Watch Your Tone!

What makes a stunning movie experience?

You know the ones I speak of. You sit in a dark room. Chew on salt served with a side of popcorn. Snuggle up to a significant other – or your mobile – set to vibrate.

Then you embark on a big-screen journey that will hopefully transport your mind, your soul and, if the 3D is particularly effective, perhaps even your body.

The way I see it, a successful movie needs these key ingredients.

  1. The characters are complex, hilarious, larger than life.
  2. The action is twist and turn-y, big, breathtaking.
  3. The love scenes are … see number 2.

Yes, yes all of the above I hear you say. But what about –


I know we’re not talking music here. But, write a flick that’s not ‘on-tone’ and your audience will walk out of the cinema feeling like they’ve just heard a dud note that lasted for 90 minutes.

For a successful movie to hit the mark – not only do the stars (and their egos) need to be aligned, the tone has to be spot on too.

What’s tone got to do with it?

If story is the backbone of your script, then, tone is the heartbeat. It informs the world you’ve created, the characters, the dialogue and ultimately, the way in which you tell your story.

Not surprisingly then, the very essence of tone is – a feeling; the emotional response that your story evokes in an audience.

The other day I watched Love and Other Drugs, mostly because of Gyllenhaul’s glutes (and there are many opportunities for said ogling), but also because I was in the mood for a good old fashioned, sweet and loving romantic comedy – with edge. That’s what the trailer promised me anyway. But that’s not what I got.

Oh, where do I begin?

The writers of Love and Other Drugs, while they did an admirable job in parts, couldn’t decide what story they wanted to tell, let alone what genre they wanted to tell it in. The tone lurched us from drama to ditzy comedy and back again. Exhausting.

The writers were men – not that there’s anything wrong with that (!) –

but it felt like they couldn’t commit to a genre; like they were above writing just a chick flick. So they tried to write a film that would please everyone – but most importantly, themselves.

The tone lurched us from drama
to ditzy comedy and back again.

I imagined them in a room beating their chests and saying,

‘Yeah, we can write this our way. A bit of heavy drama, a few cute one-liners, beautiful people delivering pre-post-coital witty repartee and if we get stuck, don’t sweat it, we’ll just throw in that classic scene – when it looks like all is lost, we’ll bring in some old people who’ll cheer on the hero to get off the bus and go get his gal. Perfect!’


These hapless writers fought the traditional romcom tone with every scene, every plot point. The result? A movie that tugged you every which way but right.

Oh, tears, we’re watching a serious drama about a degenerative disease, no wait, now it’s all jokes and sex and rolling around messy bedsheets, er, no hang on, now it’s about hardselling Viagra and making huge bucks. Stop this ride, I wanna get off. Now.

So how do you make sure you’re on-tone when you fade-in?

Surrender to your genre.

And I mean really, truly, give yourself over to whatever genre you’ve chosen. Observe the conventions and don’t try to flout them because ya think you can or you’ll risk pissing your audience off.

Evoke the right emotions with every scene.

Tone ain’t rocket science. Wanna write a romantic comedy? Swell. Make your audience fall in love. Or a horror? Wicked. Scare the shit out of ‘em. Don’t switch ‘gears’ mid-way through and decide, nah, stuff it, I’ll add some romcom elements and the blood and gore in the last scenes will still stand out and horrify.

Evoke the right emotions with every scene.

Write the tone in.

Your actual scriptwriting should reflect the genre. So in the case of a good old fashioned romcom – aim for lyrical, attractive, engaging, happy and dare I say it, romantic writing.

Be specific. Stay consistent.

Bending and twisting the rules in any artform particularly scriptwriting is fraught with danger. You should only attempt such insanity when you’re a master at your craft.

You may remember when Tarantino shocked script scribes the planet over with Pulp Fiction; whaddayamean there’s no 3-Act Structure? Whaddaymean the story’s told backwards? And you gotta be kiddin’ me, it still works? Get outta Hollywood.

The guy – and his co-writer* – obviously knew the craft. So he was allowed the creative license to ‘mess with the audience’. And it worked to the tune of $213 million in worldwide box office.

Contrary to popular belief, audiences are not tone-deaf.

And they will sniff out a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Which is why, believe it or not, a deafening tone is a successful one.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean your audience are bimbos that need to be hit over the head with obvious plot twists and exposition.

Just find your genre. Set your tone. And be true to it from fade-in to fade-out. Do this and your writing really will ‘sing’. More importantly, your audience will get it – and you.

Contrary to popular belief, audiences are not tone-deaf.

‘Cause ultimately, isn’t that what this nuts game is all about? Connection?

* Did ya know that QT only wrote elements of Pulp Fiction together with writer Roger Avary. Tarantino later convinced Avary to forfeit his co-writing credit for a ‘story by’ credit instead, so the line ‘Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino’ could be used in advertising and on-screen. The cheek!

-Phyllis Foundis

Writer, producer, presenter Phyllis Foundis has written and bellydanced her way to the tender age of 39-ish. She’s been writing stories, ads, one-woman shows and to-do lists forever. Not so much a budding screenwriter than a scribe that’s bloomin’ ready to see her stories up on the silver screen. Phyllis loves her boys and big, feelgood movies – that appeal to people not funding bodies.

Creative Commons License photo credit: timsamoff

2 thoughts on “Watch Your Tone!”

  1. Hi Phyllis,

    I agree with your basic argument here.


    Again and again films seem to mix genre and benefit from it. Goodfellas was not a comedy, nor was Ghost, nor Aliens but they made us laugh. However, I believe that in all of these, the comedy was compartmentalised. In Ghost only Whoopi Goldberg was ever allowed to be funny and in Aliens only Bill Paxton. In Goodfellas, it could only ever be funny when talking about the eccentricities of the mob.

    So, could one say – “Stick to genre, but you can balance it out with value added ‘texture agents’ so long as they are compartmentalised character-wise or story-wise”??

    • @tonkywoo…yep Ghost was clever is allowing bits of comedy without reducing the genre. Patrick Swayze singing “‘enry the 8th”, the elevator scene, the bank scene with Whoopi and Swayze were moments where Swayze was also allowed to have fun…it made sense and didn’t take away from the tone. cheers HP


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