Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tone-Deaf Writing

One of the terms you might hear thrown around regarding writing is "tone." This is not the same as "voice," though it's certainly a big part of voice. Tone in fiction refers to the author's attitude toward the subject: how seriously (or casually) the author seems to take his subject.

There is a complete spectrum of tone, from indifference to over-the-top histrionics, but most writers avoid the extremes, and we'll consider tone as having essentially three shades: understatement, hyperbole and a middle ground. Hey, let's examine each shade in turn.

Understatement is a casual or light treatment of the subject. The reader is given to believe that the author does not take a subject seriously. This is common in first-person narratives, but not so common in third-person except in comedy.

Often understatement is used to call upon the moral indignation of the reader because the reader knows it's a serious subject and thinks the narrator should think so, too. This form of irony was common in 19th-century writing (Lermontov, Gogol, et cetera). Some of Nabokov's unreliable villain narrators pretend to be indifferent in order to anger the reader. Voltaire's Candide and a lot of Vonnegut seem to be understated treatments of their subjects.

Hyperbole is the opposite of understatement. In hyperbole, some elements are exaggerated for rhetorical effect. A lot of genre fiction employes hyperbole because it's a way of heightening the drama. A lot of mythological writing is hyperbole. Ain't that a surprise? Hyperbole is also commonly used nowadays for comic effect.

Much horror/suspense writing is hyperbolic. Think of Poe, Lovecraft, Ludlum and friends. Hyperbole can be similar to melodrama, but it's not necessarily the same thing. Purple prose is often hyperbole, but not all hyperbole is purple prose.

The middle ground is the style used by most authors, who present an accurate picture of things as they are. Or as they could be (we are after all talking about fiction here, which includes fantasy, sf and vampiric werewolf romance and zombie comedies). Examples are too numerous to list. Tolstoy, though, is often held up as a realistic tonal stylist whose prose stays out of the way of the story.

Bear in mind that the tonal spectrum isn't absolute, either. One man's middle ground is another man's hyperbole, and some folks' idea of "subtle" involves a sledge hammer. The important thing is to match the tone of the piece to the intention behind it. Unless you write about the same topics from the same emotional perspective, you probably use a variety of tones in your prose, whether you know it or not.

Sometimes, the tone is wrong for the piece. When this happens, I call it "tone-deaf writing."

Failures in tone (tone-deafness)

The spectrum of possible tones in a narrative is not a scale of "good-to-bad" writing, and hyperbolic prose is no better or worse than middle ground prose or understatement. It's a matter of taste and the needs of the writer to manipulate her story/characters/plot/et cetera. But there are a couple of ways in which the tone of a piece can be bad writing, by which I mean here unsuccessful writing (or lazy or thoughtless or cliche writing).

Sentimentality is a danger especially in hyperbole, and it is when the author attempts to impose upon the material a greater emotional burden than it can comfortably bear. Which means that simply mentioning a baby doesn't get you a sympatheic character. All young children are not instantly adorable. All pregnant mothers do not deserve our tears. All ghosts are not immediately frightening. "Sentiment" is emotion that is not supported by the actual text.

Inhibition is usually a by-product of going too far with understatement, and is an author's failure to give due emotional weight to his material. Which is to say, if something tragic (or joyous et cetera) happens and there is no reaction to it by the narrator or any character in the story, or if there's an epiphany reached by a character but the character or narrator doesn't reflect at all on it and the writer is essentially backing away from strong emotion in his writing, we have an inhibited narrative.

Inhibition is my particular bete noir. My agent and I have had some 'lively exchanges' where he tells me I'm not giving enough to my reader and I accuse him (sometimes behind his back, poor man) of trying to get me to dumb down the book. What's actually going on is that I sometimes balk when I bring up a subject that makes me uncomfortable and I don't pursue it in the narrative the way I really should. Which is, you know, incredibly lazy writing and I'm working on it. My opinion is that when a writer stumbles against something that makes him uncomfortable, he should poke around, see what nasty thing is bothering him and then drag it into the story. You'll have to ask Davin how I'm doing with that.

Anyway, that's a too-long discussion of narrative tone. Is this something you're aware of in your own writing? Do you tend to lean one way or another on the tonal scale, and does that create problems for you? Am I forgetting to mention something important about tone?

Also, just because, here's a photo of our back yard, taken on Sunday afternoon by Mighty Reader:

Also Also: If you are in Seattle on Wednesday, July 14th, you should go to the new Elliot Bay Books on Capital Hill to hear Jon Clinch read from his new book Kings of the Earth! And if you haven't already read his first book, Finn, you should buy it and read it.


  1. This is a great breakdown, Scott. Hyperbole was something I never did really get, but I do now. Thanks alot.

  2. Very good, very informative post

  3. Great post.

    I've also heard tone-deaf used to describe dialogue that doesn't accurately mimic the rhythm of human conversation.

  4. I'm like you. I tend to inhibition, where I back away from intense scenes for fear of going overboard.

  5. Ah this is a great post. Thanks!

  6. This was an incredibly timely post for me. I'm working on rewrites of two different WIPs right now, and they both suffer from the wrong tone. One is meant to be hyperbolic, but suffers from what you call sentimentality. The other *should* be much more understated. (It also suffers from sentimentality, and even worse, preachiness.)

    How can one retain a hyperbolic style without straying into pure camp? How can one add emotional depth/reaction shots to an inhibited story without spelling everything out?

  7. Tara: I don't know how to maintain a hyperbolic style with a straight face without doing the whole thing in the style of Homer. My first novel (the one I won't let anyone read) was very over-the-top, like Flannery O'Connor on acid (that was in fact the writerly conceit behind it). I could never figure out how to fix it.

    I think the key to putting emotional depth into subdued works is to save the emotional reactions up and then have them come out in bizarre ways that aren't direct reactions, if you know what I mean. Pressure builds and facades crack, maybe. I also think that simplicity of language is really vital in understated works whenever you're doing something direct with a character's emotional state, if you know what I mean.

    Larceny: Thanks!

    Mary McDonald: I am learning how to get to intense without getting too intense.

    Mayowa: Yeah, I've heard tone-deaf used that way, too. My use today is just me making a bad pun.

    Angela A: Thanks!

    Eric: Thanks! I think it's easy to slip accidentally into comical writing when we're going for powerful.

  8. Simplicity of language ... you may be on to something there. At times, when I am trying to be "writerly", I start up with the metaphors and analogies, and the result is ridiculous rather than sublime. Simple, straightforward description of relevant details seems to work better. Those can be read metaphorically by the reader, but don't force such a reading.

    I've been thinking about this since you brought it up, I think H.P. Lovecraft is the best example I know who wields hyperbole. I just looked back over one of my favorite stories, "The Colour Out of Space." His technique is actually not so different from the "detail" method above.

    Instead of using hyperbole to describe character emotion, he projects the emotions into details of the environment, frex:

    "...moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges, but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs."

    The language is quite exaggerated: brooding, eternal, perilous.

    Of course, Lovecraft's writing was considered quite ridiculous in his own time, and is easy to mock, so I think it's still harder to keep hyperbole from sliding into comedy than understatement.

  9. Tara: I'm reading Poe right now (a collection, but I started "Fall of the House of Usher" on the bus this morning) and it's the same sort of thing. Neither Poe nor Lovecraft wrote many dramatized scenes (both relied heavily on summary), and both of them leaned on the atmospherics. It's always dark and damp and vegetation is wild and threatening and light is imbued with whatever sense the scene should have, etc. You can look at is as overdone and foolish or you can buy into the spirit of it. So much of what we do relies on having readers who will be our allies.

  10. Readers who are our allies... that's a good way of putting it.

  11. Very nice post, Scott. I think about tone a lot, although I tend not to fixate on it when I do my actual writing. I think the reason it comes up for me is because I sometimes get comments that the my tone feels formal or distant, especially when I write in omniscient POV. I ask myself if I'm okay with that, and the truth is I'd rather not be this way. I think I'm still fine-tuning.

    As for your writing, some of C & B is heartbreakingly lovely.

  12. Scott, this is really informative, and an interesting way to pin-point the definitions of tone in writing. I believe my problem is similar to yours - inhibition. Many times I assume too much from my reader and their reaction "filling in" for the character's reaction. I had this problem in Cinders, and I like to think I've fixed it.

  13. Very thoughtful and cogent post!

    And what a lovely backyard picture you've shared. :)

  14. Michelle: I have, oddly, more of this problem in first-person than in omniscient third-person. I don't like having my narrator say things like, "That made me angry" or "I felt [whatever]." It seems like a huge cheat to come out with stuff like this. And I don't think that people generally are self aware enough to show their unconscious responses to emotions. I'm much more comfortable with all of this in third-person.

  15. I rarely write in first person, but I can see why it would be more difficult in first. I think I need to write 10 more books before 1st person will come out sounding good for me. :)

  16. Oh, yeah. If I feel uncomfortable about something, or if a passage I've written makes me squirm a bit, I know I've hit a tiny bit of gold. One of my CPs tells me now and then to "lean into that emotion," and while it's hard to get a complete handle on what she means, I'm pretty sure I understand her quite well. Leaning into the uncomfortable stuff is a great way to deepen the fiction.

    Yes, indeed.


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