Tag Archives: Tone

How to Establish Story-Context from the Get-Go

Starting gun

Starting gun

The purpose of the establishing scene is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early. In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World. By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasize the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around her — the amount of change that this world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of success that the Hero has achieved in acquiring the goal. How do we go about sketching in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One answer is to do so through the deft use of imagery.

Establishing Context Through Imagery

Precisely what is established at the start of a story? In Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger, suggests that an establishing scene should introduce the tone, time, location, as well as, the theme of the story, in other words, the framework of the tale. The first couple of minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduces us to the world of business through a series of images — its buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are. Indeed, the first images in a film or novel are often the most powerful and, therefore, need to be selected carefully since they set the framework for the entire story.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent and influential world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with a defining sequence of images, those of a school preparing for its opening day procession — banners announcing the school’s solid foundations of education and moral learning, foundations steeped in discipline, excellence, and honour. Such images help to establish the theme of conformity stemming from such traditions, a conformity which will be questioned by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established the time, place, tone, and theme through an effective use of starting imagery, the writers of these stories are now able to concentrate on plot and subplot from the basis of a solid framework. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.


Selecting the right images with which to start your story is important, since such images help to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your entire tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead and confuse the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

What is “Tone” in Story-Telling?

This post come about as a result of a suggestion by Mark Landen, a regular contributor to this blog, that I say something about tone in story-telling, and its impact on narrative elements such as theme and plot.

First, a brief definition: By “tone” (or the slightly more imprecise, “mood”), I mean the moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude the writer/narrator adopts towards her material in narrating it. Tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is no coincidence that a description of tone corresponds to the overarching genre in story-telling; it is genre, more that setting, plot, or theme, that determines a story’s tone by inflecting the aforementioned elements. Hence, a similar setting in a musical such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or a classical horror such as Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) can produce a disparate mood of levity and dread respectively, precisely because it is modulated by a difference in genre.


Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is: not necessarily. 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 comefy can produce as viable, serious, and independent a theme as drama, or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and etherial ordering element, floating above the specific textural concerns of genre.


What about plot? Here again, at the most quintessential level, tonal elements are not fashioned by plot itself, but by genre: The exploration of the going-on 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.

In Summary

Although tone is deeply rooted in the generic demands of the tale, it is inflected by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards her story and her method of narrating it.

If you’ve enjoyed this post or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

I post every Monday.