How to Set the Right Tone for Your Screenplay

Oct 23, 2023

When discussing films, it’s common to focus on the plot and structure and overlook the significance of tone. But, while plot and structure are crucial, tone plays a vital role, too.

 

What is Tone in a screenplay?

The tone in a screenplay refers to the mood, atmosphere, and feelings that a story evokes. Unlike plot and structure, tone is a bit trickier to define as it’s more about the emotions a writer conveys to the reader. Every movie has its own tone, and getting it right is essential.

 

Popular Tones in Movies

Movies can have various tones, which are like different emotions. Examples include sad, happy, ruthless, anxious, playful, warm, serious, scary, depressing, and ironic.

Each of these tones brings a distinct feeling to a story. For instance, the playful tone of “Onward” (2020) stands apart from the serious tone of most Batman movies.

 

The Importance of Tone

The tone is important in a story because it guides the audience on how to feel through every movie scene. Even though tone has no physical form, it appears in every scene. It’s what ties together dialogues, characters, and settings together to create a unique feeling. 

Let’s take “Kick-Ass” (2010), written by Jane Goldman and Mathew Vaughn, for example. The movie begins with someone in a superhero costume who attempts to fly off a skyscraper but then falls to his death. While not something you’d want to witness in real life, the established playful tone transforms it into a funny moment.

Contrast this with “Ozark” (2017-2022), a show about a family that moves to the Ozarks to launder money for a Mexican Cartel. Known for its serious tone, a fall from a building in this context evokes a more somber emotion.

 

Setting The Right Screenplay Tone by Genre

Different genres have distinctive tones. A gangster film gives off feelings of depression, ruthlessness, and violence, while comedy movies typically give off feelings of warmth, playfulness, and excitement. 

These are generally what you’d expect from these genres, but it’s not enough to give your movie that unique feel you desire. To make your movie truly memorable, there are other elements that need to be tweaked to set the desired tone for your screenplay. They include:

  1. Character
  2. Dialogue
  3. Setting
  4. Action lines

 

Setting the right screenplay tone | Steve Carrell as Michael Scott in "The Office" | NBC

Steve Carrell as Michael Scott in “The Office” | NBC

Character

Characters act like the engine that moves a story forward, taking it from one place to another. They also play a big role in setting the mood for your screenplay. When working on your screenplay, one important thing to consider is your characters. Who are they? Are they a pastor, a student, or maybe a lawyer? Also, think about the choices they make and how they behave in different situations.

For example, in an episode of “The Office,” when Michael and his co-workers have a debate about whether actresses are beautiful or hot, it makes the whole show feel fun and playful, even if the situation they’re in is serious.

No matter where your character is or how serious things get, the way they talk and what they do helps show the feeling of the show or movie.

 

Dialogue

Dialogues carry a lot of weight in scripts. They are an essential part of any story. Sometimes, even a simple word can hold a lot of meaning, and the words you choose can shape how you see the world you’ve created in your writing.

People of different ages, backgrounds, and places talk in different ways. When you listen to how they speak, you can get a sense of who they are.

Dialogues can be soothing or even strong and impolite. The words a teenager uses might not be the same as those of an adult. It’s more important to pay attention to how people say things rather than just what they are saying, this helps set the right tone for your screenplay. Learn more about how to write engaging dialogue here.

 

Story Setting

The setting is another important way to express the tone you want for your movie. You don’t have to describe every single detail in your script – that’s what the stage decorator does – but scenes with more details create certain feelings in the script reader.

For example, in comedies, the setting tends to be vibrant with colorful props and people doing funny things. In contrast, horror settings are often darker and can have blood spluttered in various places.

Consider “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) – its setting gives off feelings of love, warmth, and enjoyment. This feeling is very different from what you’d experience in the gloomy streets of Gotham, a dark and sad place.

Sometimes, you can do something expected, like having a regular conversation in a normal place, like people arguing in courtrooms in “Suits” (2011-2019), but you can also surprise the audience by having a conversation in an unexpected place. For instance, in “Iron Man 2” (2010), Nick Fury and Tony Stark talk about saving the world while Tony is in his Iron Man suit, munching on a donut next to a giant donut sign. This scene mixes serious topics with humor, making it feel less heavy than, let’s say, a serious mob movie directed by someone like Martin Scorsese.

 

Setting the right Screenplay Tone | Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (2015) | Universal Pictures

Use Action lines to Set The Right Screenplay Tone

Picking the right words for your action lines is really important when writing your screenplay because action lines also help the reader feel the tone you’re aiming for.

Take the script of “Straight Outta Compton” (2015) as an example. Their choice of words matches how the characters talk. For instance, they use lines like, “Dre rolls along in the ugly-ass Datsun”. This is something you won’t find in the screenplay of a comedy or a children’s movie.

In horror scripts, you often see actions written in UPPERCASE to stress how scary or loud a certain action is.

 

How to Shift Tones in Your Screenplay

Similar to how plot twists and surprises add layers to a story, the tone of your screenplay can also shift as your story unfolds. Some stories change their tone as the plot progresses. It’s essential to know how to do this smoothly so the audience can follow your story without feeling confused by conflicting emotions.

The most effective way to achieve this is by slowly building up to it. Begin with a lighter tone while hinting there’s more beneath the surface. This better prepares the audience for the shift in tone when it eventually happens.

For instance, you might start by showing your character’s mundane everyday life before something exciting or challenging occurs.

Think about “The Matrix” (1999) as an example. Neo’s life was ordinary and dull, but everything shifted dramatically when he was faced with the iconic choice between the red and blue pills.

Tones play a significant role in your screenplay as they shape how your audience experiences the story. One way to effectively set the right tone for your screenplay is to blend the elements of characters, setting, dialogues, and action lines to create the desired emotional impact.

 

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