The tone of a piece means absolutely everything to pretty much everything about the piece. Yes, that sounds very vague, but I promise I will elaborate. When you watch the opening minutes of a television show, those few minutes can set the entire tone of the show. That means that if those few minutes are humorous, you’ll expect humor throughout. If the first few minutes of a movie are filled with tension, you’re going to expect to be on the edge of your seat. And if the first five pages of that shiny new book you just got is all action, you’re going to expect a fast paced story. The key is that the tone established in the first few minutes is crucial to the story.
Tone Can Change
Before I even get any further, I want to note that the tone of something has the potential to change. Captain America: The Winter Soldier began with a rather jovial opening with Steve Rogers lapping an ordinary Sam Wilson. The tone was light and fun. But minutes later Cap was on a stealth mission to save the SHIELD agents aboard the Lumera Star. It was a very stark tonal shift, but it fit the movie. This is largely because the relationship between Steve and Sam is light and airy, while Steve on a mission is very different. He becomes a man on a mission vs a man with a friend. However, as the second movie in a series, it was already established that Steve Rogers is Captain America and Captain America is a badass fighter. A super soldier. We also know that Steve Rogers is also a very down to earth, friendly, All-American kind of guy. Thus the tonal shift works as they are essentially two sides of the same coin.
The idea of the first few minutes mattering when setting a tone comes down to expectation management. If a story has only one moment of mystery, action, or humor, it’s disingenuous to start a piece in that way. If you start with something, the audience is going to expect more of it. The tone you set is meant to help ground your audience and give them an idea of what to expect. Those first few minutes are crucial to hooking someone, rather than losing them. If you do manage to hook them with a certain tone, it’s a good idea if that tone is prevalent or at least recurring. I watch Marvel movies because I enjoy the tones they portray. They elicit excitement and it keeps me coming back for more. Guardians of the Galaxy will have a different tone from previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but it will likely share some similar tones as well. From the trailers it already appears like they are going for likeable yet smart talking characters, more in the vein of Tony Stark. Then there’s the obvious space opera tone. The similar tones the various Marvel films have allow for things like The Avengers to coalesce.
Why It’s A Bad Idea
Well for one, it’s bad because it’s like lying to the audience. It’s saying we are throwing this in here, but it really has little to no bearing on how the tone of the rest of the movie will be. It’s like starting a book with an intense dream and then the character never dreams again. For one, a dream isn’t reality. So unless the dream has some ulterior meaning that the character must decipher and it guides at least some of the narrative, it’s just all flash and no substance. The worst culprits are those who dream once and then never dream again. At least if it recurs it can be established as a trait of the character or narrative. But if it only happens once, we are given a tone that is never replicated.
How do you react to changing tones?