters of the heart, subtle hints and nuances are more romantic than spelling out something clearly. A stolen glance or an intense look can convey more with sincerity than any number of words. Emotions conveyed through poetry that may or may not be directed at you keeps the excitement going – who would understand this better than poets and their hundreds of fawning followers!

Those who are loud and flashily demonstrative may hog the spotlight, but the ones who are valued and cherished are those whose words are more subtle and sophisticated and whose actions are underplayed and meaningful. The most effective people are those who lead by example rather than by rhetoric; those who build such a respectable image that a disappointment in their eyes hurts you more than a physical blow.

That which is indicative is more powerful than what is expressed. As Keats says in Ode on a Grecian Urn, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…” The songs that sing in our heads are always more powerful than those we actually sing or hear. Imagination has greater scope with the subtle and unexpressed than it has with the blatant and overexposed. And who will argue that reality can ever lend us the magic and bloom that imagination does?

The writer works with the Times of India. [Courtesy: ToI]