One of the most important skills for a writer is getting the opening of your script right – and part of that is setting the tone. A great premise can be ruined if its presented in the wrong way, and this often happens if the screenplay doesn’t set the tone correctly. So what even is “tone”, and how do you get it right?
Lots of script elements are easier to understand: the characters are the people who inhabit your story, the dialogue is what they say, the structure determines how the story pans out. These are all concrete concepts, but tone works different.
Essentially, tone is the “mood” of your script. It’s often intangible, existing as much between the lines as anywhere else – not as something that you put in your script, but which emerges out of it. That means everything else needs to come together in the right way; setting the tone involves making sure that everything else aligns to create the atmosphere you want.
This is often tied to genre. For example, comic relief is always important, but if you have an overly cartoonish character in a serious drama, then their presence will jar with everything else and end up disrupting the tone.
The same is true for other script elements. The structure should be punchier in an action film than a romance; the visuals should be grander in an epic sci-fi than in a crime drama. When you start mixing up elements too much, it becomes tonally jarring – which is why some genres don’t mix well together, while others do.
But on page 1 of your screenplay, your reader hasn’t seen much of your structure, characters, or anything else yet – and it’s important that the tone is set straight away. You need to set their expectations, let them know what the genre context is for the events that follow; after all, someone falling off a ladder might be funny in a comedy but disastrous in a drama. So how do you set the tone so quickly?
The answer is through the style in which you write. The very first sentence should give us an idea of what’s to come. For example, a location described plainly tells us nothing about the genre, but you could signal genre by describing it in a way that’s gritty (crime), poetic (romance), amusing (comedy) or scary (horror).
You also need to think about how you construct your sentences. Short, sharp sentences might indicate action, especially if there’s a focus on things happening than the characters or location; on the other hand, longer sentences slows things down and would be better suited for drama.
This goes all the way down to the words you choose as well! Is a character “slender” or “gaunt”? Is the house “empty” or “vacant”? Does a siren “blare” or “scream”? Each of these words has different connotations, and gives us a different impression.
So when it comes to setting the tone of your script, remember that everything should work together to create the mood or atmosphere that you want. The tone should be set on the first page through the way you write, but it also needs to be maintained to the last through structure, characters, dialogue, and everything else.
If you’re planning on entering our Romance and Comedy Award, make sure you keep these tips in mind – get the tone right from the first page to the last! The deadline is coming up on January 17th, so click HERE to enter!