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How does one avoid Tonal Whiplash?

The kind of stories I tend to write, tend to be the sort that are 'mostly' serious in nature, but have the occasional levity, sometimes (due to the level of self awareness the characters have) in the form of an 'off script' interaction.

Depending on if these sorts of tone changes are established on outset, this can be fine and work well.

But what about when you want to write a more serious story throughout?

Or even in the stories I typically write, where I want to have a shift in tone but I don't want it to be to the point where it takes the reader out of the story.
 

jovidepine

Dreamer
Brandon Sanderson tackles this by postulating that stories are about promises and payoffs. Tone is one of the promises you make to your reader.

Take the A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example. Probably when writing (certainly when editing) book 1, George RR Martin knew his main character would be killed by the end of book 1. He also knew he was going to play into fantasy tropes before subverting them.

How do you not make that tonally inconsistent? How do you stick to tropes for a while, only to subvert them later? You can imagine how frustrating it would be for a reader if they went into ASoIF thinking "yes, another great series where good always trumps evil!".

The way he did was through a short, but potent, prologue, in which characters discuss the merits of honor, facing your fears, old legends etc, and they all die by the end.This way, in the first few pages of the story, George promised to his readers: death is possible in this book. Be wary, for no character is safe. I may introduce someone only to gut them later. I may kill everyone.

Now haven given an example, in my opinion, you can:
a) Promise a tone early on that concilliates both serious and playful moods. Have early chapters display this range of emotions, even if later bits end up focusing more on the serious side. This allows you to bring that levity back in later without compromising on the tone of your book;
b) Be sure that the jokes aren't breaking moments of payoff. Writing is about juggling tension and interest on the readers part; you can use jokes to deflate some situations, to keep readers engaged, to bring variety to the moods of your story. However, be sure that in those crucial moments when the knots of drama are about to be undone, when big revelations are happening and character arcs are reaching their climaxes, that jokes don't show up there. In such moments, nothing is more interesting to the reader than resolution;
c) Lean into the tonal whiplash. Maybe that itself is interesting enough for the reader. Just be absolutely sure that wherever you're heading is more interesting and gratifying than wherever they (the readers) thought you were leading them unto.

Now, be mindful that if you want to write a 100% serious story until page 255, and on page 256 the first joke appears, some whiplash will happen, inevitably. That is not bad by itself. Tonal whiplash, by itself, is not necessarily negative, like exposition is not negative by default, or any number of writing tropes.

All in all, this may depend on beta readers more than anything. Let us know how you untangle this! I'd be interested in a follow up.
 
jovidepine

The kind of tone I go for tends to be (mostly) lighthearted, but potentially and even dreadfully serious, when the situation/plot demands it.
A lot of my own characters (fanfiction or otherwise) seem to have some level of awareness (either of themselves or the fact that it's a story sometimes both.) and sometimes the plot plays into this.

I have at least two ideas going on right now, where the characters are 'aware' in some forms of the 'real' world.

In one world, the characters just know multiple realities exist (they talk about a god named Zeus from 'another' world, and similar scenes. The god of water chose her mortal tongue name because it sounded regal and fancy when she discovered it.) and have a few of these 'off script' moments, but don't tend to 'break' the overall tone. (at least if I can help it it won't, I'll try to avoid having super serious scenes RIGHT after the more jokey ones)

And in the other, the main character is distinctly aware of the reader's presence, this is part of the plot, I'm not sure how I'm going to tackle the reader 'actively' taking part in the plot without it being a choose your own adventure story though. There are a few games I play where the main character interacts with the player in a similar way. But usually it's because the protagonist is meant to be a 'stand in' for the player. In my idea there's a Main character and then there's the Reader, who is also somehow a character in the story.

The reason I have any concern at all about tonal whiplash (in excess) is because there's a story of a game that's pretty well liked, by those who like it. But those who don't like it, are really soured on an otherwise good game because of the Tonal Whiplash being excessive. There's one particular scene that NOBODY in the fandom likes, and it's cause it destroys the pacing of the plot and pretty much doesn't need to exist (because the scene literally minutes before it perfectly demonstrates the differences between two characters)
 

Joe McM

Scribe
My novel is mostly serious but I add character quirks and eccentricities to include moments of humor and lightheartedness.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
For me, it's about simply cutting out or rewriting the stuff that doesn't fit.

As I was writing my current project, which has humor, but it's not center stage or over the top, I had a section where, when I sat down to write it, all my characters started swearing like sailors and the humor got rampped up significantly. It felt natural, it felt fun, and I considered rewriting the whole book to reflect that tone. BUT then, I took some time to think about it and realized it wasn't what I really envisioned or wanted for the story. So, it got rewritten.

I think I was writing in serious mode for so long, I just needed a release. I needed some silliness, and it all came out in that section. I really liked what I wrote, but it didn't fit, so the little darlings got taken behind the shed and... ahem... joined Old Yeller.
 
yeah, pretty much what Penpilot says. Fix it in the edit if it doesn't work.

One thing to keep in mind is that a 100% serious novel will have less impact than one which varies its seriousness. Simple reason is that humans tend to get used to something quickly and that then becomes the new normal. It's the same with action scenes. If you have an explosion on each page of your novel, those explosions will have much less impact on the reader than if you have only 1 explosion at the end of your novel which the whole novel has been leading up to.

You need moments of levity to break the seriousness, just as you need moments of calm to increase the impact of tension and to give the reader a moment to recover their breath. How many moments very much depends on the type of story you write and your own writer's voice. A thriller can have an explosion on each page. But they don't depend on that single explosion at the end. It's more drag the reader through a story without giving them a moment to breath.
 

Demesnedenoir

Myth Weaver
Just write it and then figure it out. There isn't one answer to this question, as the number of variables is nutty. I think in one review for The Contessa of Mostul Ûbar the reviewer mentioned needing a strong stomach for the violence and blood and also laughing out loud in parts. It works, or it doesn't, and it might not work for everybody.

The movies Blazing Saddles (the Hollywood ending) and The Life of Brian (the alien spaceship scene) both have off-the-wall pieces, but they work because of the stories they're inserted into. If you're writing Game of Thrones and stick in a scene from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you'd better be doing something right or you won't get away with it—heh heh.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
I think Star Wars does a pretty good job of this. Most of the humor comes from the quips and circumstances where people are still totally in character, and yet, it is a serious story.

Han Solo, better her than me, blasting Greedo, Boring conversation anyway....

C3PO -- Don't call me a mindless philosopher

Ben - These aren't the droid your looking for.

And a lot of tiny gags, like Chewbacca growling at the mouse robot, and it turning to run away.

But the movie was not a comedy.

I think there can be lessons learned there, that characters can deliver lines that are still in character, and tell a story about who they are, and when is going on, and not really flip the thing into a comedy. Sight gags may not fly, but with some skill, I bet things like them can be pulled off.

But...maybe I am not good for this topic. I dont write comedy. In my own stories, while I think things are amusing, I am not sure the reader would get why.
 

Demesnedenoir

Myth Weaver
It's important for a piece of work to not lose its identity. You can see this best in movies. The thriller/romance/comedy that never quite knows what it is and ends up sucking. Horror/comedy is a common failure because of this, while at the same time, something like Zombieland becomes a cult classic.

If you can "keep it real" without being real, you're in a good spot. Star Wars did that very well because even the most stressful parts of life have wise asses. M*A*S*H is a great example of balancing the solemn to downright depressing with comedy.
 
I suppose the amount of humour you want will always be subjective, but 'tonal whiplash' is almost self-explanatory. It's a spectrum, and the further you vary from the resting point of the spectrum, the more jarring the gag will be.

In regards to movies, a masterful break of tension is the line "we're going to need a bigger boat" in Jaws. It isn't funny on its own, and frankly isn't that funny at all, but from what I remember, that line was ad-libbed because the actor felt something needed to be said to ease the tension. And it does exactly that without killing the tone of the movie.

Think of situations in real life too: moments of grieving, worry, uncertainty. It can be consoling for a friend to lighten the mood with a soft joke, but if he/she bursts into the room dressed as a clown and throws a pie in your face, you're going to want to strangle them. Don't do that to your reader.

The most important thing you can do is ask yourself how your characters would react. Absurd situations can arise, and your characters reacting organically will be the most important part. Imagine if chickens began raining from the sky in LoTR. You might get some funny reactions from Gimli or Pippin, but if Gandalf and Aragon started acting like Marvel characters, it would pull you right out of the story.
 
I think Star Wars does a pretty good job of this. Most of the humor comes from the quips and circumstances where people are still totally in character, and yet, it is a serious story.

Han Solo, better her than me, blasting Greedo, Boring conversation anyway....

C3PO -- Don't call me a mindless philosopher

Ben - These aren't the droid your looking for.

And a lot of tiny gags, like Chewbacca growling at the mouse robot, and it turning to run away.

But the movie was not a comedy.

I think there can be lessons learned there, that characters can deliver lines that are still in character, and tell a story about who they are, and when is going on, and not really flip the thing into a comedy. Sight gags may not fly, but with some skill, I bet things like them can be pulled off.

But...maybe I am not good for this topic. I dont write comedy. In my own stories, while I think things are amusing, I am not sure the reader would get why.
If we're talking tone (not explicitly comedy) without referencing things that non-gamers/non-anime fans aren't familiar with, Star Wars is probably almost the 'perfect' example to come up with, for this particular story. (I'd maybe say Guardians of the Galaxy, but marvel in general is a bit too one-liner-y especially Guardians, so the tone from those films isn't quite what I'm going for.)

Although, my story is a little bit 'lighter' in terms of tone, similar vibes to star wars but with a lot of characters having 'off script' moments while still being in character. Same for the other project I'm working on. When the chips are down, all the characters, even the villains take their roles seriously and sink their teeth into them. But for the 'in between' moments, where the stakes aren't as high, the characters (even the baddies, even if the actual antagonist is the hammiest ham to ever ham, he's very serious about his work) are pretty...I guess relaxed? Still in character and still focused on forwarding the plot but pretty easy going.

The Incredibles Universe would also be pretty similar in tone (Although more in the sense of awareness: Like Syndrome's 'you sly dog, you got me monologuing!' ) but written for like, an older audience I guess.
 
It's important for a piece of work to not lose its identity. You can see this best in movies. The thriller/romance/comedy that never quite knows what it is and ends up sucking. Horror/comedy is a common failure because of this, while at the same time, something like Zombieland becomes a cult classic.

If you can "keep it real" without being real, you're in a good spot. Star Wars did that very well because even the most stressful parts of life have wise asses. M*A*S*H is a great example of balancing the solemn to downright depressing with comedy.
That's actually my concern, I want to establish the 'identity' early (which I kinda described in the above post) but I want to remain consistent with it.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
The Incredibles Universe would also be pretty similar in tone (Although more in the sense of awareness: Like Syndrome's 'you sly dog, you got me monologuing!' ) but written for like, an older audience I guess.

So why not use the Incredibles as your model for how to accomplish it?
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
I'll be the first to tell you that our Urban Fantasy series can get brutal, but I was raised in a medical family and on top of that my mom was a satirist, so I got what we call 'gallows humor' early and often. For example, my parents met over a dead body. True story. But the way my mom told it was hysterical. You'll have to trust me. 😜 So, flash forward several decades and an in-depth education in dark humor and my team is all three of us possessed of this warped sense of the funny and we bring it into our work every day.

Here's a little bit of what I mean. This is during a fun game of Hide-and-Seek with demons who want to sacrifice our protagonists for nefarious purposes...

~~~

Alerich followed Etienne deeper into the vineyard, Fitz close behind him. Etienne’s eyes were full of questions for Alerich, but he did not seem like he was going to ask them while they were playing Hide and Seek with fire and demons.

Later. There would be a conversation later.

They came to the end of the row of vines—and ran right into a pair of demons. Before the demons could call out, Fitz grabbed his flask and flung his hand out with a Word of Command, and they both shrank down into…

Wasps? Really?

The wasps attacked, and Etienne swatted one down with enough force to crush it. Alerich cast his hand out at the other one, summoning the fire that coursed within him, and got stung in the process. He caught the demonic wasp in his hand and burned it to ash. Then he turned to Fitz and signed, “You had the whole of Animalia to choose from, and you chose something with a weapon?”

Fitz shrugged. “Seemed sporting.”

Alerich flipped two fingers at Fitz and shook out his hand, trying to control the rising pain and swelling, and set fire to the vines.

It was going to be a long night.

~~~

There's a bit of advice I tend to lean on for this, pretty much every day. The author is a human dumpster fire, but he's also a gifted writer, proving one doesn't have to be a decent human to be successful in this industry.

5f44c7f24f3e405714797ff57d82a79a.jpg
 

Mad Swede

Auror
The overall tone in a story matters, but it's the way you underpin and to an extent counter the main tone which intrigues readers and keeps them reading. I get away with a fairly dark and cynical style of story telling because, as my editor says, my stories also contain love and trust which in turn gives a sense of hope to the stories.
 
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