People are familiar with the concept of tone of voice. Every story also has a tone, and the establishment and maintenance of a consistent tone in a work is important for its success. Imagine a happy-go-lucky kind of story that ends with the horrific and gory slaughter of all of the beloved characters with only the villain surviving in the end.
It wouldn’t make sense, would it?
We watch The Princess Bride and expect a favorable outcome, a happily-ever-after, because there’s a quirky, off-beat tone persistent throughout that suggests good triumphing over evil. That tells us things will eventually be okay for Wesley and Buttercup.
By contrast, anyone who watches The Walking Dead knows that at any moment even a beloved character may die. Any story that involves a woman telling a little girl to ‘look at the flowers’ before she executes her is a story that is prepared to go full dark.
It’s probably easier for writers who are telling very dark stories to establish and maintain a consistent tone. The challenge for upbeat writers is to balance the demands of story against their work’s tone.
Why is this tough? Stories require drama. Watch any comedy and you’ll see sad moments interspersed with the one-liners. Superstore currently has a beloved character facing possible deportation. The Good Place has forced Eleanor to give up her soulmate for the good of humanity. Conflict and loss are key components of introducing drama that promotes character development or responses from characters that advance the overall story arc. This means that even those who are writing upbeat stories find themselves needing to splice in some unhappy and tense moments.
In a children’s story it may be more common to do this and quickly restore order. However, once you start writing for teenagers and adults, the balancing act is even trickier.
When you’re determining the right balance for your story, there are a number of things to consider.
There are different types of story structures that writers can use. It’s common for there to be critical events or key turning points in the story at the end of every quarter. In a work that is typically more upbeat, these may be the dark points in the story, or significant dramatic events that contrast with the overall tone for the purpose of advancing the story, creating conflict or introducing loss. One of the key things to consider about placement is to try to avoid outliers. If a story has been largely upbeat from the start and quickly resolved all conflict to restore order, but then ends on a very negative, unhappy tone, it won’t feel balanced tonally. There’s also a difference between introducing some moderately unhappy moments that are quickly resolved and then having a very dark incident occur. You either need to build towards that darkness with escalating tension and conflict, or you need to have a dark thread throughout for consistency.
Your protagonist(s) and sometimes a handful of key characters should all have their own growth arcs in your work. Think Han Solo in Star Wars. He had to learn to care about something other than himself and put the good of the galaxy ahead of his own interests. And the hallmark of good storytelling is that this decision comes back to adversely affect those he cares about most and himself in The Empire Strikes Back. Placement of dramatic events, particularly dark ones, should be determined by the need to provide a catalyst for the character’s growth or actions. Would it make sense for two characters to have a fight and then get along perfectly for five chapters before the fight has an impact on them individually or their relationship with each other? This doesn’t mean that every catalyst that’s introduced will result in an immediate response, but things should build for the character in the text in a way that shows us that a breaking point is coming.
Your audience can be an important consideration when determining the appropriate tone and how dark to go for adverse events in the story. As noted, children’s stories may be more likely to restore order quickly or avoid extremely dark content. Writers of YA must consider whether they are writing for younger teens or older teens, and consider the implications of some types of content in the story.
Endings and Series Books
Although The Empire Strikes Back pulled off a dark ending in a movie series, leaving us worried about the fate of our heroes, it’s hard for stories to do this without alienating the audience. Never take an occasional movie or television series as the justification for thinking that this will work in a written series. One of the reasons it’s problematic is that we live in a world that increasingly emphasizes instant gratification. People are impatient, and it’s hard to sustain their interest for long periods of time. It’s easier to attract a TV or movie audience than it is to attract readers, and there are usually longer gaps between books than there are between TV seasons. Ending on a cliffhanger — especially a downbeat cliffhanger that makes everything look bleak for the characters — can really frustrate a readership. On one hand, it’s a ballsy move. On the other hand, you’re more likely to get away with it if you’ve established yourself as a popular writer who is known to provide satisfying resolutions in other series works.
In other words, Stephen King is far more likely to get away with it than an unknown writer who is starting out.