The Lost Art of Tonal Continuity

Yes, yes, I know, it’s not actually lost, and I do think many of our current woes with it are just a phase, but this article will remain relevant long after that phase ends. Let’s get to it, eh?

Shock and horror! Valiantly attempting to defend the elven prince from the Blacksickle Assassins, the shield-maiden has been direly wounded! Even now the venom laced upon their blades eats away at her flesh–it’s a race against time to bring her through the uncaring bogs to a necromancer who, trustworthy or not, is now her only hope for survival.

Or at least, continued existence…

But ooohhhhh, that kobold’s gotten into all the necromancer’s robes and put together the most outrageous outfit! (Insert your laugh track of choice here)

I hope when it’s presented this way I don’t need to explain to any of you why this is a problem. But, just so we’re all perfectly clear: certain sequences of events produce certain emotions. Stories achieve much of their power by convincing their readers to take the events they depict seriously enough to feel the emotions those events produce. This is what we call “tone.”

That sounds really, really simple, right? Enough so that you’re probably thinking, “Wait, isn’t Cullen usually the kind of snobby asshole who at least tries to be insightful and is only insufferable because he keeps making snide remarks towards other, more prominent creators, not the kind that literally talks down to me like I’m a child?” You are correct, my friend!

If you’re a writer, I want you to now think about the fact that–don’t you dare deny it! I see your sins! I KNOW WHAT LIES WITHIN YOU!–you have written many scenes which are heavily dependent on tone, and then shoehorned in characters being comedic for… wait, why do we do this?

And I mean “we”. Ideally I’d reference earlier drafts of The Necromancer and the Revenant here, but the book’s only been out a month and I’d like to at least keep up some pretense of not spoiling my own magnum opus. So, let’s do the next best thing and refer back to the scenario I constructed at the start.

Let’s assume that I didn’t fuck up an easy win and somehow make you hate the shield-maiden (seriously, she’s the shield-maiden, she should have Best Girl status on permanent lock!) You might love or hate the elven prince. If you love him, then you’re conflicted because on the one hand you’re glad Utharien didn’t take that knife to the throat as the Blacksickle leader meant him to–despite his haughty airs, you know he has a good heart.

Or, maybe that’s not enough for you, and you haven’t forgiven him for the damage the Goretide Uruks caused when his overconfident battle-plans let them break the lines back in the first act. In this case, you’re even more upset that the shield-maiden’s been wounded–Brandwyn told that perfect-faced royal git to just wear a gorget like any human knight would, but did he? Nooooo, and now your favorite character is in jeopardy because of it!

I as the story’s architect am sitting pretty. I’ve brought your emotions to a boil, invested you utterly in the events to come. You feel the same desperation Utharien and Brandwyn do. This necromancer, an exile and supposed psychopath named Sallow Taringen, might kill them as soon as look at them. With Utharien devoting his own limited magic to delay that venom, they’ll be helpless to stop him. Their only hope is that the reclusive necromancer has some compassion hidden amongst the literal skeletons in his closet.

You’re mine, reader, hanging upon every teensy story beat, just as helpless, forlorn, and bereft of good options as our ailing heroes. The only mistake I can possibly make right now is to tell you not to take this story seriously.

HAHA GOD THAT KOBOLD JOKE IS HILARIOUS ISN’T IT?!?!

No, it isn’t. It’s tone-breaking, and a writer in an incompetent mood–I use this phrase because we’ve all been guilty of doing just what I’m describing, even those of us who like to think we’re skilled–mistakes that break in tone for effective comedy. It’s not supposed to be funny when characters we love are under threat, it’s not supposed to be funny when Taringen’s gaunt features stretch into a sad smile, touched by Utharien’s plea that he use any black art he deems necessary so long as it keeps Brandwyn alive.

Right now I want you wondering what that smile means–is Taringen sad because he feels sympathy for people he’s about to betray, or because he’s been where they are right now and, even as he prepares to help, he thinks he knows how this has to end? All the possibilities, all this doubt–again, they tie in perfectly with what the heroes themselves are feeling.

If I manage to make you snicker right now, I fucked up. I don’t want you laughing, I want you on the verge of tears, wondering if this is a salvation too unlikely to hope for or the first step down a dark path, that “irredeemable plunge into the abyss’s clutch” as Lady Losirin promised at the journey’s start.

Obviously there are other ways to do this. I’m focusing on badly-timed comic relief because (AHEM, all the Marvel films) it’s the single most common offender. Laughter and humor serve a certain purpose, as with all emotions. They detach us from what’s going on and can be a vital coping mechanism. However, they do this by partly disengaging many other parts of our minds. How many times now have I mentioned the importance of keeping people invested in the sequence of events?

If you were bleeding out on the floor and no one was showing any concern, would you feel reassured, or would you start to panic, unable to believe they cared so little about you that they could brush off your impending death? Yes, of course it’s the second one.

Last night, after I finished groggily hashing out the paragraph just above this and was skimming Facebook before bed, one of my friends happened to share a clip from Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Now, I’ll be damned if I ever find $100 under the couch or just happen to catch the eye of a creative team desperate for a lead writer, but the one sort of luck I do experience with eerie regularity is that, as I’m working on a piece, I’ll often happen to come across something helpful to writing it.

If you like the sort of storytelling I am about to describe, this is your right. However, your brain clearly operates on a different plane of existence, and you should be forewarned that our incompatible worldviews are likely about to cause friction between us.

The clip showed a determined, scarified Earthbender holding the line against some steampunk-ninja flavor goons with lightning batons. I’ve never seen The Legend of Korra, but I understand there’s some anti-Bending stuff in the story. I had enough information to be invested. I’m also a sucker for shrines and temples, so the dark-skied temple grounds on which this took place were a plus.

As expected, tough lady fights valiantly but is slowly being overrun. Korra is also onscreen for a moment, seemingly incapacitated as she is in a bed asking another character if the children are safe.

The children then drop from the sky to save the day with atrocious voice acting, all of which I could probably overlook if it came to it. It’s in delivering this rescue with slapstick flavor where the clip lost me. I decided it was time for bed around the point where a derpy-looking Airbender-child was using explosive farts to smite the steampunky baton-dudes.

I do not intend any of the above as an attack on The Legend of Korra, nor am I going to delve into a discussion of its relative merits or lack thereof against The Last Airbender. I’d be woefully underqualified for that discussion.

am, however, qualified to use this scene to illustrate all the tonal concerns I’ve been talking about thus far. Bear with me for this next bit, it might sound overblown, but it’s a genuine concern. Let’s come back to that annoyingly basic idea at the start: a story’s events create its tone. Events, really, are just the bigger effects from that whole “cause and effect” thing. To change tone, you must change the nature of the events onscreen.

Here’s my tinfoil moment: if you do this too drastically, you risk retroactively gutting everything from worldbuilding to characters and yes, plot.

I know that sounds insane, just give me a moment! The above scene might be quite representative of The Legend of Korra–in which case I’d like one of you to tell me so I can flee if I’m ever invited to watch it–or a lapse into silliness as reviled among longtime fans as it’s already become for me. For our discussion, it doesn’t really matter which.

Even when you create a story in a different world, you rely upon many ideas your audience take with them from our own. Here are some basic ones: fights are serious because people can be badly hurt or killed, so there’s not much to laugh about. Children are not as good at things as adults, especially fights because they are not physically strong and they are also tiny. Avatar’s world has elemental bending, so we can handwave the “kids weak”–shut it, you all know it’s true!–bit to a large extent in Avatar’s case, at least for the above scene.

What we can’t handwave is that a weird-looking kid delivering cannon-blast flatulation to his enemies has a completely different emotional energy from a tense, possibly heartbreaking scene where a sympathetic character stands alone against a swarm of faceless enemies who slowly whittle them down. If we do something like this in our own storytelling, we screw over the moment’s emotional resonance, and at the same time throw out our audience’s standing expectations about what fights and last stands are supposed to mean for the story.

If the story involves any more fights, we need to replace those expectations with something, but that’s high-level creative thinking which is directly at odds with throwing a farting child into the midst of a formerly-serious battle. If you’re in a state of mind to think this is either a good idea or actually funny, you’re likely not considering its worldbuilding implications.

I’d also argue that all that literal farting around just, well, shits on the whole idea that Bending is as much a style of martial arts as it is magic, each element having a unique, integral style of movement, and is incredibly disrespectful to Avatar’s worldbuilding, but maybe you don’t care about that or maybe I’m just wrong.

Right, let’s return to nice, safe ground: me using abstractions and my own examples to walk through my points. Let’s say that Sallow Taringen does actually decide to help Brandwyn and Utharien. The necromancer explains that while he can sustain her body, he cannot do so by healing–he doesn’t have the talent for it. We will also assume that my well-meaning goober of a friend, Jill, is sitting nearby offering terrible advice.

“Now do the kobold joke!” she says, but I look at the scenario I’ve written us into. With Utharien’s own limited magic almost exhausted, and Taringen having just said he can’t actually heal, the savvier readers already know where this is headed: Brandwyn is, in fact, going to die here, namely so that Taringen can use his necromantic skills to sustain her through undeath.

The shield-maiden is transitioning into a new state of being whose spiritual and psychological effects will take many chapters or even books to play out in full. She’ll be dependent on the necromancer to keep her going, even if only by occasional visits, a strange arcane bond which flies in the face of her free spirit and determination.

How will all this affect her growing friendship with Utharien? Can Taringen be trusted with this control over her, and even if he can, might the new-made trio’s enemies learn to use it against them? How will Brandwyn and Taringen survive a society which fears and hunts the undead and their makers alike?

Jill, for some reason, thinks that it would help the story if we had a silly reptile-dog-critter come screaming into the room during all this wearing stitched-together pieces of four separate robes it stole from Taringen’s closet (not the one with skeletons). Again, Brandwyn’s contemplating one of the biggest decisions she’ll ever make, and possibly selling out her own moral code in the process depending on what I’ve written before this point. This is not the time to change tone.

If I’ve done my work, both I and the readers are itching for an escape, some sort of emotional release. This is where I suspect many of those tone-breaking moments come from. Well, you know what? Brandwyn doesn’t get to escape. She’s stuck with this moment, and we should be too, so I’m going to keep the tone where it is.

In the end, Brandwyn must accept Taringen’s offer because there’s no chance Utharien will reach the Disciples of Mirtulla on his own. There’ll be a tearful exchange between the two, who have developed a friendship even if the readers might not agree with it after Utharien’s mistakes, and then Taringen’s ritualistic spell-casting, laced through with doubt about whether he’ll keep his word.

We’re left, finally, with Brandwyn as a pale caricature of her old self, gray, unbreathing, in emotional flux as–by my own universe’s rules–the chemical guides of her body cease to function, and thus she feels directly from the soul. There’s no reversing Taringen’s process; our brave shield-maiden is now a ghoul.

No, Jill, it’s still not time for the fucking kobold, gods damn you!

Many writers make one of two basic mistakes with tone. Either they chain themselves entirely to a single tone for an entire story, which can work just fine for a 90-minute film but is soul-crushing when applied to a novel which takes ten or more hours to read, or they keep switching it back and forth within the moment.

How do you switch tone, then? Well, you don’t “switch.” Thinking about tonal change that way will lead to all sorts of nonsense like the kobold. You shift tone. Remember what I said before about any given event creating certain emotions? Well, how you present the event can change that. Here’s the crucial bit: you want to change emotions by slowly moving that presentation within the event’s existing context, not by changing the context entirely.

If you’ve written a story which delves heavily into ideas about the psychological effects of warfare, and has previously showed the brutality of violence in unflinching fashion, you wouldn’t want to play it for laughs when one of your multiple protagonists takes a crossbow bolt to the brain. (Bonus points to anyone who figures out what real series I’m referring to with this one.)

You’ve got a magic system that lets them survive this? Fair enough, but remember: you created a world where violence is deadly serious and has torturous implications long after it’s done. If you sell that out for a joke, even just once, you’re changing the entire context of violence in this world.

Doesn’t seem worth it, does it? So, instead, consider how you can play out the initial shock of that bolt-impact in a way that accounts for the character’s survival, but doesn’t totally erase the threat or sense of trauma. First off, their brain’s structure has still been disrupted, and that’s going to play all kinds of merry havoc with their mental and bodily functions until the bolt is removed. Second, isn’t it possible that the automatic healing provided by your magic system could have some really nasty effects if the brain’s trying to regrow around a foreign object that isn’t supposed to be there?

I would just argue that since the magic system in question is an elective one where users choose to channel power, the disruption in brain function would cause that power to be lost and the character would just die like anyone else, but I’m not you. This can be approached many ways and achieve several different tones, but the joke makes a pretty poor choice.

Again, I consider comedy the worst offender here, but it’s far from the only one. The next worst? Excessive cheer or hopefulness. In a well-meaning attempt to release the tension and psychological strain created by their stories, writers will try for big, peppy tone-reversals. “It’s not such a big deal!” these switches say. Great, only… you did spend countless pages establishing the exact worldbuilding and stakes which dictate that all this is, in fact, A Very Big Deal™. If you throw that out, you throw out most of the emotional and philosophical weight it created.

Let’s return to Brandwyn. I could have her respond to her new state of undeath by an implausible instant-acceptance, not a hitch in her stride. As confident and strong-willed as ever, she decides on the spot that this undeath is just one more challenge, as opposed to a fundamental change in her existence which, while not ruinous for her, should be approached with caution and gravity.

See above about a A Very Big Deal™; I’ve just wasted all the energy and sense of conflict created by the assassin encounter. Part of what makes any fight work as a storytelling method is that it has built-in consequences the readers readily understand–namely, pain, defeat, and death. Since Brandwyn’s undeath doesn’t have the same permanence as just being dead, I really, really need to sell to readers that there are alternate consequences even when characters dodge the expected ones.

It doesn’t need to be histrionic or over-the-top, but in this case I decide the best approach–Jill, I will have Taringen melt the kobold with necrotic magic if you mention it one more time–for now, it’s best to give the heroes a breather. Brandwyn doesn’t have a mental breakdown, but she does experience severe doubts. We get a moody scene as she and Utharien stare out at the bogs from a crumbled section in the walls of Taringen’s sanctum. They wonder what other enemies they’ll face, whether Brandwyn’s undeath may start to change her as a person.

In the end, though it’s of a grimmer sort, they do manage to find a little hope. Our tonal sequence now goes: excitement/fear (assassin fight)–>shock/worsening fear (Brandwyn wounded)–>desperation/worst fear (seeking/meeting Taringen)–>desperation/sadness (Taringen agrees to help, solution isn’t what we hoped)–>release of tension/worsening sadness (Brandwyn now a ghoul)–>ebbing sadness/faint hope. Broken down this way, it’s pretty easy to see how we’ve always got one of the emotional/mental states from a previous plot beat to help blend us into the next one.

Now that we’re at faint hope and Brandwyn’s going into a pensive mode, now–yes, Jill, I fucking know–now that Utharien’s moved off and it won’t be interrupting the heartfelt opening to the third act, now we’re ready for that stupid goddamn kobold. And now that she’s not stealing a key moment from our embattled duo just for some visual comedy, Chansy Clicker might actually become a likable character!

It might not be the sequence of events fans would’ve constructed if given these same components. That’s because fans, while great people, are ultimately groups of friends chatting with abandon on the Internet. Those with a heavier storyteller’s bent would probably have produced something close enough to my sequence not to worry about the distinction. Of course, those aren’t the ones Buzzfeed will aggregate into a “Top 11 fan rewrites” post.

You know how you feel impulsive and prone to bad decisions when you’re having fun with friends? Storytelling isn’t immune to that, especially not group storytelling over the web. We have memes for meme-grade humor. When you’re actually creating the story, a little consistency works much better in the long run.

After all, if you need a change of pace that badly, if you really need to switch–is there any reason you can’t just switch to another project for a little while?

What do you think? Do you agree with my arguments, or do you prefer a more stream-of-consciousness approach to tone? Share your thoughts in the comments, and share this article if you think it might provide insight to others. Otherwise, leave a like, follow me on Twitter if you’d like to keep up with my day-to-day musings, and please consider supporting me on Patreon!

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