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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't Take That Tone With Me

What is the tone of your script? Well, clearly the tone should reflect the genre, right? Yes, of course it should. And if it doesn't, your script is in trouble and so is the rating it will receive on a coverage report. Tone is one of what I call the "off-grid" ratings when you receive coverage. Remember, the usual rating grid that accompanies a coverage includes:


Those are the big four. Now, to recap, premise refers to the IDEA, the basic jumping off point. Is it clear, does it pay off, is it original? Storyline refers to the narrative (and obliquely, the structure). In other words, HOW was the story told? How was the pacing and the style of the narrative itself? Character and dialogue are self-explanatory although a mystery to me is why the two are split up as separate categories. I have never seen good character work accompany bad dialogue or vice versa. I don't make the rules, guys, I just observe them.

Off-grid categories are screenwriting elements that don't appear on the grid but that are being judged in the coverage anyway: Tone, Theme, World, Logic, Stakes.

So we return to tone. Inconsistent tone might result in a romping romcom which includes some kind of climatic bar fight between the two rivals which suddenly reads like a scene from UNDER SIEGE. A tense horror script can have a playful love scene straight out of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. A sci-fi script might suddenly have a sequence with the weighty dramaturgic leanings of TWELVE ANGRY MEN. And that can be cool, man. That can be really taking your script to the next level. If you pull it off. But pulling it off means that scene or sequence needs to have something in common with the tone of the rest of the script.

You need to make sure that the tone in your script - the tone you set on page one - is consistent through-out. Sometimes writers like to go full bore (not to be confused with full retard) and impress a reader with a NASTY fight scene - and hey, hats off - except this is a romantic comedy. Or - oh, oh, this is not uncommon - a graphic sex scene in the middle of a romcom. The couple is falling into bed together and suddenly things get a bit hardcore. And it's like a record needle goes scccrriiitch!

A reader can tell when there're problems with the tone when they suddenly realize they aren't sure how they are supposed to be feeling. That realization could happen on page five, it could happen on page 62. But it happens. Confusion sets in. I know that sounds almost too casual a reflection to point to and yet - it is the best way I can articulate the gut feeling a reader gets when the tone is a problem. Is this - funny? Is this - scary? Should I be laughing here? I'm not sure. Houston - we have a problem.

How do you make sure the tone of your script is consistent? Make sure you are nailing the expectations of your genre, first of all, in terms of structure, character work and theme. Then pay attention to the language you use.

We know that language is a many splendored thing. I can say "where have you been" in about 10 ways and each would convey a different emotion and intensity. How many of you have written an email to someone (or god forbid, a letter!) and labored over each word, deleting, rewriting and carefully guiding what you are trying to say so that the missive is received in the way you want it to be received? An example I think we can all relate to is an email or text message to someone we like - but to whom we don't want to give that away. Is the message too familiar? Too funny? Does it sound needy? We work and rework the message until it sounds inviting but neutral, playful but non-committal. You know you've done it. It is important that the message be received with a clear intentionality.

And so it goes with screenwriting. If you are writing a Western, you want to make sure the script conveys a sense of adventure, opportunity and lawlessness or maybe bleak existential survival. Clearly, your romcom is going to convey a sense of fun, laughter and romance. Make sure that if you're writing an action-thriller that the tone is, well, actiony and thrillery. Horror should convey tension and fear. Which doesn't mean you can't have a light-hearted or funny moment in your horror script - but make sure that sequence doesn't read like it came from a totally different script. The words you choose to use are a huge part of the tone you are establishing. And the pacing of the action will be a huge part of that tone as well.

Think about the way you want the reader (or later, viewer) to FEEL while reading your script. Think of the words you choose to use - EVERY word - the dialogue, the names of your characters, the names of the locations, the WAY the sun rises in a scene - as powerful tools to evoke a feeling in your script.

This is the first paragraph after the first slugline in the thriller that my partner, JP Smith and I wrote, the one that I have lately referred to here on TRW:

The western horizon is bruised and purple, punctuated by distant lightning. Rain is coming. The last hint of sun fades into darkness as cars swish by the tall pines and thick brush along the interstate...

Sound kinda ominous? It should. If this were the opening for a romcom, even if the sun were setting I promise the word "bruised" would be nowhere near this description. Or "distant lightning" or "fades into darkness." We are using these scant 35 words to set the tone of the script to follow. The lake in our script is "dark and rippling." The house is quiet. The neighbors are SUPER cheerful. All in service of a creepy tone which is like the yellow brick road leading the reader into an inescapably tense story.

So make sure to use language in the service of the TONE you are conveying. And make sure that all scenes and sequences are consistent with that established tone as well. I am sure you are quite capable of writing an explicit sex scene, super violent fight or very serious and dramatic scene - but does that scene belong in THIS script? Don't get dinged for blowing the consistency of your tone.

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Joe Public said...

Your words ring true. The following is from coverage I received from Page.
3. In what ways does the screenplay fall short?

The biggest note here concerns the tone of your story. Movies unlike books or graphic novels have to meet specific genre requirements. A horror movie needs to be scary for example. The most important things is that you know exactly what kind of movie you are writing and where it fits in. In some ways, you are courageous and try to give the **** **** movie an R-rated edge. Unfortunately, Hollywood will immediately see this premise as a family film and consider this the wrong approach. My suggestion would be to re- engineer your story and make it fit within the parameters of its genre. Once you are more established, you can push the envelope. But as a newcomer, this type of premise has to appeal to its target audience. I recommend removing all the cursing and sexual references and making this a more of a traditional Pixar/Disney type of family experience.

And as it turns out, the rewrite is turning out much better than my original "vision" anyway. So, live and learn.

Audrey McKenzie said...

Thanks, Julie.

Another interesting and informative post.


Trina0623 said...

Thanks for a great post Julie.
The part about the gut feeling a reader gets made the light bulb turn on for me. There's one scene in my current script that just didn't feel quite right as I wrote it and has been bugging me. I'm thinking it might be the same gut feeling that the tone wasn't like the rest of the script. So thanks for helping me solve the mystery!
~ Trina

DS said...

My script starts with a happy page. The shit hits the fan on page 2 and never lets up. The happy page needs to be there because it contrasts the final page. Tonally it feels right. We'll see.