Tone might be one of the most ignored but important aspects of storytelling. It also might be obvious as it is sometimes the first building block of a story that is built. After all, if someone is making a romance, a comedy, or a horror, the tone might be set from the start. But this is not always the case. Sometimes, when multiple genres and styles of storytelling are mixed, the tone is the glue that holds it all together. Without the proper tone a story can meander and become lost. But if a story finds the right tone, it can truly make for a magical experience.
A great way to see how tone operates is to compare different stories and see how their tone handles the narrative. An example of tone operating successfully is the Netflix show Cobra Kai. By all accounts, this show is absolutely ridiculous. It features kids in karate gangs that fight each other at house parties and inside school hallways. It’s just so absurd that it shouldn’t work, yet the story also has profound characterization. The drama and character arcs succeed along with the karate because the tone allows it. It understands just how crazy the show is and doesn’t try to tamp down on it.
By contrast, a show where the tone doesn’t work is Paper Girls. It seeks to merge the wild-and-crazy science fiction of its comic book inspiration with a much slower paced character drama. These two aspects are extremely hard to reconcile. It’s possible to have them work together, but the show never finds the right tone to make it happen. It plays the character drama way too seriously, so when the science fiction war is on screen, it doesn’t resonate to full effect. So, although these two shows are widely different in genre, they are both great case studies in how tone can merge several storytelling elements together.