It was 1997, around this time of year, when James Cameron’s big blockbuster movie, ‘Titanic’, was bout to hit movie screens around the world. I remember it vividly! Hehehe, mostly because my best friend and I were like, “We’ll put that off until later! We’re not missing ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’! It’s James Bond, dammit!” Anyway, as they began advertising ‘Titanic’…I noticed something different about the way the commercials were doing it. This was actually a sneaky little trend for a short time in the late 90’s. You’d see one commercial, and it would be full of emotionally stirring music, and fancy costumes, and dancing and giggles…like, “Come see the romantic movie of a lifetime!” But then…during prime time, you’d see a commercial for the exact same movie, but this one was practically using the heart-pounding action theme from Cameron’s ‘ALIENS’ movie instead! With this trailer, they showed the ship sinking (Yeah…spoiler alert! The ship sinks! Hehehe!), and it was all about people running and screaming and gunshots and people getting punched in the face! “Don’t miss out on the action packed movie experience of the year!” Okaaaayyyy…are those commercials advertising the same movie? The answer is…YES! All they did was change the focus, thus changing the tone. And it worked. It got the dramatic Oscar thirsty romantics to come see it, as well as the action oriented disaster movie fans, and it became one of the biggest money making films of all time. Can’t argue with success, I guess.
Now, when people talk about tone, I think there’s a basic understanding of what that is…but not exactly how it can be used to create the overall feel of their story. Nor do they think much about how conflicting tones can actually work against a story’s ability to keep the readers locked in. Some may ask, “Well, who’s going to nitpick my story for its tone? I mean, what does tone even mean when it comes to writing my own stuff?” Tone means everything! Just a few sentences can drastically change the tone of a scene and throw your audience off in a major way. Tone can affect the way that your readers look at a certain situation, the characters involved, and create an entirely different interpretation of what’s being said and done.
Hmmm…here, let me give you an example…
These are the opening credits to an old sitcom, ‘Diff’rent Strokes’! Hehehe, even if you’ve seen this before, make sure that you watch the original again, for comparison’s sake! Now, this was a weekly half hour comedy about a rich guy in a condo that adopted his maid’s two children after she passed away. It was all jokes and laugh tracks, etc. Watching the first video, you can see how it fits that old TV sitcom tone and represents what the show was like before you see a single episode. Very happy and upbeat, right? You see a sweet older guy in a limo, grinning from ear to ear, giving a better life to a couple of kids. Playful shenanigans ensue from there.
Now…click on the video next to it…
NOTHING has been changed about the opening itself, except for the music. Everything else is the same, but the ‘tone’ is different. This time, when you’re looking at the same happy, feel good, events that you saw in the first opening credits scene…you can see how drastically different your mind interprets what’s going on here? Hehehe, it doesn’t seem so ‘innocent’ now, does it?
See for yourself…
Going back to ‘Titanic’…if you’re looking for a big, action packed, tragedy with Summer blockbuster special effects and gruesome deaths? They’ve got you. If you’re looking for a lighthearted romance where the female main character finds the man of her dreams and is whisked away from her unhappy life, only to discover the true power of love? They’ve got you too. The advertisers can’t lose. You get the rugged action hero AND the Disney princess. This is how the concept of tone can be used to persuade you to feel one way or another, and to any author that’s skilled in this part of their craft, they can accomplish anything…from making their readers laugh, to making them mad enough to punch a hole in the wall, to sobbing uncontrollably on cue. So beware…’tone’ is a loaded gun. Use it responsibly. 😛
Now, one thing that I want to say right away…is don’t confuse ‘tone’ with ‘theme’. They’re not the same. Theme is determined by the feeling of your story as a whole. It’s a broad blanket statement about your entire project from beginning to end. Tone, however…can change from scene to scene. It’s not meant to be as vague. You can set a different tone from moment to moment, depending on what you want that scene to accomplish for your story. For example, a really dark themed story can have moments of levity. Or even full blown comedy. That’s fine. In the same respect, a romantic comedy can suddenly descend into a few dark moments that totally blindside your characters (And readers) in a really effective way. Sometimes, changing the tone in your story can keep things interesting, provided you make a smooth transition from one tone to another.
I find that switching tones in my writing is best achieved in short bursts. If there’s something dramatic going on, something with significant emotional weight…a character might try to, unsuccessfully, inject some humor to avoid the situation. But, if I want the current tone to be one of heartbreak and tears…I might add one joke or two, but I’ll make it feel awkward and out of place as it should be, and then I’ll get right back to the drama of the scene. Nobody wants to be pulled out of the moment by an entire Laurel and Hardy comedy bit that goes on for a page and a half. That can come off as jarring and unnatural to your audience. Not only that, but if you want to finish the dramatic part of the scene…you’ll have to work to ease them back into the intended mood all over again. It’s like driving on the highway. You’ve taken the comedy off ramp from ‘Dramatic Way’…and now you’ve got to find a way to get back on at the next exit and merge back into traffic. I think a few changes in tone can be effective, but always remember the point and purpose of the scene first…and then see if you can play around with the formula a bit for a change-up.
Is there an exception to the rule? Of course! Plenty. But, if you’re going to suddenly change tones in your writing…make sure that you’re doing it deliberately. Like, for shock value, for example. Imagine if you have two best friends hanging out and they’re having a hilarious conversation, playfully teasing one another, fighting over a video game controller…and then, one of them reveals, “I’ve only got a few weeks to live.” ::Slams On The Brakes:: Wait…WHAT??? “That’s why I came over here today. I wasn’t sure how to tell you, but…yeah.” Now this is one HELL of a sudden change in tone! But…when used correctly, it can be an extremely dramatic moment that will have even MORE impact, due to the festive and jovial moments preceding it. If that was your intention, then AWESOME! Well done! 🙂
However, if it was unintentional…then that might end up confusing and leading your readers astray. If your tones clash from scene to scene, it ends up diluting the emotion that you were going for. It’s key to stay consistent when it comes to this kind of thing.
Also, try not to ‘combine’ tone and theme in a way where you stray from what the story was built up to be from the beginning. Meaning…stick to your theme. Tone can change up from time to time, but when you change the entire theme and your story goes a different way? That can also be damaging to your story.
No spoilers…but there have been a bunch of movies that have made this mistake in the past (Well…’mistake’ in my opinion), where the theme of the movie did a 180* in tone…and never got back to the theme it started with. I remember watching some movies like “A Walk To Remember”, “Regarding Henry”, or “Million Dollar Baby”…which are all good films in their own right, but the tone COMPLETELY changed at one point, and never came back. It was like, “Wait! What happened to…? Jesus…i wasn’t prepared to sign up for this! Gah!” So, if you’re going to change the tone, my suggestion would be to adhere to the original theme. And if you have a certain theme? Figure that out in the beginning and stick with it, even if you deviate from the original tone from time to time. Like I said, consistency is the key.
Ok, before I bring this to an end, I wanted to give you guys a personal example of how I feel about tone. I’m writing these out quickly, but I think they’ll get my point across. I hope. Hehehe! Plus, I’m giving you guys some more video examples of what I mean. Because they’re FUN! Take a movie that is in NO way the kind of flick that is portrayed in this trailer…but, technically, they ARE scenes from the movie! So, you can’t say that it’s false advertising. You’ve just been tricked by the tone monster!
This first example?
Imagine that I had a scene where I had one boy breaking up with someone he had just started dating. They’re not producing any magic together, and he just wants to move on, even though his date evidently had other plans in mind for them. I’m going to keep the characters and dialogue exactly the same for each of the four examples, but I’ll be changing some of the details, the tone, and the vocabulary that I use, to try to give each short its own feel and create a different experience for you guys as readers. See if you can tell the difference.
Talk about having a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders! I couldn’t believe that I had waited this long to say it. After trips to the carnival, and the movies, and hanging out at the beach…I was happy to break free from his goofy antics and just…move on. You know? Before he started saving strands of my hair and toenail clippings for the voodoo altar of me that I’m sure he had in a closet in his mom’s basement somewhere!
He looked a little surprised by this revelation, and I tried to soften the blow a bit by saying, “You weren’t happy either, were you? Wouldn’t it be better if we just…stopped wasting each other’s time.” It was true! Talking to him was like trying to make friendly conversation during a hostage negotiation sometimes. We didn’t have anything in common, we didn’t share a sense of humor…and we just…
Oh FUCK! Why is he crying???
“What makes you think I would want this?” He said. “I thought we’d be together forever.” Geez, pump your brakes, ‘Cinderella’! We went out two times. We had ONE kiss. We’re hardly soul mates at this point. Then, he says, “How could you do this to me? HOW???”
Ok, this is getting weird. I, suddenly, wanted to strap a jet pack to my shoulders and simply fly away from this situation, but had to settle for saying, “Maybe I should go. I’m really sorry, k?” Might as well make my escape before I make things any worse, right?
That’s when George looks at me, and he says, “Don’t. I’m not ready to let you go just yet.”
I feel like I had been dragging this out for much longer than I ever should have. I wasn’t just hiding from my true feelings anymore. I was actually going to end up really hurting him if I didn’t come clean and tell him the truth.
So…I took a deep breath, and I said, “I’m sorry, George. This just…this isn’t working out for me.” The words seemed to cause his infatuated smile to completely vanish from his face. It was like his emotions had suddenly blown a fuse, gone dark, and he was left with the pain of finding his way around in pitch black darkness…trying to find his way towards whatever had happened to cause this.
The silence was deafening. I felt like garbage almost immediately. Trying to walk back my disgusting comment, I said, “You weren’t happy either, were you? Wouldn’t it be better if we just…stopped wasting each other’s time.” Was I really trying to make this seem like a mutual break up? I didn’t expect him to buy that. He was in love with me. Or at least, he had convinced himself that he was. I was being a coward, hoping to get out of this dating thing clean.
“What makes you think I would want this?” He said, tears now rolling out of his eyes as he sniffled quietly to himself. “I thought we’d be together forever. How could you do this to me? HOW???”
I began to tremble inside. I had really hurt him. It wasn’t my intention, I just…I wasn’t sharing the same feelings that he was. I’m doing the right thing, aren’t I? Better now than later? I don’t know. I’ve just…I’ve got to give myself some time to think. Maybe we both need some time to think. Hopefully, it will lessen the impact of a blindsided heartbreak. “Maybe I should go.” I said. “I’m really sorry, k?”
“Don’t. I’m not ready to let you go just yet.” He sobbed. Ugh! I never felt like such a bastard.
There was a sudden change in his demeanor. It was as if a dark storm cloud had rolled in overhead to darken his mood considerably. The chill within me got worse, and I found myself getting increasingly nervous as his intense gaze lifted to stare coldly into my frightened eyes.
Trying to cover up my growing fear, I stumbled to say, “You weren’t happy either, were you? Wouldn’t it be better if we just…stopped wasting each other’s time?” He didn’t answer. He just stared at me…a single tear falling from his eye while the rest of his face remained void of emotion.
Finally…he spoke. “What makes you think I would want this? I thought we’d be together forever.” He balled up his fists, now allowing more tears to roll down his cheeks. “How could you do this to me?” He said. Then, loudly shouting, “HOW???”
I flinched in horror, unsure of what he might do to me if I remained within reach of him. With a shaky voice, I said, “Maybe I should go. I’m really sorry, k?”
But…as I took a step forward, George stepped in front of me. His eyes red with anger, his bottom lip, quivering, as he sneered, “Don’t. I’m not ready to let you go just yet.”
With bullets whizzing over our heads as we maintained cover behind the shipping crates on the dock, I said, “I’m sorry, George. This just…this isn’t working out for me.” Causing him to stop reloading his firearm and give me a look of total disbelief. As if…it was SO inappropriate to do this right NOW! As the army approached our position, George hopped up and shot a few rounds into one of the explosive cans behind our attackers, causing them to fall forward and remain stunned for a moment while he took cover again and looked me in the eye, a shocked expression on his face. “You weren’t happy either, were you? Wouldn’t it be better if we just…stopped wasting each other’s time?”
Hearing our enemies regaining their footing, I popped to lay down some cover fire and then slide back down to keep them at bay for a few minutes longer. Hopefully giving the calvary enough time to figure out our location and rush in for immediate evac!
“What makes you think I would want this? I thought we’d be together forever.” George said, quickly rolling over to deliver a head shot to another approaching soldier. “How could you do this to me? HOW???”
The gunfire began to race over our head again, and I had obviously picked the wrong time to bear my soul like this. First we get to safety, THEN discuss our break up! “Maybe I should go.” I said, and then got ready to run to the other side of the shipping dock. But not before telling him, “I’m really sorry, k?”
He grabbed me by the wrist, shoving another pistol into my hand. “Don’t. I’m not ready to let you go just yet.”
So there ya go! The same small scene, told four different ways. Hopefully, it’ll demonstrate how the tone of a scene can cause an audience to feel different ways about what’s going on in the story at that moment. It can cause readers to look at things differently, it can cause them to choose sides for or against the main character…it can change the whole feel of a story. So if your tone is inconsistent with what you’re trying to do…it won’t be as effective. Even if it’s beautifully written and edited flawlessly, evoking emotion is a HUGE part of the writing process. If you’re lacking on that part of it…the rest begins to fall apart. So pay attention to the tone of your story, scene by scene, and make sure that it’s doing exactly what you want it to do as you continue to move forward. K?
Yikes, this one was long! Hehehe! I’ll shut up now! I hope this helps!
Happy writing! And I’ll seezya soon!