Great Expectations II: Tone


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.


34 comments to Great Expectations II: Tone

  • I think that one of the reasons I find the opening pages of each book so difficult to write, is that I am trying to do just what you describe here. It’s not just that I want the wording right, that I want to get my character development and plot going; it’s that I’m trying to find the right feel for the entire project. Pirates is a terrific way to illustrate this. So, too, I think, is the opening of The Fugitive. Sometimes comparing movies and books doesn’t work; here it works perfectly. Great post, Ed. Thanks.

  • Agreed, David. The old saying, “A job well begun is halfway done” comes to mind. There’s a lot to be accomplished in an opening, and it all has to be present, and it all has to flow seamlessly together.

  • I agree. I find I revise my opening pages more than any other. Especially as I progress in the tale and discover more about what’s going on, who the characters are, etc, I find it imperative to go back and rework the opening so that it reflects these discoveries.

  • You know, we’ll have a much livelier conversation if you people will stop agreeing with me…

    Someone tell me I’m an idiot, quick.

  • Lance Barron

    You’re not an idiot, Ed. Your post hits directly on one of the problems with my first chapter. I also agree with David and Stuart. Thank you.

  • Not an idiot? Clearly you haven’t met my wife… 😉

    Seriously, there’s a lot the opening of a story (short or long) has to accomplish, Lance. Half the battle is figuring out what all those things are, and the other half is not making it look like you’re TRYING to hit all the predetermined items on a checklist.

  • You’re an idiot! Not really, you’re right on the money. 😉 But you told me too! So, with two prologues what would the first one be called?

    That is an awesome opening scene though. I’ve been told that I have pretty strong opening scenes in my work. I do try to make them shine as much as I can. For me, when I read, it’s a solid opening that keeps me reading, and so I want to make sure it’s something that would keep me turning pages if I had picked it up.

  • I call you an idiot all the time. I thought that by agreeing with you I was throwing in some variety.

  • I call you an idiot all the time. I thought that by agreeing with you I was throwing in some variety. Idiot.

  • And then I promptly do something idiotic with the comments. It’s like putting a great big “Kick me” sign on my backside….

  • David — Laughing almost too hard to type. It would be so much easier to take you calling me an idiot seriously if I didn’t take you two tries to do it…

    Daniel — Prologue one and prologue two? Yeah, if you don’t have a rock-solid opening, no one is ever going to find out how great the rest of your work is.

  • It was so easy I almost didn’t take it, David. But then I thought, “When has that ever stopped me before?”

    Thanks for the freebie.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Prologue and Prelude? Both of which I think I’ve got in my current WIP at the moment. Indeed, my WIP has serious opening issues. In part, perhaps, because I have three main POV characters. In part because one of the centrally important people is not a main POV character. And, of course, largely because this is my first go at this. Well. revise. revise. revise.

  • Edmund> Good points. I’m reviewing the opening of one of my novels now, and tone is so important. I think it is also the hardest to explain when it is going wrong. It isn’t quite voice, either, is it? The voice of the MC (or at least the pov character) establishes character, but tone is the whole piece. The thing that says “this is urban fantasy” and what kind of book, etc. Can you give me a good example from a book? I totally see the film thing, and I can think of other films whose openings work very well, but I’d like some from books. I think Tolkien’s “the Hobbit” is a good example, and Pratchett’s Vimes intro in “Guards! Guards!” Oh, and AJ’s opening in “Act of Will.” Three lines and I knew what the story was. Discussion of tone remind sometimes me of discussions of wine that I don’t understand. 🙂

  • Hep – Prologue and prelude work for me. The main thing is distinguishing them from the true opening.

    Pea – Let me ponder the book thing for a bit and see what I can come up with. As we’ve discussed previously here on MW, the problem (for better or for worse – and I say worse, but that’s another subject entirely) is that you are more likely to hit on a much more widely recognized example from the movies than from books. And it’s somewhat ironic what you say about the trouble you’re having with this one novel of yours, because I think it was one of the problems Pirates suffered from, too: multiple characters who are important to the story. I think the key is figuring out which of all of them is the story is really about. There’s an important difference between characters who are important to the story, and the one character who the story is about. And sometimes a book truly isn’t about one character. That’s okay, too. Maybe the book is about a situation, some world-changing event. Then your opening needs to reflect that, too. This is an area where ‘outliners’ have an distinct advantage over ‘pantsers.’ A truly effective opening requires you to know what your story is really, truly, fundamentally about. So if you’re a ‘pantser’ you might have to write the whole first draft of the novel, and then go back and rewrite the opening from scratch. But an effective opening REQUIRES the author to know what the story is about (I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s THAT important) — from a character standpoint, from a plot standpoint; from just about any standpoint you can name.

  • Unicorn

    The opening sentence of my first draft began “Since the beginning of time…” Ugh. Of all the words I could choose to begin with, I chose those. Really. I’ve never been good at openings, but they’re so essential. As Hepseba said – revise, revise, revise.
    Thanks for the post – very timely it was, too.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Edmund: Thank you for the response. Thinking about it, I think I should be encouraged. All three of my prelude, prologue, openings ARE focused (in different ways) on what the story is about. Whether I’ve done them effectively is, of course, another question. But hopefully I’m at least off to a good start.

    Unicorn: I feel better at opening chapters/scenes. I like to start with a physical sensation. It makes me feel more locked into the scene. Of course, that means my transitions are another kind of mess.

  • And Dan fail with the too-to debacle… :\

  • Tom G

    My opening line in my Space Opera/Fantasy novel is great: A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away… there be Dragons! Notice the capitalization of “Dragons” and the brilliant use of the exclamation point? You can tell I ain’t needing no editor. Ha.

    Seriously, though. This post really has me thinking. I don’t think I’ve ever considered this angle before. Wow. Seems so obvious, too, now that you mentioned it.

  • Unicorn – Just be careful not to mistake story openings from opening lines. An opening sentence (or three) is one thing; the opening scene is something entirely different.

    Hep – If your prologue, prelude, and opening scene are properly focused, there’s no reason it can’t work (as proved by Pirates).

    Tom – The obvious things are only obvious if you stop and think about them (or have them pointed out). But you knew that; it’s obvious. 😉

  • I have nothing to add to the discussion except my personal problems with opening scenes. I must — *must* — have the opening tone, voice, setting, and character in my head before I can write more than a few pages on. I have to *know* it, must have that nearly tactile sensation of tone just right.

    When I read the opening lines and the opening scene back to myself, I want it to click for me, like the sound a tin of fine tea makes when opening it. There’s that scent, dry and delicate and full of promise. The cool metal in my fingers. The slightly acerbic taste in the back of throat.

    Unfortunately, when writing UF, I am far to likely to hit myself over the head with my opening scenes — the scent of gunfire or excrement. Sigh…

    I *shall* do better. (Goal of the moment)

    As David said, I too, must rewrite the first scenes the most often. Because I must be pleased with them before I can go on. Whether they be fine tea or less lovely things.

  • Pea – a book opening that jumps immediately to mind for me as setting tone, character and a hint of the ride to come is Jennifer Roberson’s second book of the Sword Dancer series. I wish I had it handy to copy verbatim… but I don’t, so I’ll just try to describe it.

    The book, written in 1st person active, starts with the POV character voicing a string of curses at his horse, which is trying – and ultimately succeeds at – bucking him off. This is immediately followed by the second main character saying something very dry, ascerbic, and totally sympathetic… to the horse.

    I knew, immediately, that this was going to be a rolicking, fast paced story with some really fun dialog and a lot of surprises. And it was.

    I read this book years ago, but the opening has always stuck with me as being one of the most memorable. Part of that, I think, is because Ms Roberson did just what Edmund is talking about. The other thing that made that opening so memorable is equally as important – she delivered on the promise of the opening.

  • Thanks for the book example, Lyn. The one that comes most readily to my mind is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

  • Sometimes even children’s books can set the tone right off the bat. My favorite line that I’ve remembered through my life was, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair…” You just knew from that first piece of sentence that it was truly going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

    Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

  • Great examples folks! Thanks! 🙂

  • Unicorn

    Edmund – The rest of the opening scene isn’t much of an improvement. It’s probably the epic bad opening scene. But hey, this post will help a LOT when I rewrite it. At least I know there’s something (okay, everything) wrong, so I can fix it. There’s always a silver lining. Right? 😉

  • Knowing is half the battle, Unicorn. I’m sure you’ll nail it.

    Daniel – Good example. Kids’ books have to be super-efficient, so they don’t get a scene; just a line or two.

  • Sorry to be late. This is really great observation, Ed. As the discussion suggests, it’s also why I found this kind of punchy opening tough when I was effectively pantsing. I didn’t really know what my book was. Now that I do more plotting, it’s easier to imagine how I might get right into it with something bold that encapsulates (or deliberately miselads) as to what will come next. Thanks!

  • Lance Barron

    AJ, the deliberately misleading opening is interesting.

  • I’m chiming in late, too.

    After reading this on Friday night (the west coast advantage), I went back and looked at the opening to my WIP. I feel pretty good about it. But what stands out for me is the corollary to “Opening sets the tone for the whole book”: Keep that tone throughout the book. Because while I like my opening just fine, I am trying to make sure that tone remains. Thanks for getting me thinking about this.

  • A very well timed article. I’m in the throes of rewriting my first novel. While writing the first draft I realised, at various times, my main character lacked pretty much everything and was as interesting as damp cardboard. So partway through I just changed him to be more interesting. Now I’m writing the first chapter and struggling to squish as much tone into it as possible. It really is hard to capture everything I want in just a paragraph or two of punchy exciting prose.
    Original first two sentences:
    Vanadian woke up. The cool ground and pricks in his naked back mingled with the slightly acrid smell of pine.
    Blech, such an amateur mistake.
    New first two sentences:
    Vanadian sprang to his feet. He staggered to his left and clutched at his head.
    (Skipped past the whole waking up bit because, seriously, who cares?)
    Now my following sentences need to capture, like you said, the feeling of the novel (or at least the character) and give a hint as to what direction things are going.
    I’ll consider coming up with 3-4 key points I want the reader to think of about the direction of the story and character and come up with a sentence or two to hint at those points.

  • Agreed, the deliberately misleading opening is interesting — if it’s done right. But how can you do it right if you don’t know where you’re going?

    One point (mainly for Scion, but for everyone, really) that I want to reinforce is that you don’t have to set the tone of the book within the first few lines. We’re not talking about opening lines here; we’re talking about opening scenes, maybe an opening chapter (depending on how long your chapters tend to run). Don’t try to jam too much into a tiny space. It will feel forced, and that works against you.

  • Ed,
    Quite a timely post, even if I can’t say the same for my response. I just revised the opening of Song of Fury from a scene where the MC is with his wife and daughters, struggling to keep a secret from them, to him entering the amphitheater, struggling with the untruth he didn’t tell them. The main reason is the first seems to set up a family drama, and the second, though, it has the same intrigue, moves into a wrestling tourney and you get a greater sense of the action that is to follow. I also found I could deliver a little more of the world in the second version because the MC is among other inhabitants. I did sacrifice a bit of the closeness of his family, but don’t stay away from that too long, back to it within a few chapters.

    Great post, much appreciated. Any posts on the importance of voice in the near future?

  • NGD – There are two essays about voice in the MW How-To book, and so at least that many (if not more) already on the site. If something occurs to me that will substantially add to that, I’ll chime in, but not immediate plans to do so. I’m glad this one was timely/helpful for you though.