A tonal shift is one of the most dangerous, but also most essential things to do in any narrative. A tonal shift is just that, a shift in a story’s overall feeling from where it started. Like any narrative tool, it’s important to know when to use it, and how to do it right.Today we’re going to take a look at some examples, good and bad, of how a tonal shift can be done.
The Harry Potter series is a prime example of a tonal shift done right, primarily because the shift is done slowly. The first book is, for the most part, a pretty light hearted Nancy Drew style mystery with an extra emphasis on world building, with the darker moments taken in moderation. The series slowly changes its face however, dealing with giant child murdering snakes, soul sucking demons, and torture by magic.
By the end of the series, Harry Potter has become downright apocalyptic, with characters being killed left and right, some of the most beloved icons laid to rest, and downright Lovecraftian imagery bound up in Rowling’s words. The key here is it’s done slow. So slow that the reader has very little idea it’s happening. Rowling in her genius introduces us to the whimsy of her world first, before slowly peeling it back to reveal it’s not such a friendly place. A gradual change from one tone to another is a tried and true method of holding your audience. Doing an abrupt change however is far more risky.
One of the primary complaints I hear about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is its tonal shift, which is both sudden and devastating. The film starts much like Raiders, with an exciting action sequence, a lot of humor, and great character interaction. Once the hero reaches India, something sinister is shown to be afoot. The closing of the second act treats the audience to scenes of child torture, the hero being forced to drink blood, and a prolonged and intense scene of the leading lady threatened with death by hot lava.
It is an unpleasant ordeal, but the film does reward those who stick around with an exciting twenty minute series of action scenes. Temple of Doom does shift its tone, but also returns to where it started and keeps its promise to deliver what the title entails. Since the movie goes back to what it was while still settling the story, this tonal shift is one that many more forgive than condemn, and is another example of the tactic done successfully. Still, there are times when a tonal shift is uncalled for.
The Last House on the Left is the first film of director Wes Craven. It’s a grueling tale of two girls who are raped and murdered, their deaths later avenged by grieving parents. This is a story that should have stayed dark and intense, but Craven, in a very ill advised move, actually put comic relief in the movie.
It comes from a pair of bumbling cops who race to the scene of the crime in an effort to stop it. Instead of being a tool to build suspense, the officers are portrayed as buffoons, hitching rides on chicken trucks and getting flipped off by hippies. In a film that deals with the brutal deaths of two innocent teens, this shift in tone was not wanted, and was nothing but detrimental for the film’s more sobering moments.
The most risky type of tonal shift is one that is not only sudden, but prolonged. You do this, you have one flowing narrative going through two different genres. It can be very confusing for an audience, no matter how well intentioned it is.
Last Action Hero is a pretty underrated film, but its shift in tone can alienate many viewers. It’s about a young boy who magically enters a Schwarzenegger film, and takes his favorite character out of the movie to fight a villain in the real world. The first half mercilessly lampoons the career of its star and the action stereotypes he perpetuated. It features explosions, a high bodycount, and even an animated cat detective.
The latter half of Last Action Hero is much darker affair that leaves the hero severely depressed upon realizing he is but a fictional character who must face the risk of losing. It deals with the unrealistic expectations put forward by action films, and how they don’t apply in the very real battle of good against evil. Though audiences are split, this film took a big risk with that shift, and for that it deserves admiration.
Tonal shifts are an essential part of storytelling as they keep the audience on their toes, but they are a source of bitter divide amongst fans of literature and film. This is in part due to subverting expectations, the audience expecting one thing and getting another. But tonal shifts are important because no great story remains the same from beginning to end. All stories change along with their characters, so for there not to be a tonal shift is a betrayal of the very purpose of storytelling. I suppose the best way to do a tonal shift is to not just give the audience what they expect, but also something more. The key is making sure that extra is a pleasant surprise.