Being a Better Writer: Your Opening Tone

You know, this is the first time I think I’ve had a post fall on April 1st, also known as April Fools’ Day. And part of me really wondered if I should do an April Fools’ Day post with this week’s Being a Better Writer.

But I decided against it. For starters, while it’d be fun for the holiday, then there’s the catch of it being left up for the rest of the internet to stumble across, ignore the date, and quite possibly take very seriously. So that ruled out gag advice.

So I figured why not do a normal post and just roll with it. It’ll probably get no views until tomorrow, because you can’t really trust anything today, and well, oh well. It’ll be written and out there helping folks out, and that’s what really matters.

So then … why not jump into it. As you can see from the title, today I want to talk about your opening tone.

Confused? It’s fine. This is a high-end concept that doesn’t get brought up much, But it’s best illustrated, of all things, with a Pixar film. Ever seen Monster’s Inc.?

I really hope so, because it’s a fantastic film. Today I want to start by talking about the opening of the film. Or rather, the two openings and how they affect the film.

See, Monster’s Inc has two openings. One is the original opening of the film, while the other is … well, that’d be getting ahead of myself. So first, I want to ask you: what do you  remember the film starting with?

It was the doors, right? With bright colors, catchy jazz, and fun, bouncy visuals? Even if that wasn’t the first thing that popped into your head, you likely did recall this fun little opening with runaway letters and storybook visuals setting up the title of the film and the cast and crew. I mean, it’s kind of memorable, and fun and bouncy too. What’s not to like.

Sands, in case you’ve forgotten it, I’m embedding it here so you can give it a quick watch. Don’t worry, this is all vital and will make sense.

So there it is! Pretty fun, right? And a great way to start the film. Well … what if I told you that it wasn’t originally the first thing anyone saw watching that film?

Nope, it was not. In fact, the original first scene was what later became the second scene: The aborted scare training with the child robot in the bedroom originally was the scene the movie opened on. Which scene I will now helpfully embed. By the way, if it starts with the colorful doors, ignore that, the time-stamp just messed up. It starts with the fade-from-black on the shot of the shelf.

Okay, so you remember this scene as well, right? Well, as I said, this scene used to be the first scene in the film. Back when Pixar was still testing it. However … when they tested it, they found that this scene caused problems.

Well, they didn’t realize it was this scene at first. The problem was that their test audiences were taking the movie too seriously. They weren’t laughing at a lot of the jokes (and if I recall things properly, even found some of them distracting), but instead were watching the film subdued and with a very serious, almost grim air.

The problem, Pixar quickly realized, was that the movie started on a scene that appeared to have a serious tone, and so it set the audience’s expectations as ‘this is a serious, somewhat grim animated adventure. So they weren’t laughing as much, and the jokes weren’t hitting. Because the opening of the movie, the bit that set the tone, wasn’t in alignment with the rest of the vision of the film, since it started out looking serious (even if that was with the intent to subvert the tension into a bunch of slapstick as it does). Viewers were worried about the robot kid, worried about the characters.

So the team went back to the drawing board with the goal of adding in a new scene before that opening that would start the audience off on the right tonal expectation. And so they came up with the door scene, set to bouncy, happy jazz, and put that scene before the original opening, just the way you remembered it.

What happened? Well, it worked. The new starting scene set the “tone” of the film in audience’s minds as “bouncy and fun.” And so when the next scene, once the first, started, the audience was smiling and expecting it to be funny. Which it was. Test audiences with the new scene laughed at all the jokes, had a good time, and weren’t nearly as worried or alarmed in the movie’s heavier moments.

All because of the way the film started. That opening moment cemented the expectations of the audience, coloring the rest of the story.

By now most of you have, I’m certain, grasped the driving force of this post by now: Tone. As in, every book, every story that we tell comes with a tone, an “attitude” if you will, that we present to the reader. And our opening? It needs to make sure to sell the tone of the story up front so that the reader is on the same “page” as the author for the rest of the story.

It’s not just about consistency, though we’ll get to that in a moment. It’s about making sure that our opening presents the tone the rest of the title will follow so that the reader can get into the right mindset.

For example, Shadow of an Empire is about two law-enforcement officers chasing a bunch of criminals through a wild desert, trying to figure out what they’re up to while also trying not to die and get the drop on them. So how does it open?

With one of the two protagonists hunting another criminal down, engaging them in a gunfight, and capturing them. While introducing the main character, it’s almost a microcosm for the whole story, a case of “here’s what you’re getting in this book,” complete with the tone of the adventure (that being a tension as the protag sneaks up on their quarry).

Basically, if you read that first chapter, you have an idea of what the rest of the book will feel like, from the overarching tension of the hunt to the small aside moments of humor and character.

Coming back to your writing, what this means is that the tone you establish in your opening, from the seriousness of things to the sense of humor, is the tone that will “paint” the rest of your work. Like Pixar, if you want to tell a story that’s full of laughs and fun, starting out by using the tone and mood of a more serious story may cause your audience to look at your story with an entirely different lens.

Alternatively, loosing track of your tone can hurt a story to. It was actually a show I watched that inspired this post, during my down-time from my wrist injury. The Umbrella Chronicles on Netflix, while interesting and with fun moments, really suffers from tonal issues about halfway through.

See, the show starts out as a mix of semi-serious moments mixed with moments played for comedy and laughs. Such as one character dryly remarking in the opening episode that the disturbance in their backyard looks a lot like either a micro-black hole attempting to devour the Earth, or a rip in the space-time continuum, while another character sprays a fire extinguisher at it remarking ‘Well, it can’t hurt to try.’

Absurdity like that shows up all over the first few episodes. People hanging lampshades on the superhero nature of the characters, etc. But then halfway through the show’s season .., it loses that, and just starts taking everything seriously. When it wasn’t before. And the tonal shift? Kind of makes it a drag. It’s not until the show starts trying to get it back at the end of the season, recovering from its stumble, that it starts to click again, but by then you’re at the end, and well …

It’s not that the “serious serious Mcserious” moments of the middle of the show are … bad, really. It’s just that they feel almost like another show at times because they don’t mesh with the tone set by the opening episodes of the show. Cutting out those moments of absurdity and lampshades, even a little, changes the feel of the show from something you expected to something you weren’t. And the middle of The Umbrella Academy really suffers for it.

As a result, I enjoyed those middle bits a lot less than I did the opening episodes. Again, not that seriousness is bad, but it wasn’t what the opening set up. The show felt, by the middle, tonally at odds with itself once the humor was gone.

Now, people still watched it, and I still finished it. But it went, in my mind from “good” to “merely okay.” All because the middle lost the tone, and the end didn’t quite recover it.

Ultimately, all of this talk has been to illustrate and drive home a single point: No matter what you write, think of the tone you’ve established. That you are establishing. Do you want a tense, gripping piece? Or a comedy? A romance? Think of the feelings and emotions you want your reader to experience, how each part of the story should read. Do you want them to feel exhilarated? Like they need to curl up under the covers and check over their shoulder?

Figure out what tone you want your story to have, then lead with that tone. Your opening should capture and sell that. Whether it’s Star Wars famous opening text scroll set to a bombastic score, the “If not, too bad, I’m telling you anyway” humor of Borderlands 2, or the long, drawn-out, sun-baked tension of Once Upon a Time in the West

Granted, I use film and games because they demonstrate this visually. But think of books. Think about how the opening paragraphs and chapter of The Hobbit set up the tone of the story. Or Harry Potter‘s first book?

The Icarus HuntThe Martian? Think of one of your favorite books, then think of that first chapter. Does that first chapter do a good job setting the tone that the rest of the book follows and delivers on?

Well, if it’s good … Yes! So then, one last question: How do you do this? How do you set up your tone and keep it throughout the book?

Practice. Lots of practice. And by keeping in your mind what you’re promising and trying to deliver. Are you writing a grim, gory horror book? You probably shouldn’t load a lot of comedic moments and romance in there. Suave-spy thriller? Probably shouldn’t dive really deep into the details of the American housing crisis and their sociological impact.

Basically, keep in mind what kind of story you’re trying to tell and stick to it. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t have moments of all sorts in your story. A serious moment can still have a joke or a quick pun to lighten the mood and give the audience time to breath … This would also fall under proper pacing.

But the tone, the way you present the story, the way you deliver it … those should stay consistent. And that first chapter should sell it.

So, get out there, write that first chapter that gives your readers the tone the rest of the story will follow … and then follow-through with it.

Good luck. Now get writing.

And hey, if you enjoyed this post, found it helpful, and want to keep more of ’em coming every Monday, consider buying one of my books or supporting me on Patreon!

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