If it’s emotional, flatten the tone

Here is a tip for writers. It is something I knew (“show, don’t tell”) and tried to observe in writing the piece I have just finished. But not enough, apparently.

My editor, one of the best there is in journalism, emailed me this:

I think the emotional pitch of the vocabulary needs to be turned down a little. The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter. It needs fewer words like “pain” and “vulnerable”. I feel the pain and sense the vulnerability more acutely if I’m allowed to discover them by myself.

I did as she said. The piece is much more powerful as a result. Lesson: let the details provide the color, and never interrupt the story they tell.

21 thoughts on “If it’s emotional, flatten the tone

  1. I’ll be interested to read the piece you’ve just finished.

    But, isn’t your editor being just a little old-fashioned? Doesn’t she know that we readers of today like to be spoon fed, so that nothing must be left to our imaginations? Is this not why you were told to add that last explanatory chapter to your forthcoming book?

    Your book editor may be more attuned to our Zeitgeist than is your magazine editor.

    • As you know, I love you for your sense of irony, Philippe.

      “… we readers of today like to be spoon fed, so that nothing must be left to our imaginations..”:

      You are describing yourself through your antithesis.

      “…Is this not why you were told to add that last explanatory chapter to your forthcoming book?…”:

      Ouch. This was your real point. What can I say? Does one editor (publication) aim for a genteel market, the other for a mass market?

      In truth, there is more to it. In the book, which is about historical characters, I sometimes lacked the details (=raw materials) to evoke the emotions intended. In my reporting piece, the one just completed, the piece WAS the details.

  2. Interesting issue and there probably is a difference between how this issue operates in fiction vs. non-fiction. Use of emotional words in non-fiction can probably impair the appearance of objectivity. In fiction, it probably depends on what the writer is trying to accomplish–think about the way T. S. Eliot evokes emotion with images rather than emotive words?

    • Use of emotional words in non-fiction can probably impair the appearance of objectivity.

      I was struck by the implications of this. In news reporting, which would be one form of non-fiction, you should not want simply the “appearance” of objectivity. You should try to achieve complete objectivity. But there are areas of non-fiction where objectivity is less important, where emotion should be evident. Political commentary, some historical pieces, etc.

      Knowing when to insert emotion is difficult. Recognizing it whenever you do may be more so.

    • The issue of objectivity is a huge philosophical topic that I’m going to skirt here.

      I was trying to say something else: Let’s say you’re trying to emote, to be deliberately subjective in an emotional way, to play the heartstrings of your readers. How do you best do it, in fiction or non-fiction?

      Answer: Probably (I always add a hedge word), by giving details that cause the intended emotion in the reader, not by calling the emotion out by name.

  3. Is this very similar to what they teach you at acting schools (from what I’ve heard)? “When your loved one dies, do not moan to death yourself; be economical in using your emotions. The audience can feel your pain. Don’t make it obvious with all that wailing.”

    Btw Andreas have you written any obit after Pattabi Jois? Would love to read one coming from you and Ann!

    • Applying actor training concepts to writing appeals to me hugely. Think about this: the actor has words and actions to convey a story. If the actions do nothing more than mimic the words, they are superfluous. But what if the actor conveys with his body something contrary to the words? That could be interesting.

      A broad example: Twelfth Night. Viola, who, we will discover, is a take-charge kind of gal, entreats the captain who saved her life to disguise her as a boy and help her to employment at Duke Orsino’s court. Her final words to the captain in this scene are: I thank thee: lead me on.

      In the production I saw this weekend, Viola says “lead me on”, as she practically knocks the captain down and takes the lead herself.

    • As Douglas also agrees below, I’m a huge fan of drawing analogies across the arts, and yes, acting works for me!

      Abhishek, no, I haven’t written an obit since then. It’s really Ann’s column, the rest of us just sit in sometimes when we know a lot about a specific deceased person.

    • In real life, people often try to conceal their emotions. We frequently strive to project something other that what’s going on inside of us.

      The hallmark of bad/inexperienced acting is present a character that is showing rather than concealing, i.e., “overacting.” In the real world, people who are angry—not always but in general—attempt to appear calm. People who are intoxicated generally attempt to appear sober. Bad actors play drunk people as if they were trying to appear drunk, and then it doesn’t look real.

  4. Andreas, your referenced piece was a delight. not simply because I admire Rembrandt but more so because of the blending of the art of painting with the art of writing to make a point.

  5. “think different”

    “just do it”

    “got milk?”

    “it’s morning in america” hal riney’s voice over for reagan

    simple, highly emotive

  6. Emotional incontinence. This is apparently a real and serious disease. Some of you leftys may have heard of it the other day on the gov’t-subsidized radio; crying at the light switch, laughing at the car accident. It is treatable with cough medicine (dextromathorawhatsit).

    I look for it everywhere now. Emotional incontinence. What a great phrase.

    I have this affliction while flying (in airplanes).

    • I look for it everywhere now. Emotional incontinence. What a great phrase.

      Curse you, Mr. Crotchety! Now I will be seeing this everywhere, too. It’s enough to make me cry at a Comedy Club…

  7. Andreas,

    I completely agree with your editor’s point about letting a subject matter speak for itself. When we’re able to create and imagine, we are more captivated. My one point of contention would be that without even a slight emotional hook in the writing, the content of the subject matter may be lost in the first place. Although I suppose if the subject matter is powerful enough, the writing hook is in the flatness…

    The balance is finding a way to evoke emotion in the reader without being overly emotional. I think that while overt emotion repels, a small dosage captivates and encourages people to continue creating. It’s thus probably equally important to know what type of piece you are writing, as well as your intended audience and how they’ll respond to your pitch.

    • Well said, Eliot.

      Did I mention mirror neurons above? Those are apparently the brain waves in one human being that mirror, ie recreate, those in another whom he is seeing, hearing, smelling etc. Empathy, you might say.

      So the trick for a writer might be, through words, to trigger the mirror neurons inside the reader that will let him empathize with the emotions of the subject — to actually have those emotions.

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