The point of reading is to experience emotion. Granted, emotion is a tricky thing to play around with. A piece of writing advice from a creative writing class has always stuck with me: “Just because your hero/heroine is crying, doesn’t mean your reader is. In fact, they may be laughing, thinking ‘what a sap!’ ” Authors are mostly running a puppet show, pulling strings here and there to influence readers, whether we embarrass or confuse the hero to produce a laugh, or allow our hero to destroy his favorite possession/relationship instead of crying. In Rosey Mucklestone’s book Blank Mastermind, she used this technique liberally.
Readers will feel annoyed—or worse, offended—if you feel the need to sketch out every single emotion you want them to feel. Running a puppet show is fine, but hiding the strings and mechanical pieces helps with the final presentation. When her protagonist Wolfgang Dankworth is torn by guilt over a personal tragedy that he was unable to prevent, readers aren’t mentally put off by his ‘responsibility’ for the event. The emotion collectively reported by all her alpha and beta readers was sadness.
Sketch out backstories.
All the famous Hemingway iceberg quotes in the world won’t help if you aren’t aware of what’s under the water. Just because you are going to be subtle and drop hints to your readers, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know the full story. On the contrary, knowing all the pain and joy and motives that stem from your characters’ pasts will help you know where to drop hints and sketch the outlines of a story that readers will be more than happy to fill in.
Before she touched the second draft of her story, Mucklestone poured time into sketching out how certain characters met, how key events in their backstories occurred, and what their lives were like before the cataclysmic event in their pasts. This can be done in the form of multiple short stories, or in offhand notes that sum up who this character is. Some writers will do this before they ever put pen to paper. Some will embrace the process of discovery without outlining out every detail of their characters.
Trust the intelligence of your readers.
For instance, some things are too painful to be spelled out without compromising subtlety. In the story, it is mentioned that Wolfgang’s hands shake whenever he is nervous. Pairing this fact with the passing mention of the scars on his wrists, it’s easy to piece together his reaction after the tragedy that occurred in his backstory. It’s never stated outright that Wolfgang tried to commit suicide. It’s only hinted at, and readers appreciate the author’s trust in them to piece things together without too much confusion or brain-work.
In short, subtext is the most powerful way to hide layers of meaning in your story. It’s a technique used blatantly in mysteries, but all creative work would be much better for a heavy dose of subtext.