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Screenwriting Basics: The Importance of Tone |

Screenwriting Basics: The Importance of Tone

Tone is an excellent tool with which to underscore the genre of your screenplay. For me as a reader, both the genre and tone should be abundantly clear from page one. If it’s not abundantly clear by page two, you’re likely in trouble.

I use “tone” to this end, as defined by “general character, quality, or trend (the city’s upbeat tone)” or “frame of mind : mood.” I think the word “mood” captures the essence of tone quite well. A mood is a great thing on the page, because if you set your tone adequately, I’ll feel it as I read.

If I pick up your script and on page one there is a loser bumbling down the street on a gorgeous day making a hilarious comment in voice over about what a loser he is, but with aspirations of one day not being such a loser, then I will know immediately this is a broad comedy. I’ll laugh. This is a good example where tone and genre are used to a positive end. If this comedy hadn’t opened with quite the same mood or feeling, and hadn’t opened with a very funny scene that had made me laugh out loud, I might not have been so clear that it was a comedy. The fact that I’d actually laughed out loud on page one predisposed me to liking that script, and I recommended it.

This is also part of why it is very important to introduce your characters using an anecdote – because the scene in which you introduce us to them will be within your genre and also should hit the tone clearly. All of these elements work together to paint a very clear picture for the reader.

If you’re writing a dark comedy or thriller, but yet from page one bad shit hasn’t started to happen, then creating a sinister undercurrent in the tone of the piece (ambient world) is a great way to start laying the groundwork that bad shit will begin to start in a couple of pages. Even if something terrible hasn’t happened, if there is the feeling that something bad will happen, then when it does, I won’t be surprised.

Many times writers will treat darker, grittier subject matter with a rather light, broad tone. I call this the “bright-eyed Disney Family movie syndrome.” The voice they use in the prose could be applied to a comedy or light-hearted family movie, and yet they’re writing about darker, more serious life-and-death subject matters. It disturbs me. Ever the optimist, I assume these writers are so naïve that they don’t understand that their tone insults their story, because to look at a real-life dark situation with Disney Princess eyes is, to my mind, a little psychotic. It’s like Ariel the Little Mermaid writing “Deliverance.” Wrong in so many ways. If you are writing darker material, the voice used in the writing shouldn’t be bright eyed but rather dark. The way in which the prose is written should evoke the feeling that you want the subject matter to communicate.

Conversely, if you’re trying to write a Disney Family movie, then keep it lighter in tone and write around the rape scene. In all honesty, I am not a consumer of the Disney Channel, and so I shouldn’t really comment on something I know nothing about. I just think it’s funny. I did unfortunately watch one episode of that ABC Family Molly Ringwald teen show that was on in the fall, where Molly played the mom. Her barely-teen daughter (but who really looks too skinny and completely pre-pubescent) had a one-night stand (agh!) with a boy and got pregnant and was casually talking about the whole thing as though it was the same as having a cigarette. I’m sorry, but the notion of an undeveloped awkward-skinny little child having sex is really unappealing to me (sadly, it got renewed – I wouldn’t be surprised if that show’s largest demographic is pedophiles). It was a sparkling moment of pure horror wherein I was so happy not to be a member of the Britney-Paris-LiLo “femme-outed” hanging labia generation. I, preferring to feel like a normal human being, promptly turned off the TV. (Sorry, Molly.)

Tangents aside, if you’re going to write a project in which a female protagonist is later raped or sexually abused, then from the very beginning of the script there should be a dark undertone. If that script opens with her being very happy, in a bar laughing with girlfriends, and only at page 30 takes a darker turn, I will likely be confused.

You can think about tone in eliciting the expected emotional response from your reader as prompted within your genre. When I read a horror, I want to feel afraid. When I read a comedy, I want to laugh out loud and have fun with it. When I read a romantic comedy, I want to fall in love. It is all about eliciting emotion from the reader. The more evocative you can be in the creation of your world and characters, the better.

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2 Responses to Screenwriting Basics: The Importance of Tone

  1. Jeffrey B. Palmer July 11, 2009 at 10:15 am #


    Great post!

    I’d add that a director can certainly add their own tone (spin) on a script that takes it in a totally different direction. Spike Jonze vs. Ridley Scott vs. Nora Ephron. Give them the same screenplay and watch 3 singular tones emerge. You think?

    Seems like I’ve been struggling with tone – and genre – my whole life. Ugh.

    Yours in film,


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