Friday, July 17, 2009


nuance--the use of a particular word, concept, gesture, or intent for the best shade of meaning possible; the right word or concept in the right place in a story or novel; the difference offered to the reader between two or more possible interpretations; an opportunity for the close reader to appreciate the intent of a story in greater detail.

Nuance is a major challenge to the reader and the writer, a trail of literary crumbs left by the writer to lure the reader onward much as the crumbs left by the witch were used to lure Hansel and Gretel deeper into her clutches. Flaubert gained some note of attention because of his preoccupation with finding the right word. Mark Twain played with the same notion, speaking of the right word, not its second cousin, then to even greater effect, " The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Accordingly, nuance and subtext are not merely second cousins, they are kissing cousins, forcing the reader and the writer to examine the words that will best radiate the intent of the characters behavior and perceptions. Not one character in The Remains of the Day called Mr. Stevens, the lead, a naive narrator, and yet the reader knew through nuance and subtext of the numerous instances where Stevens simply did not "get" or properly read the intent at hand. When Lord Darlington asked Stevens if any of his employees were Jewish, for instance, Stevens was unable to read the implications, nor was he able to see Miss Kenton coming on to him. Indeed, Stevens' new employer, the American owner of Darlington Hall, has to remind Stevens to loosen up a bit, and Stevens dutifully reports to us that he will attempt to do so.

Ford Maddox Ford's breakout novel, The Good Soldier, begins with John Dowell, the first-person narrator, telling us, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Dowell continues at somewhat of a ramble, seemingly looking for a way to introduce the story of a nine-year friendship he and his wife, Florence, have shared with an English couple, the Ashburnhams. At length, Dowell decides to imagine himself at the fireplace of a country cottage, "with a sympathetic soul opposite," the best way of telling us his story. By this point, it is possible to suspect motives of Dowell, sympathy from us not the least of them. As Stevens does in Remains, Dowell presents a scenario of events which, through their highly nuanced nature, suggest an outcome that pays off directly on the opening line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," but does so with a payoff that has lingering, ironic consequences.

Hint: Look for the effect you wish the reader to arrive at, then construct a situation in which one or more of the characters can demonstrate that effect. Dramatize, not state. Show by inference, not tell by authorial intrusion.

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