I’ve talked before about the importance of establishing the right expectations from the standpoint of character. That’s done by making it clear what the character wants – or thinks she wants. Then the story explores whether she gets it or not, and whether or not she really wanted it after all. Lots of combinations and permutations possible here, but they all stem from the character’s desires at the beginning.
But that’s only part of the story. Literally and figuratively.
Another aspect of the story that needs to be established early on (and then adhered to) is the tone of the story. For the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to use the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one, the good one) as my example. Pirates was one of the most efficient openings I’ve seen in a long time, because it did so much in such a short span.
Firstly, let me make it clear that I’m not talking about what I consider to be the movie’s two prologues. Prologue number one establishes the beginning of the relationship between Will and Elizabeth, when he is brought aboard the ship as a young boy, and she then steals the coin/pendant from him in order to protect him (from being discovered as a pirate). The second prologue is the next scene showing interaction between Will and Elizabeth, this time as young adults. Through their actions we see a romance trying to get underway, but we also see the numerous hurdles that stand between them (largely due to class issues).
These prologues establish the time period and several of the main characters, but they don’t address the full range of the tone the movie is going to strike.
As far as I’m concerned, Pirates of the Caribbean is about the adventures and misadventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, and the real story doesn’t begin until he comes on screen. But when he does… wow, what a beginning. This is where the tone of the piece is fully revealed.
It begins with a close-up of Jack, standing tall and proud in the crow’s nest of his ship, dramatically lit from behind. Swashbuckling ahead, this shot tells us. Then Jack jumps down as the camera pulls back, revealing the truth about the ship he’s sailing in: it’s a sinking tub, little more than a glorified rowboat with a mast overhead and a few too many holes below the waterline.
But no sooner does Jack begin bailing out his sinking ship when he pauses and removes his hat, gesturing reverently to three rotting corpses hanging from several ropes. Next to them is a sign warning that this will be the fate of all pirates who dare enter this area.
The fun continues as Jack rides his sinking ship right up to the port’s main dock, stepping off at the last possible second as his ship all but disappears beneath the water.
And in the space of four quick shots, totaling probably no more than five minutes of actual film time, the tone of the movie has been completely and accurately established.
What do we know? 1) We know from the opening shot of Jack in the crow’s nest that we have a movie that on the surface looks like a slightly over-the-top buckling of much swash. Oh, goody. 2) We know from the next shot, of Jack jumping down to bail the ship out, that there will be unexpected twists and turns, and that our assumptions will, from time to time, be stood on ear. 3) We know from the shot of the pirate corpses hanging from the rock, that there will be some moments of ‘black humor;’ and 4) We know from the shot of Jack stepping off the sinking ship and onto the dock that he is a character for whom things will go badly, but he will keep on smiling, always managing to stay one step ahead of the disasters he constantly finds himself in the midst of.
Five minutes of film time, and both the tone of the movie and the nature of the main character has been established thoroughly and completely and entertainingly. We don’t know what he wants yet, but that will be revealed slowly, bit by bit, in an interesting way that pulls the viewer along by giving a little more information each time. But the tone has been established SO well that no one minds. We sit back and relax and enjoy the ride, because we know, in broad strokes, what to expect from the story unfolding before us. Viewers (and readers ) need that to feel comfortable, to trust the storyteller in whose hands they are placing themselves.
Have you properly set the tone for your current work-in-progress? Have you made it crystal clear what the tone of your story is going to be? It doesn’t take much, but as the above example shows, a few well placed bits of dialogue, action, and setting, can go a long, looong way.