Updated: Mar 4, 2019
Every story has a tone; an atmosphere that permeates every page.
It’s what makes us uncomfortable in a horror, or amused in a comedy. Tone is the thing that guides your audience into the overall ‘feeling’ of your project. What makes the story of E.T. and Alien different? Tone. And blood, but mostly tone. E.T. is an upbeat, friendly tale of a boy meeting an alien. Alien is a dark, violent story of a woman meeting an alien. Same broad concept, handled very differently.
Writers often tend to ignore tone, believing that it comes through naturally in their writing. I don’t know if I completely believe that. I think all writers have an idea of tone before they even put a word on the page. What we don’t know is how we’re going to use the elements to make the reader embrace our world exactly as we want them to. But there are ways.
FEELING THE WORLD
The world of your story (the period and location) is the number one factor that dictates the tone of your story. Does a war drama set in Germany have a completely different tone to a cancer drama in Australia? Only if it’s made clear. Descriptions of the locations within your world influence how we feel. As with all screenwriting, the key here is to be specific with details.
A carved faux-marble entry—reading FOREST GLEN—ushers us into a ruined HOUSING DEVELOPMENT. Mostly VACANT houses. A few Fourth of July decorations hang in windows. A weird, BUCOLIC air: swaying grasses, stray wildlife.
This is our introduction to the dark, cold world of Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn’s script immediately establishes the feeling of North Carthage — a mostly empty, rustic All-American suburb. Her choice of words is interesting. She capitalizes VACANT and BUCOLIC, words that sound unpleasant and borderline aggressive. Just reading it aloud makes the whole thing feel cold and unsettling. One paragraph has introduced the tone for the entire story with just two key words.
By comparison, the introduction to the world of Zootopia is positively magnificent:
There in the distance is... THE UNBELIEVABLE ANIMAL METROPOLIS of ZOOTOPIA, which is comprised of amazing habitat “boroughs."
This world is the antithesis of North Carthage. This is an ‘unbelievable’ and ‘amazing’ place. Those enthusiastic words tell us that this world is going to be breathtaking and colourful. Simple words like ‘amazing’ or ‘unbelievable’ makes us feel warm. But rarely-used words like bucolic or unostentatious make us feel discomfort, or cold. Word choice is everything, never more so than when crafting your setting.
Pretty much every screenwriting ‘advice’ has one rule in common: big blocks of text are not good. And they’re not. Your action lines need to be ‘to the point’ and concise. But the way you craft your action lines also have an influence on the tone of your story. Again, it comes down to the words you use and how much detail you provide.
Crimson Peak was written in homage to Gothic Romance and ghost stories, strong influences on Guillermo Del Toro. In his screenplay, these influences surface even in his descriptions. Look at the words he uses:
"Edith sprawls on her bed, engrossed in a thick book replete with maps of England."
"Cushing's body rocks gently back and forth, his fractured skull oozing a plume of blood into the pristine water."
“Steam billows in the vast tile bathroom as Edith waits for the tub to fill with hot water.”
The words I’ve bolded don’t appear too often in contemporary screenplays, but they feel right at home in this story. These words are often seen in classic gothic fiction, so they feel old-timey and gothic, but not unsettling or cold. At least, not in the way that ‘bucolic’ does.
Del Toro uses these romantic words to lend his screenplay an air of the classic Gothic tone he was pursuing. This is an excellent tip if you’re writing a story set in a specific time period: use the language of the period (within reason, obviously — don’t write entirely in Shakespearean English).
Oceans 11 is one of my all-time favorite caper movies (and I do love a caper), and that’s only partially because I have an unashamed mancrush on George Clooney — the world’s most beautiful man. Ted Griffin’s screenplay represents exactly the tone of the movie: fun, breezy, charming (even if it is 148 pages long). Here are his action lines:
“Tishkoff waves them back, sipping on his umbrellaed cocktail.”
“With a view of Livingston on the boardwalk... Danny and Rusty wait for him over espressos.”
“Along one wall, a buffet table has been set up, and while Virgil and Turk pile shrimp onto plates, Saul pockets an orange for later.”
See a pattern (other than food)? They’re short, punchy and fun to read. Griffin doesn’t use fancy words. He doesn’t add unnecessary baggage of metaphors or asides. He gets to the point, and makes it fun. This is pretty much how it goes with the best comedy screenplays. No fluff, no filler. Straight to the point. Short, concise and witty.
This isn’t to say that every line of action should be like these examples. Actually, the opposite. The above screenplays all have MANY lines where it’s as simple as ‘Jane turns.’ or ‘Peter approaches the balcony.’ The only true rule is to get to the point and not be boring. But it’s well worth using the above tricks to help reaffirm your tone.
Your main character says an awful lot about the tone of your story. After all, this is the person we’re going to spending two hours with. They know your world better than anybody else does. They inhabit it!
Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes character as well as Wes Anderson. His world is so unique, his characters so precise, that he manages to use specifics to drag us into these beautifully pastel storybook worlds. Someday I’ll write a whole article about the genius of Anderson’s ultra-specific screenplays, but for now, this is how he introduces Monsieur Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel:
A tall, blond, forty-year-old concierge stands patiently alone surveying the room. He is tranquil, perfectly composed, waiting. He wears the faintest hint of mascara. He is M. GUSTAVE.
If we didn’t already know the tone from the pages that came before, we certainly know now. We’re meeting a calm hotel employee that is ever so slightly off-kilter. As anyone that has seen a Wes Anderson movie knows, this is nothing new. But Anderson’s description is so particular and so specific, that Gustave’s whole character is summed up in this paragraph.
He’s a solitary man that doesn’t lose his temper and likes to look good. That’s the gold standard for character description: a simple, to-the-point description that informs the whole perspective and worldview of that character. Wes Anderson does this for every character.
By comparison to a Wes Anderson movie, Jurassic Park is a blockbuster. Blockbuster characters are rarely as interesting as their independent film counterparts. It’s just the way it is; blockbuster screenwriting tends to be very tonally generic. Everyone is interchangeable.
But Jurassic Park is a whole different thing, probably since it was one of the ‘first’ blockbusters. But also, because it’s a lot of fun. And that’s exactly how Hammond is introduced:
JOHN HAMMOND, seventy-ish, is sprightly as hell, with bright, shining eyes that say "Follow me!”
David Koepp somehow encapsulates the whole tone of the movie within the character of Hammond — an incredible feat. As with Gustave, we know everything about Hammond just from that description: his age; he’s physically able; he has a childlike enthusiasm. That tells us a lot in one sentence. It’s excellent writing.
Just as an aside, here’s the introduction of Sam in Transformers (sorry in advance). This is a perfect example of how bad character description can be:
SAM WITWICKY: an endearing face that wants only to fit in.
That’s it. We know nothing about him. He’s just a dude (maybe? Sam is a unisex name). Don’t know his age. Don’t know who he is or what he likes. He’s just… an outcast (maybe?). This is bad , lifeless screenwriting. Don’t do this, kids.
Tone is something rarely discussed when it comes to screenwriting, but it’s an important factor. Tone is what dictates who goes to see your movie and what it is. If you’re making a romantic comedy with the tone of Prisoners, it’s not exactly going to be a date movie. Every story has its own tone, but it all comes down to the writer’s choice of words, imagery and narrative ‘feel’. I don’t believe that tone is something that just ‘appears’ in our writing. I think, at some level, we have complete control over what we make.