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Tone Shifts

So let's talk about something a little different.

Specifically TONE SHIFTS!!!

I'm not just talking about how a story transitions from one tone to another over the course of the plot, although that's an absolutely valid topic. What I want to focus on a little bit, though, is tone shifts within a chapter or set of chapters. How do you as authors seek to execute a tonal shift in your chapters that shift the content to something either lighter or darker than the norm? And frankly, how does it affect the story going forward?

As an example, my most recent chapter has a very stark shift to a much, much darker tone than what was previously displayed. It was meant to be very sudden and abrupt, as it was lined up with a sort of PTSD flashback for the main character. However, even though the tone will switch back to more light-hearted fare, that darkness is going to start to come more often. Tone shifts in Ionization, I think, are going to become a little more frequent.


Winter can't come soon enough
Oh god, that's actually tough to say. Mood whiplash can really go either way for me, as a reader. I guess the cop-out would be to say that it's dependent on how the author approaches the shift in tone.

I think the closest thing I've done to in-chapter tone shifts can really be attributed to introduced a boss. My earlier chapters treat dungeon crawling as a lighthearted affair, but there a few instances in which the sillier conversations that happen come to a screeching halt because a boss character appears. In that case, I think I was relying on the Ultra Beast design inspirations (and the characters' shocked reactions to them) in order to help things shift into a more serious tone for the actual battle. I believe Negrek pointed out that some of the dialogue kind of lessens that effect, though. So, it seems like it might be something I struggle with. ^^;


Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος
I feel like complete unexpected mood whiplash is never a good thing. Though I do understand the compulsion to 'surprise' your audience with a tonal shift, I believe it needs to be properly signposted in order to avoid losing momentum. To use a really flawed analogy because I know nothing about motor racing, a hairpin turn is still exciting even if you know it's coming, and if you lean into the turn skilfully, you can exit the turn at full speed and keep going. Likewise, a story that drops hints, even vague ones, about the upcoming transition can be much more effective than one which comes unexpected, forcing the readers to pause and collect their thoughts before continuing. They don't have to be explicit 'hey something crazy is about to happen' signs, either; just a creepy, underlying sense of unease in an otherwise cheerful scene can do wonders. A fic I was reading recently had a wild tone shift in the middle of a chapter, cutting from a character listening to a religious sermon to somebody spouting profanity after the service; but because the sermon scene was littered with minorly sacrilegious observations from the viewpoint character, it wasn't jarring at all when they smash cut to a different character cursing up a storm about it. Interesting, yes; but jarring or inappropriate, no.


I'm a fan of jerking the mood from triumphant to tragic really quickly within the space of a chapter. Like, if the protagonist has just achieved a major victory, I like to yank to rug out from under them to undercut it with a cruel bit of fate (losing a teammate, Pyrrhic victory, unintended consequence, etc.). Of course, I only like to use this (and see it used) when there's a good chunk of the narrative left to go, so the implications of both the triumph and the tragedy can be felt. I feel like it keeps the plot moving and keeps the audience on their toes.

But in the other direction, I don't mind easing off the tone. The way I always structure my plots is through a series of small climaxes and denouements that all lead up to the big one at the end of the story, basically dividing up the narrative into a series of plot arcs that peak higher and higher as the tension mounts. I'd never let the tension drop back down to Chapter 1 levels, but I do think it's good for the story and the audience to ease off the gas pedal every once in a while, especially after some big plot-heavy event.

Chibi Pika

Stay positive
Oh boy, it's the problem that is haunting me right now. 8)

So yeah, as I mentioned earlier today, LC is due for a pretty big tone shift in the near future, and I've been grappling with how to make it not too... I don't know... annoying? See the problem is, I just had a bombastic action chapter and everyone's really excited to see what comes next. But... something really big just happened that will force the antagonists to lie low for a while. So the protagonists will be biding their time as well (and there will consequently be a large time skip.) This, combined with the fact that I need two chapters of denouement on Book 1 and two chapters of setup for Book 2 (plus one more chapter that introduces a new character + plot thread) combines to form a whopping five non-action chapters in a row. Now, I know there's no rule that says that action fics can't go more than X chapters without action, but it's still a bit worrisome, switching to a quiet tone after everything that just happened. I'm hoping that so long as I can make it make enough sense in the plot, it won't bother readers too much? It's also really important because on a larger scale, there's a tone shift between the two books overall. Book 1 focuses on despair, while Book 2 focuses on determination. Bad things will happen, but the characters are now better equipped to deal with them, which is why I need to start establishing that new tone early on.

Huh. I guess I just kinda... sorted through my dilemma in that paragraph? Neat. :p

Kutie Pie

"It is my destiny."
How do I execute tonal shifts? I dunno, honestly, I'm not all that mindful about the tone I'm going for. It just seems to happen at a slow, if not natural pace for me so I've never had to expect my readers to experience something similar to what the folks at TV Tropes call Cerebus Syndrome, except maybe on a meta-level when I look back on it and realize, "Oh, crap, so that's what's been happening." I just find it weird how I would like to and do enjoy writing lighthearted scenes, but here I am exploring dark, rather soul-crushing scenes more often than not with no signs of stopping.

Well, now that I think about it, my tonal shifts are actually more about the emotions. So like therefore, while the look of it is akin to "Hey everybody, this story's darker and edgier now, the wee ones are getting traumatized" reaction, upon going deeper, it's actually more like "Quit playing games with my heart, oh God stop, why are you doing this to me". Like I don't mean to coat a story in this happy light only to strip it away layer by layer to show it was actually depressing this whole time, it just turns out that way.


Lost but Seeking
Ah, I do love it when the tone shifts without a clutch. A lot of my favorite moments in stories are ones that surprise me, so "this thing you thought was one thing actually turns out to be another thing" is usually a winner with me.

It really depends on what you're trying to do, though. Abrupt tone shifts are great for moving stories on to their next chapter, raising the stakes, making it clear that something is different now, and that difference needs to be addressed. It's a kind of shock value that can get people really jazzed up and eager to see what happens next.

But slower shifts in tone, like what M-Dub was talking about, are fantastic for building suspense and atmosphere--creating a sense of unease, where the reader knows something's wrong and something bad's going to happen, but can only read on to see exactly how and to what extent it goes bad. I really love little slightly-off hints dropped here and there that gradually add up to an "oh NO this is going to be bad" feeling, and then that horrifying moment when it all really does go bad, exactly like what you were expecting. That's suspense, where the more abrupt version is simply surprise.

It's funny that when people talk about these sorts of tone shifts, they're almost always talking about more lighthearted stories going dark, but I really love the reverse as well! When something's built up to be horribly tragic or dangerous or horrible and then it turns out to be something completely silly or lighthearted, it can be hugely funny. It's all about subverting expectations, which is what humor is. It doesn't need to be humorous, either. When you have kind of dark, grinding setting, where it seems like everything goes wrong and you know that the characters are getting their hopes up only to have them dashed yet again, and then that doesn't happen and something actually positive results? That can be really powerful. A lot of those "crowning moments of X" are to some extent tonal shifts, where characters break out of the patterns that previously defined them, and the story as a result swings from happy to sad or the reverse. Towards the end of a story it tends to be a more scripted thing, where you can see how the buildup has been leading towards this moment throughout the rest of the story, while "surprise" shifts tend to happen more towards the beginning, where there's plenty of time to deal with the fallout. But either way, they can be some of the most memorable and consequential moments in the story.