Creator Confessions: The Flimsiness Of Tone

by Frank Martin

Out of the five elements of storytelling — setting, character, plot, theme, and tone — it’s that last one which is the flimsiest. Tone is how the story is communicated. Whether it be through comedy, horror, or romance (to name a few), the variables are endless. Previously, I’ve spoken a lot about the importance of theme. I believe it to be the foundation upon which the story is built. But the foundation is often unseen. It’s only appreciated by those who are into the engineering of a building. Tone is for those who prefer architecture. To continue the construction metaphor, it’s what people see when they are driving by; a story’s curb appeal.

But what does it mean when a story’s tone is flimsy?

It means that all the other building blocks are linked. It’s difficult to unhook one from the other and change it. If the plot is altered then a story’s characterization can get out of whack. Thematic context for a story can be completely undone if the setting is changed. But you can put up the entire framework for a story and still have not even touched upon its tone.

This seems counterintuitive. Often times storytellers decide what the tone of their story is first. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with deciding whether you want to make a comedy or a horror from the get-go. But it’s also possible to completely shift the tone of a story after all the other elements are in place. One can write a horror movie with the intent to scare and frighten. All the characters can stay the same. The setting and plot can remain in place. Yet, it’s possible to rewrite (or edit) the narrative with a comedic tone that will completely change how the story is viewed.

This doesn’t mean that tone is unimportant. Quite the contrary. Like all the other building blocks of storytelling, the tone of a story is a tool. And when wielded properly, it can create a truly unique experience. A great example of this is the Netflix sensation Cobra Kai. The show has an unbelievably odd tone. It bounces back and forth between comedy, action, and drama. And the way it’s able to do that is with a very delicate balancing act in its tone. Too far in one direction and the whole story falls apart. But the show’s creators are able to play with the tone so exactly that the story works, when by all accounts it shouldn’t.

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