How to tell a story, part 2: Emotions and Voice Command

 At long last Part 2 of “How to tell a story” is here . I promised this about three weeks ago but recent (negative) situations in my life have made blogging tertiary for the moment.  Unfortunately I am not (yet) a successful, multi-millionaire author/publisher/entrepreneur  so until that time I need to keep working my day job and moving along with life.

I will update this section with a link to the vlog I am creating on this section, but in part 2 out of 3 I want to focus on two more aspects of Nick Morgan’s excellent book “Power Cues” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014). In chapters 2-4 Nick talks about many things but two concepts are most critical to you, the aspiring writer: Mirror neurons and your “secret sound”.

Mirror Neurons are, by definition (from Wikipedia):

“A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.”

In other words, we react to an emotion with a reflecting emotion because it is in our DNA. It’s the reason why we (there are some sadists who are exceptions, but they really are) see someone cry and we feel a sense of pity. We see someone laugh and we want to laugh with them, or at least smile. Mirror neurons in short are what create emotion and allow us to feel empathy. From the book:

“At its heart, decisions making involves emotions, because emotions give us the ability to weight the relative import of all the factors involves…the decisions we make in real life involve weighing different amounts of attachment and importance.” (Morgan 64)

“If communication becomes possible thanks to mirror neurons, then leadership becomes possible too, because what is leadership without the ability to communicate with your followers?” (Morgan 65)

The purpose of controlling one’s emotions is not just to get parts in a movie (Morgan write that a big reason why we as society make actors into celebrities is because they are able to master their emotions to manipulation in ways the rest of us can’t) but to convey a sense of feeling which words cannot describe. Morgan’s book focuses on the nonverbal cues and how they can help in speech, but for this exercise I will talk about how they impact one’s ability to write.

It is not always easy, nor should it be, to convey emotions by literally writing “she looked into her eyes and saw a reflection of herself: a sad and lonely child with few friends but many enemies.” This sentence is blatantly obvious about there being a scene where two characters are sad. Sometimes it can be expressed through speech:

JOHN: Hey man, you look like you’re bothered by something. What’s up?

JACOB: Not much, man…well, nothing I really want to talk about.

JOHN: You sure?

JACOB: Nah, well…John, have you ever been fired from a job?

JOHN: Yea, I have.

JACOB: Well, that’s the gist of what happened.

JOHN: Listen man, I’m here for you. You can talk to me.

In this made-up example I as the author do not need to narrate John’s emotional understanding that Jacob is upset by something, in this case the fact that he was fired from his job. The dialogue alone tells you how the two characters interact and how John can “share” Jacob’s pain in just dialogue. If you are trying to improve your writing then you should try to think about how YOU would behave in a certain situation (unless you are an emotionless zombie, in which case think of how your screaming victims might behave) and try to picture that scene in your head.

If you would listen to a friend when she’s been dumped by her boyfriend or your cousin who got a pay raise at work and react appropriately, then there is no reason your writing should change. For some reason a lot of authors have a fetish for a type of literary style I like to call “literary prose” which differs from the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition in that it is too style-focused and not action-focused. You’ll recognize books like that where the author will spend countless words describing some rather irrelevant backstory or how someone feels about something or explaining every minute plot point as though you’re in second grade (unless you are, in which case I apologize). Having seen enough novel excerpts I get the impression that this is what must be taught in workshops and creative writing courses, like everyone must one-up Charles Dickens.

Instead try to write as though people are behaving rationally and let the characters carry the action. Leave as much of the narration behind as you can get away with. Some authors, especially very novice authors, will narrate too heavily and spend page after page reflecting on someone’s feelings. One good example was a book I recently read, Wool by Hugh Howey. While the plot itself is very creative Howey spends too many pages, especially in the middle, describing a backstory unrelated to the plot and telling, rather than showing, how a character feels about something. I am picking on him because he comes to mind right now so sorry Hugh, it’s not personal.


The second part of the book relates to your “secret voice”. Every person, when he or she talks, emits low-frequency sounds called a “hertz” which sound like a hum. Listen to someone talk, preferably in person, and see if you can detect the monotonous low drone sound which comes from their voice. You probably didn’t know, but a lot of who we as people determine who our leaders are by wwhoeverhas the “lowest” low-frequency sounds because we somehow perceive them to be the “strongest people.”

Most of the chapter in Morgan’s book on this topic discusses public speaking, a topic which I will blog about in the future. Sticking to the book or script writing, you cannot (literally) write in a character’s vocal chord hum. But you can, through dialogue, determine the “voice” your characters will have. You can have characters speak a certain way to determine who’s in charge in a given group. If you picture how this person might talk in real life you will better understand what it is inside our brains which makes us hardwired to follow the person with the best vocal chord pitch. So in our next example:

SAMANTHA: This assignment is soooo stupid. How are we going to memorize Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet in two days?

SABRINA: There is a way to get it done but it just takes practice.

LEANNE: How would we do that Sabrina?

SABRINA: It’s easy. There are four characters. Horatio and Marcellus have longer lines so one of us takes Horatio, One takes Marcellus, and the third person takes the other two characters. Just memorize your character’s lines and the three words preceding it to give your verbal cue.

SAMANTHA and LEANNE: Sounds like a plan.

Can’t figure out how it worked in this example, can you? In your own mind, how do you think Sabrina sounds? Does she sound maybe like a well-spoken female leader you know, a famous person like Condoleeza Rice or perhaps your alma mater’s president? A successful businesswoman or lawyer? My guess is the literal sound Sabrina created in your mind was cobbled together from your life experiences and expectations. Therefore it would be logical, based on your own mind, to create a voice which would allow Sabrina, with that dialogue, to command respect.

Now try this exercise: Picture Sabrina speaking like Fran Drescher from “The Nanny” or some other nasally sounding voice. She will have the same dialogue, but would she command the same respect? Most people, even with the same dialogue, are listening to HOW someone talks and not just the words they say. It’s a bias we all have.

My tip: If you are trying to project a characteristic on a person, particularly if your character is supposed to be a leader, think of either a) someone you know (in person or informally) or b) a combination of people based on your experiences; and then think of how they might exhibit leadership through dialogue (again narrate only as absolutely necessary). Write that down and “listen” in your own mind. Once you can create a dialogue in your mind which sounds like how you want it to go. You may find your plot might even pivot or change completely based on how a character you create acts based on the dialogue you’ve constructed for them.

Give it a try and leave comments on this page if you want to add to the discussion.

Coming up Next: The  third and final installment of “Power Cues”: How to use stories to get on the right wavelength.

Coming up soon: the pre-Halloween special. This will be a trick-or-treat set of “top Ten” items, but whether it’s a trick or treat is up to me (cackle, cackle)


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