Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Problem of Mixed Tones in Stories

by Bill Johnson
A common problem in a first script is an intensional mix of tones. A story can go from being dramatic, to comedic, to slap stick, back to dramatic for a climax.

These shifts in tone can lead a reader to be confused about the intent of a story.

This movie Hysteria demonstrates the problems of trying to cover a lot of terrain with a shifting mix of tones. The first set up is a young doctor in 19th century London who discovers his promotion of the new ideas of germs and washing hands between patients keeps getting him fired by older doctors. He then gets a job with a doctor who uses orgasms to treat the common malady of upper-middle class women, hysteria (which was considered to be a condition aflicting women until 1950).

His employer has a chaste young daughter he's opening shopping to the young doctor, and a fire-brand, force of nature oldest daughter who torments her father with her ideas of poor people being human beings deserving of compassion, education, and medical care.

The film covers the slow, sedate courtship of the young doctor and the young woman, interrupted by occasional outbursts when the older daughter passed through pleading for money or support.

The question, who will he end up with?

But his immediate problem is he's wearing out his hand servicing women in the clinic, some of whom take hours of stimulation to climax and get relief from their symptoms (which mostly seem to be passing the time in the long wait for treatment).

Meanwhile, the young doctor's wealthy benefactor invents what becomes the first electric vibrator, creating a huge demand for the young doctor's services. At this point, the film shifts to being a droll British sex comedy.

The film shifts back to a realistic tone to deal with the young doctor realizing he's in love with young fury, not young chaste.

The problem is, he's barely spent any time with young fury, so the relationship feels abrupt, and has a different tone from the realism about medical proceedures, then the comedic tone, then the serious tone about women's rights and the treatment of the poor. The film has a good heart. It allows the young daughter to have the realization that a better life for her won't involve being the wife of the young doctor.

Shifts in tone can be one of the most common and vexing problem in some scripts. The shift in tone helps create the effect of a climax at the same time it undercuts the impact.

The recent film R.I.P.D. goes from being not quite funny to not quite dramatic at its climax, so I wouldn't use it as an example of mixed tones. It's more like a song that only has one note played over and over until the end of the film, when it plays another note.

Personally, I found the one note Jeff Bridges hit amusing, but your mileage may vary.

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