It’s How You Say It

We all know the phrase “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” We have all known the sting of an insult born only in the tone of voice. Yet so few people understand what it is about the way that they say things that gets them in trouble. The same can be said about writing. Sometimes it’s not what you are writing about but how you are writing it that makes the difference between the reader getting it or not.

In spoken environments it’s as often the tone of voice that makes the difference – a scenario that I’m going to have a hard time showing you here, but I’ll try. If a coworker walks up to you and says “Would you please help clean out the fridge in the staff lounge.” You might have several reactions. Skipping over the ones born of the amount of work waiting for you on your own desk, most of your reaction is going to be about the tone of voice from your coworker. If your coworker emphasizes the “please” with a sound that implies desperation, you might feel heroic for going to help. On the other hand if she uses that sarcastic sound that implies that you should have figured this out for yourself but she’s being too professional to point that out, you might want to tell her to take a long walk off a short pier.

There are also word choice variants that make a huge difference. “Go clean the fridge.” Is very different than “Would you please help clean out the fridge.” If it’s coming from your boss it has the same force behind it, but the first instance might have you checking the want adds on the way home that night. The simple fact is that even in a clear power relationship (boss to employee) people prefer to be asked to do things rather than told to do them. The underlying assumption is that if your boss asks you to do something reasonable, you will do it whether you want to or not. There are some circumstances when this rule does not apply, but those generally involve really tight personal relationships where sarcasm and other forms of rude behavior take on an endearing quality.

When it comes to writing, the biggest mistake people make is assuming that the tone of voice will be heard when the other person reads it. There are about a million and a half stories every day of people losing friends or screwing up business because of misinterpreted emails or text messages. This has become such an issue that we’ve developed smileys and emoticons to try and mitigate it – only to find that those can be misinterpreted too. Is the one sticking out his tongue next to the mildly offensive comment supposed to negate the comment or enhance it? Charm that works in face to face meetings rarely comes through email.

As a writer I’m highly sensitive to all of this, because I know that most of my interaction with the world is going to be through the written word. I’m not going to get the chance to apologize if I’m misunderstood and try to restate my case. If… When I get it wrong most of the time I’m going to lose a reader, or at least make a reader think twice before coming back. At the same time I’m fully aware that I will make those mistakes at least in part because the reader is just so very different from me. There is nothing that I can do about that. Nor can I do anything about the person who takes offense because they truly hold an opposing opinion. I can’t even do anything about the person who wasn’t reading carefully and misunderstood the words themselves (let alone any humor I may have been trying to convey).

It’s a hazardous world out there – sometimes I’m amazed that we ever understand each other in the first place.

On the other hand, it’s a rich source of conflict for your stories. Keeping in mind how easy it is to miscommunicate, why don’t more stories revolve around the oopses that we make in communication?

Really, wouldn’t it be a great plot line to have the hero of the book not be the chosen one even though everyone thinks he is because some priest miss read the prophesy? Not just that it was hard to understand, but because he missed a word. Or what about the adventure that starts because Cassie said it would be fun to ride out into the desert at night and didn’t catch the sarcasm in Derek’s voice when he said “Yea, that’d be great.” Now you’ve Cassie out there on her own waiting for Derek and who knows what will show up. Even better, the bad guy’s minion spoils the plot, or makes it a whole lot worse, because he missed something in the boss’s speech. Or even that the bad guy is doing all of this because she didn’t understand the way her high school sweet heart was trying to ask her to the dance.

Beyond that, the MCs could have a falling out over a misunderstood joke – which would be a great ploy to get them separated for a moment so that things can happen. Plans can go awry when someone doesn’t catch a joke and acts on the wrong information.

You could also just allow your characters to misunderstand each other – the way it happens in real life – every now and again without making it a major part of the plot. It’s part of the realism that is life. I find it too convenient that so few characters are ever misunderstood.

When you do decide to use this in your story, you will face the same problem I did at the start of this post: how do you show the tone of voice that gets the character in trouble?

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