Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tonal Matters

Tone is one of the first things I look out for in a script. As the story begins, I want to feel comfortable as quickly as possible so that I can settle into the writer’s storytelling talents as well as his original voice. Too many times, this doesn’t happen. I’ve already spoken about tone in an earlier post but this week I’ve read four scripts whose main problem in each was the inconsistent tone and mood of the story.

A lot of scripts make the ill-advised choice to begin their story in a very generic setting (café, shop, bar) and proceed to introduce the main character along with his/her buddies, where they exchange banter and/or exposition. Already, the script is asking the reader to do a lot of work and we’re not even past page one. The script is expecting the reader to remember who everyone is and what their key attributes are. This may be down to personal preference but you know the widespread advice of give a little bit of info about the character when you introduce him - well, don’t do it. You know what I mean:

“CHARLIE enters the room. He dropped out of med school after his second year but he doesn’t let his hang ups show through his outgoing exterior.”

I really don’t care for this type of description. It can be just plain lazy and - you’d be surprised how often this is the case - completely superfluous to what the character’s actual characterisation is (e.g. we may never learn that Charlie was in med school nor is his character very outgoing).

But more specifically it’s not telling me anything about the TONE or GENRE of the film. Yes, yes, of course the story can get going properly as the pages start to unfold but usually a poor start by an amateur writer will develop into an equally poor or mediocre attempt at whatever genre the script is aiming for. It will lapse into telling the reader what he should be feeling and thinking but the reader will have detached himself from the action because of the lack of mood and authenticity.

This is all down to tone. You’ve probably heard a lot about grabbing the reader’s attention in the first ten pages, and hell even the very first page (I’m all for that by the way) but I’m going to go one further and say this: grab them by the nuts in the first paragraph or even the very first sentence.

Readers have a stack of screenplays to read. And when script after script begins with generic description in equally broad scenarios, readers are already getting bored and thinking about checking for their next email. But when I open a script and the first line establishes something intriguing, some hint of mood or menace or comic quip, it sparks my interest, and automatically increases my appreciation of the writer’s approach.

This is the first line of Neil LaBute’s adaptation and remake of the UK classic ‘The Wicker Man’, which is being made with Nic Cage:

“First, darkness. Only darkness.”

Great isn’t it? No? Okay. But check it out. It’s only four words and two sentences but look at how much it achieves. The first line alone would be fairly unremarkable in itself but it’s the following “Only darkness” that makes the reader take notice and is already gripped in the storyteller’s authoritative hands. It sets the tone - it’s definitely not a comedy - and it makes you want to know what’s going to happen next.

It doesn’t have to be narrative description like this to set the tone. If you open your script in one of those broad scenarios (pub, café, shop), you can still get the mood right with careful visual storytelling:


A hand drawn loveheart gets scribbled onto a napkin. The pencil curves around the outline of the heart but then suddenly scores into the paper a bit harder than it needs to and the nib snaps. The artist, or at least the person responsible, sits back and sighs: a BRUNETTE, mid-20s, not stunning but not unattractive either.

She takes a sip of her cappuccino and spots a hunky guy in the corner who’s caught her eye. She smiles, a big cappuccino moustache, and the guy looks away with a smug smirk.”

Okay, it’s late, it’s not great, but you get the picture. A friend of mine played a game once on a long train journey home where we opened my bag of scripts and read the first line, and we had to guess what genre the film was, and if we couldn’t guess we’d read the title to give us a clue. It might not come as any surprise to learn that sometimes we didn’t have an idea even after the title & first paragraph.

There are notable exceptions, and sometimes a script can take me by surprise even after a shaky start but I think a solid opening where you establish the tone helps immeasurably in guiding and settling the reader into your story, and what you want to say.


Scott the Reader said...

Yeah, you should never drop in information about the character that isn't visible on the screen. The first sign of an amateur is when you read a line like --

JANE stomps in. She's a schoolteacher, and she's upset because her boyfriend of ten years just dumped her, while she's also on her period and is anxious because her parents are coming to town.

Describe the scene visually, and if there's information you need to bring across, you're going to have to do it in the visuals or the dialogue, or else the audience won't know about Jane's profession or her period, so neither really matter.

Anonymous said...

Top Blog,

Big fan of the Wicker man and La Bute, if it is available have you got the link for where I can read the script?

Keep up the good work,

Jasper C

Danny Stack said...

Don't know if the script is available on-line, check out Drew's, but without giving too much away, he doesn't do a bad job of transforming a UK cult classic into a disturbing Hollywood horror.

Paul Draper said...

I guess you're filling in some nice aspects of the traditional "show, don't tell" rule with this. Why wait for the "showing", and why hamstring your show by asking no questions of your characters for 3, 4 maybe 5 pages. What can we tell by the way the teenager drinks his mocha? (although it IS a mocha and not a white coffee, hmm).

If what we're really after is tightness then no point hanging around for it to start, why not a tight beginning, tight middle and super tight end?

Rocking blog by the way, appreciate your time and info.