337 – Tone, Mood, and Atmosphere
What happens in a story is one thing, but what does the story feel like? Some character deaths are gruesome, while some are slapstick comedy. That’s weird, right? This week we’re exploring how and why stories create their overall feeling, made up of things like tone, mood, and atmosphere. Naturally, a lot of stories do this wrong, so you’ll hear a lot about that too.
Generously transcribed by Paige. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris:You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Chris:[In a slow monotone] Welcome to the Mythcreant Podcast. My name is
Chris.And with me is:
Oren:[Also in a slow monotone] Excitedly. My name is Oren. I am speaking in the manner of an Elcor today. [Back to his regular voice] The Elcor are the best, by the way. I love the Elcor so much.
Chris:Ironically, they sound very monotone, but they make your mood very happy. Cause they’re so cute.
Oren:They are great. They’re aliens from Mass Effect, in case anyone’s unfamiliar. And in the story, they don’t have the ability to really alter the tone of their voice or have much body language that humans can detect. So they preface their statements with what their mood is. It’s fantastic.
Chris:It’s great. So this time we’re going to be talking about tone, but along with tone comes a pretty big variety of things that are all interrelated. So when we’re talking about tone, strictly, we might say that just means the mood. Is it happy, sad, dark, silly, serious.
But atmosphere and theme, as in the theme of your world—we’ve talked about world theming—is very closely related to that. So that includes atmosphere as often whether it feels wondrous or creepy or gritty or surreal. The level of realism in the story is just a big one. What speculative fiction elements there are. Are there fairies or aliens? What aesthetics are being used? Do we have picturesque landscapes? Or grungy, urban apartments? Or tons of clockwork everywhere? Or lots of greenery? All of those things are surprisingly interrelated.
I did have one blog post where I call all of this stuff together the worldview. Because I was talking about all of them and I just needed a shorthand. I haven’t really used it since, but it was very convenient just because they work in such similar ways. So why are all of these things related? Why are fairies connected to whether the mood is light or dark?
Oren:I’m starting to think that storytelling might just be a series of highly connected ideas that we define separately because the human brain can’t handle all concepts all at once.
Chris:Yeah, that’s definitely the reason. I think we’re done here. I think we’ve got it.
Oren:Chris, tell me. I don’t know the answer.
Chris:Okay. So why are these things interrelated? One is just because the choices you make about some of them affect your choices about the others. So for instance, if you have high realism and greediness, you probably want aesthetics that are like grungy apartments, right? Those two things fit each other.
If you have something that’s super light and surreal, you might have mice with butterfly wings. Obviously your choices about what is going to be depicted in the story aesthetically have certain mood associations with them. So your choices in one area are going to affect the choices in another.
Not that you can’t have a dark story with butterflies. Not that that’s not something possible to do, but usually if you’re going to have a dark story with butterflies, you’re going to spend a lot more time in the story devoted to showing these dark butterflies and why they’re so creepy. And that’s not going to just be like, “Oh, there’s butterflies over there. They’re super creepy.” [laughs] You’re going to reinvent the butterfly, essentially.
Oren:Reinvent the butterfly. That sounds like a cool challenge to a roboticist or something. Build me a butterfly worthy of Mordor.
Chris:No one suspects the butterfly.
Chris:Okay, similarly, when there’s problems with these things, they tend to occur for similar reasons. They’re usually matters of taste, many of them. So some people might like light stories, some people might like dark stories. Atmosphere, speculative elements, they come in a huge wide range, but they can work against each other. They can be so contrasting with each other that we have to ask, are the same people going to enjoy the story? Because parts of the story are super, super dark, and parts of the story are super, super light. Are we narrowing the audience to unrealistic levels?
Or things can also be too monotonous. Some people think we just dislike it when the tone changes, but tone can also be too much the same.
Oren:Beyond even the question of are you making it so that the same people are going to dislike different parts of the story—like, I can enjoy both light stories and dark stories, but if I’m watching a light story, and then someone gets their face ripped off, that would be kind of jarring. Even if I don’t necessarily mind that in a story like Fury Road, if I’m watching, you know, Adventure Time and that happened in gruesome detail, I would be kind of put off.
And likewise, I enjoy light stories all the time. But if I was watching Fury Road and Max decided to go jaunting through the sand dunes, looking for flowers for no reason, uh, that would kind of bother me. And if Furiosa starts cracking weird jokes about how Max needs to grow as a character or something. Again, that’s something that would be at home in Adventure Time, but in Fury Road it would not be great, even though those are both post-apocalyptic stories.
Chris:Basically, different elements can undermine each other. So if we create one specific atmosphere, adding a completely different one in, sometimes they will just work against each other, and basically both be weaker just by virtue of being together.
And then they all perform a fairly similar function of setting expectations for the story and telling the audience, what type of story is this? And that’s important for setting some rules for what is believable in this story. Like, is this a really surreal story with low levels of realism where characters can jump twice their height? That’s just a normal part of this setting. They can jump from rooftop to rooftop. Or are we going with really high levels of realism where when somebody gets punched a few times, now they might have to go to the hospital. And that tells people what they should expect and what rules the world is following, and how much danger the characters are going to be in, and all sorts of things like that.
So this is why you can’t just take Game of Thrones and then suddenly have somebody do the Wile E. Coyote walk off a cliff, and then only belatedly notice that they’re walking on air and then fall. [laughter] That’s a violation of the rules we set for how reality works in Game of Thrones, that we use to assess how much trouble a character is in, and what their options are for getting out of trouble, and all those other things. And if we were to have a character in Game of Thrones get in big trouble because they’ve been put in a prison where they’re only—I think the Eyrie even has a prison where you’re looking out over a cliff. Some story has that.
Oren:That sounds right.
Chris:So you can jump off the cliff and die in this prison if you want to. But if we had the character get out of trouble by just walking out on air, that would kind of violate the expectations that we set for how problems work and how people can get out of trouble.
What this means, too, is that when we set rules and we do something else, a lot of times it just feels contrived. It feels like the storyteller just made an arbitrary decision instead of things unfolding naturally. And this happens, for instance, in Space Sweepers, when the characters have plot armor. They get into really dangerous situations, and there’s tons of guns, and somehow none of them get shot.
And plot armor is a convention that’s used often. And if it’s consistent, it can be believable enough. But then when we do that, and then suddenly there’s a twist where a bunch of friendly side characters are all killed at once, that no longer feels like a natural event that just happened. Now it feels like the person who wrote the script made an arbitrary decision that those characters were going to die.
Oren:Yeah, I was thinking about how fight scenes are often the cause of a lot of tone problems. Because it would be kind of inconvenient if your character was put in the hospital for three weeks because of taking a serious punch to the solar plexus, so we have the combat be kind of not realistic, and we get used to that. But then we want a moment of intense drama. So now the character is about to get stabbed, and that might seriously hurt them, when before, they’ve been absolutely fine no matter what’s been thrown at them.
And the whole concept of murdering either nameless or unimportant side characters while your protagonists coast through fine, I think that’s also probably one of the most common tone problems that I encounter in stories, both published and unpublished.
Chris:Yeah, and I think it’s a little gross.
Oren:Yeah, it’s very unpleasant. It feels like what’s happening is that the author wants me to feel bad, but isn’t willing to actually sacrifice anything to make that happen.
Chris:Or, they want to dress up the story with lots of deaths, but don’t want you to feel bad.
Oren:Yeah, or that.
Chris:So it’s a little weird. Or in Space Sweepers it was like, [gasp] “They died, isn’t it shocking?” Well, I am, on one hand, surprised that you did that. [laughter] But it’s not that shocking, because all of the main characters miraculously—the bad guy decides specifically that the main characters are the ones that he’s not going to just instantly kill. He even knows who they all are. Every one of them.
Oren:He knows all their names. Cause they all have like secret backstories with him. And I mean, honestly, that’s something that I just wish we could cure storytellers of. The idea that surprising people is inherently good. Because I see this a lot where it’s like, well, that thing didn’t work. That was jarring. I didn’t like that. And it’s like, “But it was surprising!” And it’s like, well, I mean, yeah, it was. So is getting hit by a bus as you’re crossing the road. Surprise can be good in stories, but it’s not inherently good.
Chris:Yeah, they have to be surprised in a good way. It has to be a good surprise. It has to exceed expectations.
Oren:A cool thing that I wasn’t expecting happened. As opposed to, “Actually, the story is worse than I thought it was going to be. That did surprise me.” [laughter]
Chris:So talking about tone contrast, I was hoping we could discuss Sweet Tooth.
Oren:Oh, Sweet Tooth. I do love to rant about Sweet Tooth.
Chris:So, Sweet Tooth is a show on Netflix that has one season right now. And it’s clear what they were going for was an optimistic story in a dark setting. And for the optimistic parts, the main character is a ten-year-old deer boy. So he has deer ears and little antlers. He’s designed to be very adorable. And he just decides to adventure out into this very dark world where his type is called a hybrid, where people are just apparently killing hybrids, like lots of them everywhere.
And he decides he’s just going to go out in the world. And he pretty much ignores everybody telling him, “Hey, if you do this, you’ll die.” He just does it anyway. But then if we go outside his specific storyline, we have a setting where it’s post-apocalyptic, and it’s specifically a pandemic. And again, there’s these people who are murdering—everybody blames the pandemic on the hybrids, because they appeared at the same time and they’re immune to the disease. So now there’s people out there that are rounding up and killing hybrids.
And the setting is just very—most places—everybody for themselves. People are hiding away, afraid of other people. Except for, there’s one particular viewpoint where it’s in a town where it’s very dystopian. Like, everybody acts friendly, but they’re constantly watching out for any signs of illness in each other and just willing to kill anyone who shows signs of an illness. So the world is very dark.
Oren:So, spoilers: One place where you can really tell that the tone is clashing is in whether or not our characters are capable of heroic deeds against the odds, or if they have to make hard choices because they’re just regular people in a hard situation. And nowhere is that more evident than in the contrast between the fight in one of the early episodes when Tommy and Gus make it to this family that lives out in the woods. And then the Last Men, who are the bad guys, come for them. And Tommy has this absolutely amazing fight in the rain—cause of course it’s in the rain, all good fights are in the rain—where he puts a bear trap on a chain and completely destroys this unit of Last Men. And it’s super cool.
Chris:And they have guns. [laughs]
Oren:And they have guns. Yeah. Like, this is a very heroic, “I’m a badass” moment. And I was way into it.
Chris:And all of the characters, both Gus the deer boy and Tommy, and the whole family that they’re staying with that has been hiding three of them. Everybody is just fine. Everybody makes it through okay.
Oren:And then later we’re on a train and Tommy meets an old friend of his and some bad guys show up on the train. And they don’t have guns, but suddenly the friend is like, “You guys have to go. I’m going to make a heroic sacrifice and die so you can live.” And it’s like, well, hang on a minute. Couldn’t you all just…fight them? I’ve seen Tommy fight, he’s basically unstoppable.
Chris:The two of you together, you could just take them on.
Oren:And of course, it’s also incredibly ableist, because the guy has some kind of disability because of a series of concussions from when he was a football player. And he, like, straight up says, “My life isn’t worth as much as yours because I’m disabled.”
Chris:He says it. It’s gross. I was genuinely shocked that they did that in the show.
Oren:But even if you take out the extreme ableism and just have him be an able-bodied guy, that would still be a pointless sacrifice. And the reason it feels pointless is because we have seen that Tommy, when he feels like it, can decimate enemy mooks. And once you establish that, you can’t just go back. I mean, you can, but you shouldn’t.
Chris:I think that their objective of an optimistic story in a dark setting was an achievable objective. It’s a little tricky. I think the implementation just has problems because they couldn’t decide how realistic to make it and how overwhelming the problems should be.
I really think that if you’re going to make a setting that feels realistic and the problems are overwhelming and you actually want to tell an optimistic story there, you need to come up with ways for the characters to succeed in that setting that feel appropriate to that setting. Or else it doesn’t really feel optimistic so much as it feels contrived.
So if we show a setting where these guys are going around, rounding up and killing hybrids, and they are really powerful and in overwhelming numbers, and it’s really dangerous for the main character to go out there, we need a solution that allows him to achieve what people didn’t think he could achieve that actually fits those problems. If he just goes out and everything just happens to go great, it seems like random chance. He just got really lucky. It was still a very bad idea for him to go out there, he just got really lucky.
Or, you know, as Oren mentioned, we bend the rules. It’s like, yeah, this guy was a really badass fighter before, but now he just can’t handle these guys without a gun. Or there’s even one moment where Tommy gets shot. And he goes unconscious for some reason. But then later he just wakes up and he’s like, got a bandage on, and he just walks it off and he’s fine.
Oren:Yeah, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a show harmlessly render someone unconscious by shooting them. I’m used to having to suspend my disbelief over, you know, a baseball bat to the back of the head or what have you. But a bullet to the chest apparently just puts you right to sleep, and then you wake up feeling nice and refreshed. [laughter] What the heck.
Oren:What is happening?
Chris:I mean, I think to really feel optimistic, we need to show why this dark setting can be turned around, or how people can find happiness genuinely within that dark setting. If we just decide, well, it’s dark in these cases and light in these other cases. And I just don’t feel like the show was doing that.
So, again, the show does the same thing where it’s always sparing the named characters in ways that feel contrived, but then one of the protagonists, unfortunately, is just this terrible person. And we end the first season with like, oh, he’s just going to murder this lizard child. And it’s fine because this child doesn’t look very human and we don’t know him.
Oren:But what’s important is that he spared Gus, who has a name. And instead, he’s going to murder this other kid. And it’s like, oh, okay, I guess that’s happening.
Chris:So those are the types of problems—again, it’s not that I wouldn’t like to see an optimistic story in a dark setting, but this show is not doing it. And also its choice to use a pandemic in particular is just clearly a bad choice for this show. For another show, it might be okay. But this show using something that is so close to home for people right now, well, first of all, you should treat it more sensitively, because a lot of people are still dying of the current pandemic. So it’s going to be sensitive. But also everybody knows what it’s like to live in a pandemic. So they’re going to know, and wonder why nobody’s wearing masks at the party.
And maybe the disease isn’t airborne, but they’re not avoiding touching. They’re really, really worried about somebody having a disease, but then when they go to investigate, they go into that person’s home and…drink some water with them. That’s not what you would do if you were worried about catching a deadly disease from other people. And we all know that.
Oren:And I’m sure someone is thinking, well, maybe these are supposed to be this world’s version of COVID deniers. And sure, except the only reason COVID deniers exist is because COVID-19 is not deadly enough to kill them all. Whereas in this one, it is. This pandemic in this fictional world is so deadly that anybody who doesn’t take it seriously is already dead.
And so that part of it is just very upsetting. Like, how are these people still alive? They’re so bad at pandemic etiquette.
Chris:Also just besides the unrealistic behavior in a pandemic, and the sensitivity of showing a pandemic, that also invokes a higher level of realism. Because it’s something that we now deal with every day that feels like a really realistic problem to us now. So then going from that to really unrealistic things, again, creates some clashing problems.
Oren:Especially when the show has one scene that’s clearly designed to be mocking COVID deniers. And then it has other scenes where the characters keep taking their masks off when they shouldn’t be taking their masks off. It’s like, no, stop that. Keep your mask on.[laughter]
Chris:For contrast, a show that takes elements that would normally be associated with a different tone, and recast them, is Pushing Daisies.
Chris:Pushing Daisies is a really fun show, but like, if you just base it on the premise, you’d think that it was a really dark and unpleasant show.
So the main character in Pushing Daisies can touch dead things and they come back to life. But if he touches them again, they die again forever. And he brings his childhood sweetheart, or high school sweetheart, back to life. And usually what happens is, if he touches them again within a minute, then everything is fine, but if he lets them live longer than a minute, something else dies to compensate. And then if he touches them after they live for a minute, they still die forever.
Oren:It’s pretty rough.
Chris:It’s pretty rough, because he can bring something back to life, but then he has to touch it again and kill it before a minute runs out or something else dies. And then even if he decides that that’s a worthwhile trade off—and it’s random, so he can’t predict who—if it’s a person it’s usually another person, if it’s an animal, it’s another animal. If he decides it’s okay for a random person around him to die, he still can’t touch whatever it is or it will undo it.
So he has this love interest in the show who he can’t touch. And he has a dog he also brought to life, who he can’t touch. And that just sounds sad, but the show makes it really sweet by showing him and his love interest dancing together in like, beekeeper outfits. [Oren laughs] So they’re not touching each other. And he has this kind of hand backscratcher contraption he uses to pet his dog. And whenever we would see a dead person that he brings back to life, that dead person is made up so their injuries look kind of comical.
Oren:Do you remember how they handled the person who died when he brings—oh gosh, what is her name? Charlie?
Chris:Mhm. Charlie. Ned is the main character, and Charlie is the name of his love interest.
Oren:Yeah. When he brings Charlie back, someone dies, and it was funny when it happened. But I don’t remember how exactly they did that.
Chris:Yeah. I suspect he was supposed to feel bad about that. I think that might’ve been—sometimes what they do is they make it so that the character who dies is just a bad person. And it was at a funeral home, and so I think they kind of established that maybe the person who died at that point was just not a very good person.
But they also had a big issue where he’d brought his mother back to life. And as a result, Charlie’s father had died when they were kids. And that was a big deal. That was a plot point that that had happened. And at the time he had no idea what he was doing. So it really wasn’t his fault. He was just a helpless child, but that was definitely treated as a tragedy. And that’s something that Charlie actually deals with in the course of the show. So it has still has some emotional depth to it, but it doesn’t ever get gloomy.
Oren:So I wouldn’t say that Pushing Daisies is a dark comedy. It is a comedy, but it’s more like a light show that uses dark elements. Do you have any thoughts on dark comedies? Cause like, I feel like a lot of people want to do them. And I think they might be hard. And I’m curious how that can be done.
Chris:Looking at a bunch of dark comedies, they basically all work the same way. You have to choose when you want your audience to be laughing. And when you want them to be, for instance, scared or upset. And the tricky thing about jokes, and there’s a lot of tone problems that can be caused with jokes because usually jokes are targeting something. And they’re causing the audience to laugh at a specific thing and take that thing less seriously. So you have to be careful what the joke is aimed at and make sure that’s not something the story needs.
If you make a joke at the expense of your villain, and your villain is supposed to be creating threat, that’s going to actually destroy the threat that your villain poses. So that’s the kind of issue that happens with jokes. Another tone problem we talked about that’s similar is the Harry Potter problem, where we’re supposed to think that Quidditch is funny, but also Harry could actually die during a Quidditch match. But don’t worry, those bludgers are just funny.
Oren:Until it’s time for Harry to be in danger and nearly fall off his broom, right? Then we’re supposed to be like, “Oh no, he’s in trouble.”
Chris:And they break one of Harry’s arms at one point.
Chris:Right? But with a dark comedy, a really good example is in Cabin in the Woods, which is a dark comedy that’s like a horror, but funny. During the parts of the movie where one of the protagonists is genuinely in trouble, we’re not laughing. The zombies that come out are genuinely threatening and they’re genuinely in danger. But when we have an antagonist get killed, that is allowed to be funny.
So for instance, there’s an antagonist in Cabin in the Woods, who—the premise of Cabin in the Woods is that there’s a cabin that is capable of invoking all these different horrors, and it’s been deliberately set up by this sort of corporation that does these rituals to appease the elder gods. And the staff of this company place bets on what horror will be unleashed at the cabin. And so we have this antagonist that works at the company who is complaining about how much he wants to see the merman antagonist that he’s never seen before.
Apparently in their cabinet of horrors, there is a merman that can be invoked, and he never gets to see it and he’s complaining. So in the end, he’s killed by the merman monster and it’s supposed to be funny. But it’s funny because we don’t care about him. He’s not somebody that we sympathize with. He’s an antagonist, he’s just kind of a jokey character. And so we are allowed to laugh at his death, but we’re not supposed to laugh at the deaths of the protagonists, and when they’re in trouble, that’s not supposed to be funny.
So, you know, you can have those widely varying tones, you can have a whole variety of tone in your story. You just have to make sure that those things are not working against each other in any way. And when it comes to something that is emotionally intense, and something that you would laugh at, somebody just can’t feel those two things at the same time. You just have to choose which moments are devoted to which, and then make sure that you don’t undermine anything in the story that you need to create the more serious stuff.
Again, if you undermine an antagonist by making jokes at the antagonist’s expense, to the point where that antagonist is not threatening anymore, then you’re going to have a hard time.
Oren:So since we’re running low on time, one thing I want to bring up is a point that Chris made in one of her articles on this subject, which I think is just really important for people to learn about. When you’re changing the tone of your story, some directions are easier to go than others. So it’s much easier to go from light to dark than from dark to light. And that doesn’t necessarily mean going from light to dark is a good idea. It could still be a problem. But you can do it, and it can work pretty well. Whereas going from dark to light is very often just going to seem contrived.
Chris:Or mostly that—again, tension—usually things that are dark should have more tension, and tension provides entertainment. And so things just feel anti-climactic. The reason why tension rises throughout the story—in general, with some ups and downs, but in general, until we get to the climax—is because people get used to that level of tension and they need more to have the same level of engagement.
If you just drop the tension for some jokes, then, okay, those jokes might be funny in the moment, but they’re only funny briefly. And now the tension of the story is gone. And the story in general, just doesn’t seem entertaining anymore.
Oren:Well, that was the last point I wanted to make, so I think we will close this out.
Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]