Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don't Take that Tone with Me!

It's one thing when you're communicating face-to-face. When someone's "taking a tone" with you, it's usually pretty obvious. Take the conversation to the realm of the written word, though, and suddenly there's more than enough room for interpretation.

As a novelist, it's tricky enough to make sure a character's tone matches the intention. I remember I once had a reader of one of my early manuscripts say, "Man, he's being a little harsh." I looked at the line of dialogue, mystified. Then I realized my reader (a teenager) was assuming a sarcastic tone for the brief statement. Not at all what I intended.

Did I tell her she was wrong and skip happily on my way? Nope. I adjusted the line and the information surrounding it so the intended tone came across more clearly.

Real-time conversations by text can be so much worse if we're not careful. That's why emoticons were invented, right? To give an extra cue of whether we're teasing or annoyed or uncertain? (I don't know if that's true, but it sounds good, and it's why I use them.)

What if one of our online compadres says, "Hey, on that post over there, you're coming across kind of (insert undesirable trait)"? Do we say, "That's not what I meant at all," and continue on without changing? Hopefully not. The fact I know what I meant is irrelevant. How it's taken by those reading is more important.

I may need to adjust my approach in the future, make sure my tone is more clear without the benefit of facial expression, vocal tone, body language, and all the other cues we use in real life. If I learn how to do that, who knows? Maybe it'll make me a better writer in general.

Have you had any experiences with misunderstanding tone or having your own misunderstood? Any tips or tricks for making tone clear in writing?


Suzi said...

I'd been told by several people that they didn't like my mc because she was too sarcastic. I wanted her that way, because she'd had a rough life, but not to the point where you hate her.

Made me realize why betas are so important because when you're so close to a project, it's sometimes hard to see what's really there instead of what you want to be there.

Ted Cross said...

I've noticed this most in email communication, because a number of times I've realized people were thinking I was writing with a certain tone that I had never intended. I do worry about this in my writing also, but I haven't yet come across areas where I noticed people misinterpreted my tone.

Mike Lewis said...

This is exactly why certain communications are better left to telephone or face-to-face communication rather than e-mail or written letter, and why I tell my boss to not have knee-jerk reactions to e-mails, forum postings, etc.

On the other hand, sometimes it needs to be a written letter/e-mail for the purpose of clearly documenting certain aspects. In this case, like you say, we need to be explicitly clear as to what the intended communication is and leave little room for reader assumption.

E.B. Black said...

The personality you've established for your characters previously in the story will reflect how readers read things in the future of the story. If your character is a hopeless romantic and she says,"We ran into each other at the grocery store. It's fate." They will know the character meant it literally, but if it's a character who has been cynical through out the entire book about relationships and fate, they will probably think the same statement was said sarcastically by her.