by Jurgen Wolff, instructor, the Script Coach Series workshops
When you’re pitching your screenplay or series you have to be prepared for the question, “What’s the tone?”
It can be challenging to answer that question, because there’s exact definition of tone as it relates to movies, and no standard set of tones to refer to.
Tone is the feeling the movie creates—creepy, light-hearted, cynical, darkly mysterious, the savouring of brutal violence.
One way to get across the tone of the story is to reference the names of directors noted for films with a feel similar to that of your script. Not so useful for this purpose are directors whose work is too diverse. For instance, Ron Howard is a good director, but we don’t associate him with one particular tone.
Directors whose movies have a strong tone
If you say your script has a Coen brothers feel, we know it’s a cynically violent story with flashes of quirky black comedy.
If you reference Christopher Nolan, you’re making the listener think of cerebral, often non-linear stories with a very strong visual element. The tone is intellectual wonder and doubt.
If you cite Wes Anderson, you’re indicating that your script is quirky, probably with surreal elements. The tone is playful amusement at life’s follies.
The films of Quentin Tarantino revel in over-the-top violence, action, lots of dialogue (and maybe a flame-thrower).
Greta Gerwig has not directed as many movies as the others on this list, but her handling of Ladybird and Little Women establishes an emotionally authentic tone, especially for female protagonists.
Alfred Hitchcock was the go-to director for character-based stories of suspense and often-justified paranoia.
Saying your story is reminiscent of the work of David Lynch suggests a tone of dark, quirky mystery.
You can refer to specific films
You can also reference specific movies that have a distinctive tone, as long as you’re pretty sure that the person to whom you’re pitching will be familiar with them.
If you do reference a particular film, be sure that your story is strong enough to stand up to the comparison. For example, if you say that your script is reminiscent of “Sixth Sense,” as well as having a spooky paranormal feel, you’d better have a fantastic twist ending.
When to decide on the tone of your script
Decide on the tone of your picture early on, ideally before you start writing.
Check whether your tone is consistent with your theme. For example, if your theme is that good is rewarded, a Coen brothers type black comedy may not be the best choice of tone. Probably you’d want more of a Forrest Gump feel.
Establish the tone early
The first couple of minutes of a movie tell the audience what to expect. If your script builds slowly to a more extreme tone, consider foreshadowing that in your first or second scene.
“Get Out!” is a good example. It starts with the harrowing pursuit and violent capture of an unidentified man. Then it cuts to the pleasant couple who are the main characters and sets up their the easy-going relationship. It takes a good amount of time before the horror of their situation becomes apparent, but that first scene tips us off that this is the direction in which the film will be going.
Keep the tone in mind as you write the rest of the script
As you’re about to write each scene, take a moment to think about the effect you want it to have on the audience.
For instance, if you want a scene to be both scary and funny, what are the elements that can deliver each of these? How can you orchestrate the scene so that the humour helps build the suspense?
An example is the typical horror movie scene in which the protagonist is scared of something that turns out to be harmless, even amusing, like a mouse or a kitten. Of course this moment of relaxation will soon give way to a moment of true menace when the next sound actually is caused by the monster.
Look for fresh ways to express the tone
The horror scene above has become a cliché because we’ve seen versions of it so often. How to give it a twist? Maybe the noise is caused by a mouse, but instead of relaxing, the protagonist totally freaks out because she’s petrified of mice. She half-destroys the cellar until finally she succeeds in smashing the mouse. Exhausted, she turns—and there’s the monster!
Consider tone when you get ready to do the next draft
When you return to your first draft after putting it aside for a while, check the tone of each scene and also how it develops over the course of the screenplay. A few questions to ask:
- If the story builds slowly to a more extreme
tone, have you foreshadowed that in one of your early scene?
- Have you connected the tone to the character
arc? For instance, if your story is about how a normal person is gradually
driven mad, is that reflected in how the tone shifts?
- For each scene, consider how visuals might strengthen the tone. Yes, ultimately a lot of this will come from the contributions of the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, the wardrobe people, and others, but in the first instance it’s up to you.
The bottom line
The tone of a film is hugely important in creating an experience the audience will remember. By being conscious of it right from the start you will make every stage of the writing and marketing of your screenplay easier.
Week 1 – Monday, March 9: Generate An Endless Flow of Ideas
Week 2 – Monday, March 16: Create Screenplay Characters that Come Alive
Week 3: – Monday, March 23: Go Beyond the Templates to Write a Breakthrough Screenplay
Week 4: – Monday, March 30: Find the Time and the Confidence to Write a Great Screenplay
Week 5:- Monday, April 6: Guerrilla Warfare For The Writer