Stories come in a wide spectrum of tones, from light whimsy to gritty nihilism. When tone problems occur, it’s rarely because the tone itself is invalid. Instead, tone issues are usually caused by story elements that clash with each other. Let’s look at why these clashes happen and how we can prevent them.
But first, what is tone? If we take a strict definition, tone is simply the mood of a scene or of the story more generally. However, a story’s atmosphere, including the level of realism and the fantastical features of the world, often go hand in hand with its mood. Not only that, but problems with the world and atmosphere can happen for the same reason that mood problems do. So along with mood, we’re covering a few related atmosphere issues.
1. Destroyed Mood
The most obvious tone problem is when a scene doesn’t get the right emotional response from the audience. Often this is because the storyteller made some flubs in their execution, but other times their choices about what emotion to evoke resulted in lower engagement.
Destroyed mood happens because the audience can’t feel afraid, upset, or sad while they are laughing. Conversely, they won’t laugh if they’re upset. That’s why successful dark comedies leave the jokes out when they want the audience to fear for the protagonist. Instead, they’ll joke when antagonists are killed, because the audience isn’t supposed to be upset by that.
Since laughter and emotional intensity work against each other, destroyed mood generally comes in two forms.
1. An intense scene is spoiled by a poorly timed joke.
If a story’s execution is exceptionally bad, the audience may laugh at scenes that aren’t meant to be funny. This is the case with famous bad movies like The Last Airbender or The Room. Occasionally, storytellers can also get too attached to their jokes and insert them where they’ll spoil the mood. This is the case with the falling leg that ruins the climactic argument in The Orville episode “Pria.”
A scene that’s emotionally compelling stays with the audience for longer than a few laughs do. If the intense drama of a scene is successful, even a great joke is usually a downgrade.
2. A joke falls flat because events are upsetting.
To work, a joke must surprise the audience at some level. However, that surprise can’t be upsetting or the joke still won’t be funny. What’s upsetting varies a great deal from person to person; some people will feel bad when unnamed characters are killed, and some won’t. Because of this, morbid jokes appeal to a smaller group of people than jokes that don’t have dark themes.
In the movie The Dead Don’t Die, a couple of zombies chanting “coffee” visit a diner and help themselves to a cup. This could have been funny, except the zombies had just attacked a couple of women, and one of those women is wailing in pain while the zombies get their coffee. I suspect the movie’s director was attempting commentary on the nature of consumerism, but his message doesn’t come across, and the movie needed its jokes to engage viewers.
How to Fix It
Think through how you’d like your audience to feel during any given scene. Avoid jokes during your highest tension or emotionally climactic scenes, and instead load them in your lower tension scenes. Right after an intense moment is also a great place for a joke, because it’ll give the audience some welcome relief.
Jokes should also fit the overall tone of the story. If the story as a whole is dark, that means your audience is less sensitive to dark elements and therefore more likely to laugh at morbid jokes. Even so, exactly how you portray unpleasant elements makes an enormous difference. Testing your joke on a few other people can help you identify if it’s too upsetting to land.
2. Believability Breaks
Many story conceits are believed not because they’re logical or realistic, but because the audience expects them. If they fit the established tone of the story or are standard in the story’s genre, they won’t break audience immersion. But these same elements can feel unbelievable if they stand out. This often happens when a story’s tone changes without warning, inviting audience scrutiny.
When surprises are carefully foreshadowed so they can withstand scrutiny, they create a great experience for the audience. But if the surprise appears to contradict what’s been established, it will feel contrived at best or disappointingly unbelievable at worst.
For example, most people have seen cartoons where characters walk off cliffs onto thin air, fall only after they realize they aren’t on solid ground, and then survive the landing. This is perfectly believable, because a lack of realism is expected in super light, slapstick stories such as cartoons. But now imagine watching Game of Thrones or another gritty show and seeing a character do the same routine as a slapstick cartoon. That would draw complaints from viewers.
That’s a dramatic example, but this problem occurs on a smaller scale in works that aren’t consistent in tone or otherwise don’t set the right expectations. For instance, the movie Space Sweepers has a fight that’s pretty realistic until one character falls from a great height and another suddenly swings by on a rope and catches her midair. In many stories, audiences wouldn’t bat an eye at that. But if they’re expecting higher realism, it feels unbelievable both that the rescuer could swing in so fast and that he managed to swing on just the right trajectory to catch the falling character.
Similarly, Space Sweepers has some jarring changes in how it handles character death. The main cast clearly have “plot shields” – they escape from extremely lethal circumstances several times. Then about halfway through the movie, a whole group of side characters is suddenly slaughtered. This tone change breaks immersion, making the deaths feel arbitrary and contrived.
Because a gritty tone is generally defined by a high level of realism, pairing that with cartoonish fights can create cognitive dissonance in audiences. This is an issue with the show The Umbrella Academy, which depicts gritty character drama, tragic character deaths, and torture scenes, but also has some cartoonish fights and some comic-style aesthetics. The gritty parts of the show set the wrong expectations for other elements and vice versa.
How to Fix It
Decide what kind of story you want to tell and signal that to your audience early. This doesn’t mean you can’t switch up the rules or employ contrasting tones, but doing so calls for some framework the audience can understand. For instance, a gritty story might include dream sequences with a more whimsical tone in which cartoonish fights take place. The audience will easily pick up that these dreams follow a different set of conventions.
While it looks like the makers of Umbrella Academy wanted to mix tones more freely, they could have done that while still drawing clearer lines between the show’s realistic and cartoonish elements. For instance, leaving out the torture and making the fights consistently cartoonish would have told the audience what to expect for each conflict. This way, the audience could enjoy the story more seamlessly.
It’s exciting to get your favorite meal for dinner. It’s a little less exciting to have it again the next morning. After eating nothing but your favorite meal for an entire week, it probably won’t be your favorite meal anymore. Most people need some level of variety in their lives.
This also applies to the events of a story. If you serve up the same mood for every scene, your audience will get sick of it and start checking out. That might mean boredom if the story is slow, gloom if your tone is dark, or exhaustion if you have lots of action or angst. Conversely, some variance in tone enhances enjoyment. A scene will make a bigger impression if it’s different than preceding scenes, and audiences have a higher tolerance for dark moments if they are surrounded by lighter ones.
The most common form of monotonous tone is a story that’s uniformly slow. New storytellers need to learn how to make their stories exciting, particularly if those stories focus on internal conflicts. They don’t always succeed. However, monotony can also be caused by going to the other extreme. A storyteller who’s adept at creating excitement may try to squeeze maximum impact out of every moment.
This problem happens in the first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery. The showrunner clearly wanted every shot to be exciting, to the point that spinning cameras and action music were added to scenes where the characters are simply meeting to discuss what to do next. The protagonist, Michael, cries in many emotionally intense scenes but looks stoic when she’s in a good mood. This meant viewers who loved the show’s great cast didn’t get any relief from the stressful events of the story, creating an overall experience that was less rewarding and more unpleasant.
Thankfully, Discovery corrected this issue in the third season. The season has many scenes of Michael smiling, laughing, and generally enjoying herself. Other cast members have positive relationship arcs where they slowly build trust and familial bonds with one another. The show still has exciting action, but now viewers can walk away from each episode with more positive feelings.
How to Fix It
First, if you haven’t mastered creating problems with tension yet, you’ll need that in your toolbox. This is still true if you only want to write light stories. Then once you understand tension, learning how to pace your story so tension goes up in jagged steps will help you avoid monotony.
The arcs you weave together in your story can also provide some variety. In particular, pairing together internal and external conflicts during your story will help you switch things up. You may have a protagonist who is always angsting, but you can distract them from their angst by making them deal with an urgent external problem for a couple scenes.
Last, consider designing intense and comedic story elements so they create pleasant contrast. As stated above, once an intense conflict resolves, it’s a good time to crack a joke. In stories with lots of drama, audiences love the one character that’s drama free. Consider Zuko and Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko is a beloved character with a fantastic redemption arc, but he’s also angsty and intense. Iroh, Zuko’s uncle, is cheerful and difficult to rattle. He gives viewers emotional relief.
When adding jokes to serious stories, make sure you aren’t undercutting something important.
Insincerity is the impression that the storyteller is not delivering what they are advertising. It’s not uncommon for parts of a story to fall flat, but it becomes insincere when the storyteller tells their audience over and over again that these flat elements are remarkable. Depending on the nature of this failed mood or atmosphere, the story can come across as pretentious, superficial, melodramatic, gratuitous, or edge-lordy.
- I’ve previously written about stories with grimdark sauce, such as Eragon and Children of Blood and Bone. These stories include excessive death and suffering that emotionally impact the protagonist. Protagonist angst signals to the audience that these deaths are supposed to be tragic, yet they are not told as tragedies. Instead, not only is the audience insulated from feeling bad, but the protagonist is prevented from saving those who are dying. This means the plot doesn’t address death and suffering in a meaningful way.
- Melodramatic passages in stories follow a similar trend. They emphasize the reaction of the protagonist instead of focusing on what the protagonist is reacting to. Protagonist emotions are described in extreme terms and elaborate metaphors, but the audience doesn’t feel any of those emotions with them. It’s not uncommon for this failed implementation to destroy the mood, making the scene come off as comical rather than powerful.
- In my City of Bones critique, I repeatedly referred to the text as pretentious. Author Cassandra Clare advertises how dark and creepy her story is with several quotes in the opening mentioning things like “a hideous dream,” and “chaos and eternal night.” The title of part one is “Dark Descent.” In her description, she constantly uses the word “black.” But despite all of this, the opening isn’t particularly dark or creepy. To create a creepy atmosphere, she would need story elements that feel mysterious and unsettling. Nothing comes off that way, particularly since the only threat in the first chapter is easily defeated by Team Good.
Insincerity usually means that the storyteller has more to learn about bringing their story to life. However, it could also mean the storyteller feels divided about what kind of story they are creating. Dark story elements are often unpleasant, and it’s easy to put dark events in your outline and then realize that you don’t want to write them.
How to Fix It
Resolving this problem means developing your storytelling skills, and that can take years. However, these general principles should help.
- Show don’t tell: showing is what actually impacts the audience, whereas telling only signals how you want the story to be perceived. If you don’t declare that your chapter is dark or that a creature is scary, then there’s more room for the audience to react in different ways. Moments that fail will do so without making you look insincere.
- Substance over style: don’t rely on wordcraft alone to create mood or emotion. If you want something to be creepy, prioritize making it do creepy things, and then enhance those creepy aspects with description. If you take something normal and try to give it atmosphere using description alone, it may feel like you’re overselling your content.
- Make less mean more: stories that feel insincere often include strong wording and excessive-sounding dark elements like piles of bodies. That’s because the storyteller is hoping that making their content more extreme will create the emotions they want. It doesn’t. If you find yourself doing this, scale back and focus on getting the audience to care about what you have.
- Invest in emotional impact: getting your audience to feel the impact of your story events requires an upfront investment. Give your protagonist lovable traits and explain any context or backstory the audience needs to understand why the protagonist feels or acts the way they do. Show how your lovebirds are better off together and humanize people who are suffering.
5. Audience Mismatch
Few people are interested in every story, even within a broad genre like fantasy or science fiction. Everyone has a few favorite subgenres, and many people have strong tone preferences. So if you want your readers to love your story, give it five-star reviews, and recommend it to their friends, your story has to attract the right people. If your story is horror but everyone who reads it prefers feel-good tales, you’re in for a rough time.
This audience mismatch doesn’t always happen because of problems with the story itself. Your story’s packaging, such as the title, cover art, and back synopsis, can create this problem if it misleads potential consumers. For instance, the cover of Gideon the Ninth has a pair of sunglasses that look like eye sockets when it’s displayed at small sizes. This suggests the book is somber rather than comedic, making it look unattractive to what could be its biggest fans.
Unfortunately, this problem can also happen within the story. A storyteller risks creating an audience mismatch when they change the tone so dramatically that the ideal audience for the story’s beginning and end are different.
A great example is the novel Blue Moon Rising. The story opens as a humble second prince is sent to slay a dragon. It turns out the dragon is a harmless creature who loves collecting butterflies, so the prince befriends the dragon and brings it back home with him. This beginning has all the marks of a tale that would please an audience that’s sick of dark and intense stories. It’s not only light and fluffy, but subversively so.
Then the kingdom is attacked by the undead, and no one has an effective means of killing them. The prince goes on a quest to find a solution, fails, and doesn’t return until a couple years later, when the kingdom is overrun. While he was away, the dragon became sick and fell into a deep sleep. His love interest is now engaged to his asshole brother, and the two are using cursed weapons to fight a battle they are still losing. This is incredibly gloomy – the exact opposite of what people who loved the beginning would enjoy.
Stories can change tone as they continue, but too much change will alienate your audience. When your beginning doesn’t match your end, potential fans will see it as false advertising.
How to Fix It
These types of dramatic tone changes don’t slip in when the storyteller is looking the other way. Either they’re included intentionally, or the storyteller changed their mind about what they wanted to write partway through.
If you want a light opening interrupted by a dark twist, consider how your dark-loving audience will feel during that opening. They’ll need some fitting entertainment, and to keep them from giving up, they’ll need to know that the rest of the book isn’t about happy fluffy bunnies. Maybe your happy bunnies can fall asleep and have disturbing dreams that foretell future events.
If you changed your mind or wandered into a completely different tone while you were writing, I strongly recommend doing the revisions necessary to make your story follow the same vision. Unlike a few conflicts that are unbelievable or a joke that fell flat, this problem sabotages enjoyment during huge portions of the story.
You can have any tone you want for your story, but having every tone you want in the same story might be out of reach. When in doubt, plan which tone you want in which parts of your story, and then ask yourself how you’ll communicate that to your audience. Tone is about promising a specific experience and then keeping that promise.
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