Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tips For Tuesday - Don't Be a Birthday Girl

In this post I want to talk about one of the most important things you need to establish in the beginning of your script.

I’m talking about tone.

What is it? I’ve never heard or read a satisfactory definition with respect to screenwriting. All I can do is tell you that tone and genre are inextricably linked. They’re not exactly the same, simply because there can be different shades of tone in the same genre. But you can’t talk about tone without talking about genre. The best way I can describe tone is to say that it the manner in which genre is expressed.

For example, if you are writing a comedy, you obviously don’t want your writing to be somber and serious. This applies both to the description and dialogue. By the same token, if you are writing a drama, you don’t want your tone to be light and comical.

To me there are two important requirements with respect to tone. First, you must establish it in the first act. As I suggested in an earlier post, it's best to do it in your opening scene. It’s what the reader sees first. Remember, readers doing coverage on your script don’t know what your genre is when they pick up your screenplay. The title may give them some idea, but that isn’t always the case. So it’s imperative for you to let them know early on what type of story you’re telling. The best place to do that is in your first ten pages.

The second requirement carries this notion a bit further. You have to be consistent with your tone. This means both in the first ten pages as well as throughout the screenplay. If you set the proper tone for your genre in your opening but then go on to switch to something inconsistent with that tone, you’ll confuse the reader. As I always say, it’s death to your script if you confuse the reader.

Consistency throughout the script does not mean that you can’t ever deviate. For instance, in just about every drama, there are light moments. Laughs even. Think of The King’s Speech or The Social Network. I guarantee you laughed a time or two in each of those films. And yet neither of those could be categorized as comedies. However, what you want to avoid is going overboard with the laughs taking over a drama or pathos taking over a comedy.

I can’t give you many examples of films where this happened, for the simple reason that professional film makers know this and don’t make this mistake. Which is why you shouldn’t either.

The best example I can come up with is a 2001 British film entitled Birthday Girl starring Nicole Kidman and Ben Chaplin (whatever happened to him?). Birthday Girl is the story of a lonely guy who orders a Russian mail order bride. It starts out quite comical and light. Then somewhere around tha halfway mark, it gets more serious and dark. Finally, it turns into a thriller. It’s almost unsettling to watch, which is probably why it didn’t even make half its budget back at the box office.

So remember, set your tone early and stay consistent throughout. An occasional change-up is acceptable, just don’t turn into a Birthday Girl.

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