Study Guide

Passion Writing Style

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Writing Style

Subtle, Deceptively Simple

Subtlety is Awesome Like a Snow Leopard

All that narrative wisdom that helped earn Alice Munro a Nobel Prize wouldn't be possible without some bomb subtlety skills. With subtlety you can be wise without being preachy and entertaining without being flashy. You can make your story seem like it's about a lot of things all at once.

Subtlety is all about small details, like when Mrs. Travers rushes out to tell Grace how glad she is because Grace will know how to keep Neil from drinking. In that moment Grace is struck by minute changes in Mrs. Travers' physical appearance:

A weepy gladness leaking out of her eyes…a faint crust showing at the corners of her mouth, like sugar. (155)

It's like a facade has suddenly been stripped away to reveal Mrs. Travers' true appearance. But what does that true appearance mean? Why, until that moment, was Grace only seeing the facade? It's such a brief moment, with very little detail amid the larger context of the story, yet it contains a world of meaning.

Deceptively Simple is Awesome Like Dr. Who's Tardis

In other words, it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. How does Munro do it? We don't know. What we do know is there's a lot going on. Characters reveal hidden depths, unanswerable questions are asked, and time is messy. Still, the always-classy Munro never points a sign at these complicated things she's doing. They just tend to unfold organically, as if the story couldn't be told any other way.

For an example, let's take a look at the short scene in which Grace arrives at the Travers home for Thanksgiving dinner. Mrs. Travers is helping her granddaughters put together a jigsaw puzzle, and when she sees Grace she jumps up for an embrace—"the first time she had ever done this" (86)—and scatters some jigsaw pieces with a clumsy motion of her hand. This seems small, right? It seems like something out of a sitcom. There'd be a sad trombone sound and canned laughter from the fake studio audience. But a moment later, as her granddaughters complain about the destroyed puzzle, Mrs. Travers ignores them and is "still squeezing Grace's arms" (90).

It's like the camera lingers just a little bit longer than we'd expect, and by doing so we're seeing something quietly dramatic. Mrs. Travers is desperate, she's really happy to see Grace, she's ignoring her grandchildren, and Grace suddenly sees that calm and independent aura that surrounds Mrs. Travers slipping a bit. 

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