People always talk about tone in screenwriting, but we don't often talk about how to practically create it. The dramatic tone is one of the trickier storytelling elements. It's not something you write out but an aspect of a script that emerges as an amalgamation of other parts. So, how do you write between the lines? Keep reading! Today, I'm talking about how to create a consistent tone in your film with movie examples!
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What is tone in a story?
Tone can best be described as a mood, attitude, or atmosphere that your script exudes. It can also be described as the "feel" of the movie. Pretty much any adjective could be used to describe the tone of a movie. The tone could be described as dark in "The Dark Knight," written by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, and Jonathan Nolan. "The Muppets," created by Jim Henson, might be described as lighthearted or as having a comedic tone.
Examples of Dramatic Tone in Movies
Any genre film provides easy-to-understand examples of tone because the fundamental emotions the writers want their audience to feel are the same. A film noir movie gives off feelings of moodiness, shadows, and deception. A horror feature film has a central emotion of dread, anticipation, and the feeling of something being off. A comedy might be lighthearted, warm, and caring. These are generalizations that won't be true for every movie in these respective genres. The genre can help imply tone, but it can't do all the heavy lifting by itself. Other elements of a script need to be worked on to create tone.
How to Add Tone to Your Script
Tone is crafted in a couple of different ways, mainly via character, setting, and how things are described.
How a central character acts and speaks can influence the tone, especially when juxtaposed with the setting. Think of Cheryl Blossom in "Riverdale," created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Cheryl's attitude and way of talking are very "teen pop culture," which plays an interesting contrast to Riverdale's old-timey feeling location. It creates an implication of a town that's stuck in the past, while characters, like Cheryl, are eager for a modern way of life. This is an instance where character and setting are interacting to invoke an idea through the tone.
You don't need to extensively describe the setting, lighting, and color scheme in your screenplay to invoke tone. You can more subtly imply tone in scene description through the way the characters interact with the environment. Locations have feelings. A beach might feel relaxing, a bedroom could feel cozy, and a library may feel structured and studious. Pay attention to the scene locations you're choosing, or watch for these cues in some of your favorite films. There might be an opportunity to play with the tone of a scene by having an expected conversation take place in an expected location, vs. playing against expectations by having characters have an unexpected conversation occur in an inappropriate place.
How you describe things
You have the power to influence the tone through how you write your scenes. Is your script about a group of teenaged slackers? Show that by using language or phrases that read as irreverent and speak to pop culture. You can give your script color and feeling through the words you choose to use.
As you can see, the tone in screenwriting is essential but impossible to attribute to just one element of a screenplay. Tone is created when various aspects of the writing's characters, setting, and phrasing all interact. These elements also work with the genre of the film to further influence the feeling.
Tone isn't something that you should feel you need to nail in your first draft. Many writers wait until after they've written a couple of drafts before addressing the matter of the tone of their script. When examining tone in your screenplay, consider what you want the audience to feel at various points. Remember, tone isn't what you explicitly say; it's invoked with what you show and how you show it. Happy writing!