The difference? Less is more. For novelists, that notion never gets old, because most of us want more words, more syllables in those words, and more melodrama everywhere. And why not?
Because, Brendan Kenny puts it,
Hyperbole and overstatement do more harm than good. Hyperbole is exaggeration. Overstatement is an attempt to convince your audience by bludgeoning them with facts, arguments, and pleas to get them to accept your assertion.
And this is as true for fiction as for law. In an interview with Roxane Gay, Joshua Henkin agrees:
I tend to gravitate toward understatement. My novels and stories are animated as much by what’s not said as by what’s said. It’s the silences in fiction (and in life) that, if rendered well, can be most illuminating.
Tip: The source of emotional engagement is putting readers in the moment instead of pushing them there.
Inflated or cliched language and description never involve readers the way these passages do:
My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate and that, when they’re gone, we’re left with the concept, but not the true memory—why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once? I think I understand what she means when I look back on the night of the fire. Part of me knows that there was tremendous pain, that the heat of the blaze as it came down though the old village on the hill and Slavko’s farmland and our orange grove and ripped through the fig and almond trees, the pinecones sizzling like embers for what seemed like forever before they exploded, was unbearable; that to say that it was difficult to breathe is an impossible understatement; that the hair on my bare arms was already singed when the fire dropped down through the pines and rushed the brick wall. —Tea Obreht The Tiger’s Wife
You’re right there with the girl trying to beat back the fire. This connection happens because of the opening metaphor, the particularity of the details, the reflection after the fact, and the acute physical sensations. An understated portrayal of tragedy.
Understatement works equally well for joy. In Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, the Queen Victoria’s new status terminates what could’ve been a budding romance, and she tells her prime minister:
“I was so happy … before.’” “I find that happiness can always be recollected in tranquillity, Ma’am,” said Melbourne. Victoria put her hands down and looked up at him, her pale blue eyes searching his face. “You were happy too?” When Melbourne spoke, it was in the voice not of the urbane Prime Minister, but of a man of advancing years who is facing the loss of the only thing that is still capable of bringing him joy. “You know I was, Ma’am.”
The Lord’s unadorned admission conveys everything Victoria needs to know, and through her, to those experiencing the scene vicariously.
Shout, and you might get ignored. Whisper, and everyone will lean in to overhear.