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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Monday, August 08, 2005


One of the most important aspects of the craft of screenwriting is establishing a clear and consistent tone throughout your story. Its more important than the jokes in a comedy, more important than the poetic lines in a tragedy. Because if your tone is inconsistent, you'll lose the hook that pulled the audience in, in the first place.

You'll be asked about it in you meetings on originals and re-writes, and if you blow it in your draft, you'll get notes on it when you hand in. You'll be asked for other movies like the one you're imagining, writing, finished, so that people can get an idea of what you're after.

So what is tone? The sound that the channels used to make when they signed off for the night? (Okay, that was a long time ago. Don't know what I mean? Really? Forget it.)

It is literally the emotional response that you generate from your narrative. And that response can run the spectrum from comic to dramatic.

What's the simple rule?

The comic hero is immortal. However bad it gets, we know he's never going to buy it, so we know we can laugh at his pain.

The dramatic hero is a poor stooge like the rest of us who bleeds, and will die, and holy gee, it could happen right in this scene!

Now you have to break it down a bit further.

What kind of comedy are you writing? Broad, slapstick, situational, absurdist, farce, dark, black comedy (and I don't mean a casting choice, but a black comedy has inappropriate emotional responses to real dramatic situations to get the laugh). You'd better make sure you know what you're doing and keep the rules the same throughout. And how about the drama? Realistic, hyper-real, stage-play, operatic, epic.

And it has to be consistent throughout the piece, or your audience will sense something wrong and will jump ship. They'll the feel the bubble that we call the suspension of disbelief, which is essentially a fancy way to say all that flickering light on that big screen up there which seems so REAL that you fall into it and forget yourself - unless that bubble has burst, and suddenly all those folks in those seats are thinking about the rules of the movie - what the hell are the rules? Why did he say that? Am I supposed to be worried or not? And you don't want your audience thinking that.

Example: You want to write an action movie, but you want the hero to be funny. The Bruce Willis model. Still works really well. But how funny? What's the tone? The tone is - as funny as your guy is, you'd better believe he might be killed in every scene, and that his emotional life is real and grounded in reality. That's a clear tone. And has to be the choice for this film to work. You can probably name 30 movies with this tone. But you know this world, it feels real.

Example: You want to write a comedy, but you want the hero to be such a complete idiot that no one in their right mind would let them into their life, let alone into a conversation. How does that make sense? What's the tone? You give your hero a great air of authority and self confidence that he's always right, and that he thinks everyone else is just a little off. And that's a very clear tone. Though I'm thinking of Dumb and Dumber, it works for the Panther films and probably another 30 comedies I can't think of this second. And you know this world too. It will seem real.

When Silence of the Lamb starts, you know on page two what the tone is. And you pretty much want to leave the theater and go find a safe place. Because the tone is very real, very realistic, the danger is very realistic, and in reality, people die. Your hero is entering the lion's den and she's fresh meat.

When A Girl Like Mary starts, you pretty much know on page two what the tone is, and you drop all notions of common sense and get ready to laugh your ass off. Who cares if it doesn't make realistic sense? Nothing does. The joke is, we enter the normal situations of boy loses girl, boy gets girl, but everything is going to be extreme and weird, and that's where the laughs are.

Know your tone. Make sure it maintains. Make sure it emmanates from your characters and your world. Be consistent. Establish it clearly in your mind as you create your piece, you will find it actually buoys you along and helps guide you as much as any character and any plot point.


Blogger Jacob Sager Weinstein said...

"The comic hero is immortal"--that's a really interesting idea. I feel like I ought to be able to come up with a million counter-examples, but I can't, which makes me think it's a very good point.

Or, more precisely, I can think of some counter-examples, but they all seem to be cases where the author is deliberately breaking a rule to shock the audience.

The best example I can think of is in "Romeo & Juliet" (and I should warn that I'm about to include a SPOILER, although anybody is unlikely to care enough about writing to be reading this blog...) Mercutio is a classic comic character, and his death is a really shocking and painful moment. In fact, I've always suspected that Shakespeare deliberately used a variety of comic conventions in the opening scenes in order to make the sudden change to tragedy (which happens at Mercutio's death) all the more powerful. A modern audience goes into R&J expecting a tragedy, so the shock is a little lost on us--but it must have been pretty dramatic for Elizabethan audiences.

John Irving does this a lot in his novels; he'll have sudden shifts from comedy to tragedy that leave the reader devastated.

All of which is to say, you actually can have sudden shifts in tone--but they must spring from very deliberate artistic choices, not just sloppiness. And, in fact, such a dramatic shift requires an even greater control over tone than a story that keeps the same tone throughout.

-Jacob SW

Tuesday, August 09, 2005  
Blogger Jacob Sager Weinstein said...

Oops--there's a typo in that. In the third paragraph, I meant to say, "...anybody who hasn't read R&J is unlikely to care enough about writing to be reading this blog."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005  
Blogger TN_Dreamer said...

"There's Something About Mary"?

& I agree with both of you. One needs to carry a complete tone throughout or it pulls the audience out of the story. Unless you've got an excellent, & I mean excellent, handle on the tone to intentionally shift it & create those big tragic/comedic moments.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Well, Captain Devincible, first off don't worry about typos, I am the universal generator of all typos. As to your Shakespearean example, it's a good point, but as the tone of that play is tragedy, the murder is warranted, the comedy before it a tease by Shakespeare as he tricks you into thinking the play you're in is something other. So your point is excellent - Elizabethan audiences must have been as wowed by that death, and his friends thinking he was "faking it", as they were in (contemporary example) Psycho, when the audience thought they were in a sexy bank heist suspense movie - and suddenly the leading lady is MURDERED in the shower. Oh - it's a thriller about a lunatic? Tragic, indeed.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

tn dreamer: Yes, but tone switch is extremely unusual. And as captain devincible said, might be done for an effect, rather than as an intrinsic part of the story telling.

captain: yes, the John Irving example is good too, but it's a little different. He'll put you in a realistic, or hyper realistic drama, then have some tender loving moments, some comedy, exremely grounded emotionally, then kill the character you're with. We experience it like the loss of someone in our family, as we were really getting into them. But his tone is consistent, reality, as sweet as it can be, also bites, and here's the reminder.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005  

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