I want to write a dystopia and find it hard to convey that things aren't at all right. I had planned to convey this in subtle reading clues, but I am worried that certain types of readers - or perhaps most readers - won't get it.

In my writing circles there are readers who admit they are completely oblivious to body language, social cues, and other subtle things in real life as well as reading on paper. When I speed-read, I am also equally oblivious, so I imagine the circle of people who are oblivious to subtle writing clues is quite large.

In other words, I would want to write something like

"John Smith stuck his credit card into the machine, waited, and walked away."

But I fear that my readers won't get it. (This is a strange thing to do - John didn't get his card or anything else back, seemed to serve no purpose but to waste time.) I realize that this is a poor example, but I'm trying to have my example convey that something here is not at all right.

One of these things is not like the other

The crux of my question is that I am worried people will miss subtle clues that explains what is going on. As an author, should I be giving the clues and then expound so the reader gets it? If I decide not to, am I a terrible person for disregarding readers who may have a disability/disadvantage/clinical issue - or should I write differently to make my work accessible to them? I also wonder if I should be catering to as many "reader types" as possible so my work will be read and enjoyed as much as possible?

(Bonus: and did you notice what is wrong in the picture? I put it there to try to demonstrate subtleness and how we sometimes don't notice).

  • 1
    Amusingly, no one in our class realised anything was weird about "the clock was striking thirteen" in 1984 until our teacher pointed it out xD
    – Mac Cooper
    Jun 20, 2015 at 9:18
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    @MacCooper I think that is a mark of good writing, that you can read it again and pick up on subtlety that you hadn't spotted before, that minutely changes the story (or hugely perhaps)
    – Michael B
    Jun 20, 2015 at 11:18
  • Thank you all for your answers. I just wanted to poke in and say that at this point every answer is tied so I'll wait a little while and hope one rises to the top and accept that one.
    – rlb.usa
    Jun 20, 2015 at 15:08

5 Answers 5


In that example there aren't any clues to anything. It is uncommon for someone to walk away without retrieving his credit card, but there are no clues as to what this might mean.

It is very likely that you make a mistake common to beginning writers: you know what you want to say, and therefore you know what your text is supposed to say, and you mistakenly assume that this information is in the text, while in reality it is not there at all and you are in fact supplementing it from your mind.

When it comes to writing, the reader is always right. This is not an intelligence test, but a product you are trying to sell. If your customers don't "get it" -- that is, if they don't understand your meaning -- then they did not get what they paid for and they'll never buy a book of yours again. And that is the end of your career as a writer.

So have your text read by test readers and believe every word they say. Listen graciously and do not argue. You are the one who must understand what is wrong with his text and correct that.

I don't want to go farther beyond the scope of the current question. There is another recent question about how to deal with feedback where I and others wrote more on that: Feedback: What to use and what to ignore?

As for this question, I didn't get your example. I'm an unattentive reader and you will lose me with such subleties. If John leaves the card on purpose, say so. If John forgets it, say so. If there is no explanation at all, I will interpret it as either random and meaningless (e.g. he's turned into a zombie and does random stuff) or as bad writing. I'll repeat myself: genre writing is not a test of the reader's attentiveness, perceptiveness or ability to solve riddles. Not disclosing information to the reader that the protagonist has is a cheap device. It annoys the hell out of me.

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    Personally I would say it is better to "believe every word they say. Listen graciously and do not argue" and then decide what bearing their advice has on the story that you are writing. It might be ok to ignore their suggestions, as long as you can justify doing so in the context of the story you're telling - The alternative is writing by committee, and that rarely works out well...
    – Michael B
    Jun 20, 2015 at 11:12
  • @MichaelB Of course. See the edit to my answer.
    – user5645
    Jun 20, 2015 at 12:14
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    There is a difference between not disclosing information, and 'leaking' none essential information in a way that could potentially be missed - personally I quite like the little snippets that you pick up on later and think 'oh that's what that meant...' (and I think I had that feedback question in mind when I wrote the other comment!)
    – Michael B
    Jun 20, 2015 at 12:28

I think it very largely depends on what it is you are trying to convey. If John Smith not retrieving his card is a point that is an essential plot point, then you probably need to amplify it somewhere. If missing that fact alters the general flow of your story then it needs to be explained less subtly.

"John Smith stuck his credit card into the machine, waits, thinks, and walks away." (slightly modified!)

If later you have a shop scene, where he realises he hasn't got his card, so abandon's his purchases, and goes home. He explains to his wife that he didn't get courgettes because he seems to have lost his card. So they can't have ratatouille, so they go out and eat instead, at the restaurant something happens and everyone dies!

For the reader who picked up on the fact that John didn't retrieve his card, they will pick up on the potential malevolence of him intentionally leaving his card behind. For those who didn't pick up on it, The story hasn't significantly altered by that subtlety. Such things can be used as a hint towards character traits or to provide early warnings for those who are paying attention, but safely ignored by those who don't.

(edited to make example vaguely more understandable)

  • I agree with your point but didn't get your example ;-)
    – user5645
    Jun 20, 2015 at 12:13
  • @what Yeah, I get that a lot with my first drafts! It usually takes the big red editor pen before I (begrudgingly) rewrite ;)
    – Michael B
    Jun 20, 2015 at 12:17

Do you want to be such a writer that spells out everything? Or do you want to write stories that make people think?

I think you know the answer already. Please do not dumb down but write to the best of your ability!

It is a difficult balance to find, and proof-readers will help you get there. Bear in mind that never ever you can serve everyone at once.

BTW Thanks for the nice cat picture. Just a little out of place among the meerkat.


Your readers don't have to understand everything, They just have to understand enough that they are not unduly confused. It is alright to confuse your readers as long as they do not feel the story was confusing. If they think they know what is going on, but don't agree with each other, you may have written a masterpiece.

For a good example let's look at Toy Story (Pixar does this alot). My nieces and nephews loved it as did my aunts. My uncles never did say if they liked it because they were not enjoying the flak they got for modifying toys as kids. The kids never picked up on the subtleties and the things they enjoyed weren't significant to the adults.

If your readers are missing details related to subtexts this is fine. If your readers are missing plot related details, you may have a problem. Redundant hints can help mitigate it.


Any time you drop a subtle hint, most readers will initially miss it. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It can be fun/gratifying for a reader to initially be blindsided by a development, only to realize that the clues were all there all along.

Also, just as in life, we process a lot of information subconsciously. If you want a general sense of "something wrong," you don't want to beat people over the head with it.

However, at some point the pieces have to fall into place. You can't go on being subtle for the whole book.

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