I spend more time thinking about this than anything else.

I used to obsess over the outline, the act breaks, the characters voices, the locations, etc. This is what we’re taught in film school, and what to stay focused on throughout story development. I still do all these things, but the thing I zero in on now is tone.

What is tone?

For me TONE answers the question, “How do I feel when watching or reading this story?” “What is the overarching energy that permeates throughout?” On previous scripts this is where, I believe, most of my problem areas originated from, missing the mark on tone.

It’s like having one particular feeling in one scene, lets say dramatic and intense, then in the next, a feeling that is more comical and light hearted. Those two scenes, side by side, could be hovering over two completely different tones. Yes, I could rewrite them to sync up, but that wouldn’t solve the problem on what the tone should be.

The key is to have a crystal clear vision, a hard through-line that permeates from PAGE ONE to THE END. Just because you may not have the tone doesn’t mean you can’t begin. You have to begin. The more you chisel away, the closer you’ll get to discovering it.

Even though can’t play a musical instrument I love to hear those who can. I also love to sing even though I can’t. And I know enough to express how I feel when I sing a particular song or when one is being played for me.

And that’s all that matters.

I believe this is the biggest mistake screenwriters make – not paying attention to what they’re feeling.

What is the score like? Is it mysterious, eery, uplifting, big, subtle, loud, peppy? I will spend hours pouring through music libraries to find one artist or piece of music that expresses the entire tone for the film. I mean, hours. Even when you find something in the range, there are so many variations within that space. Then its diving into that and finding an even closer mark to what you’re feeling, what you want the audience to feel.

What is the color pallette? Is this world grey and dark, warm and light? How often and when? I search through thousands of images to find the ones that convey what I want.

What does the poster look like? We’re told, as writers, not to think about this but I have to disagree. Imagining what the poster looks like, writing out a few possible tag lines, helps in finding the tone.

When I look back on a script, like Emma’s Chance for example, and examine the progression from the first draft to the shooting draft, I find the one concurrent thing throughout (despite the millions of changes) is tone. If you have a pretty good idea of your tone you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache on subsequent drafts.

To pinpoint the exact tone, I free write with pen and paper. Before I open my laptop I write out the story, the simplest version, in my best handwriting as if writing it in stone – for myself. This forces me to hunker down and commit to a feeling I want to have or create.

I do this a few times. I’ll write the story out one way, then a week later do it again (without looking at the previous version) and then again. Then I compare them. Usually its, “Ahhh, I see a through-line here,” or “Ahhh, I see the moments that are sticking and saying something here,” or “I’m beginning to see a clearer picture of the overall tone here.”

Once I feel like I’ve exhausted this process and am confident I’m close, only then, do I go into Final Draft.

I can not express to you how much this helps.

There is a vibe or energy to everything we interact with, every human being, every animal, every plant … a feeling is felt. Tone can be applied to what our feelings are when we wake up in the morning, when we’re going through our day to day tasks, or when we’re in the middle of a certain personal journey.

What would you say is your inner tone? There is a beating tone in all of us. And we have control over what that tone can be.

x and tales,


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