Story Tone and its Relationship to Theme and Plot

Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

What is story tone? By tone I mean the writer’s imprint of a moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude on the narrative.

In a nutshell, it is the writer’s choice of the genre of the story, and his work within it, that determines the tale’s tone, and not its plot, theme or setting.

If this were not the case a similar setting in a musical, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the classical horror, Frankenstein’s Monster, would produce a similar tone in both cases—not one of levity in the former and one of dread in the latter.

“Story tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is strongly influenced by genre. It does not shift the story’s theme and plot on its own.”


Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is no. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comedy can produce as serious a theme as drama or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and moral element, floating above the specifics of genre.


What about plot? Here again, tonal elements are shaped not by plot, but by genre: The events at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.


Although story tone is deeply rooted in the genre of the tale, it is influenced by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards the story and the method of telling it.

3 thoughts on “Story Tone and its Relationship to Theme and Plot

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    A film like Bohemian Rhapsody is an example of producers that are determined to get a PG rating. The narrative does not really dive into the theme and plot surrounding Freddie Mercurys struggle with his sexual identity and the rock star life style. Instead it becomes a roller coaster like experience that focuses on the legacy of Mercury’s music. Again , if you know the needs of your audience you will make certain decisions that will effect the tone of your film.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Every story has a theme, Gerhard—whether it is intentionally put there or not. The theme arises at the ending as a result of a conflict that is resolved one way or another, or, even, not at all. Point is that the ending yields the theme, such as it is.

  2. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting article . Tone is important , especially considering your audiences. The writer and producers have a pretty good idea of who is the target audience and why they make certain creative decisions. Mainstream Movies like Jurassic Park and Back to the future are called tent pole movies. These mega blockbusters are made to satisfy an audience that is hungry for escapism . Once these movies are successful producers move on to more serious toned movies. In the beginning of his career Spielberg was heavily criticized by film historians for making commercially driven movies that would not be considered as ‘cinema’ . Martin Scorsese also has a strong opinion on the Marvel cinematic Universe – the producers KNOW that they are making movies for ten year olds who will wear superhero costumes and buy the latest crime fighting video game. Then again how many people are out there who will pay to watch a 3 hour black and white film about the holocaust (Schindler’s List) or the rocky road to abolish slavery ( Lincoln ) even if Spielberg is directing ?

    In short : Knowing the needs of your audience will predetermines the tone of your narrative. That why we have age restrictions and genres to begin with.


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