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10/21/2004 - TRUE TO THE TONE

In the movie "Volunteers" staring Tom Hanks and the late John Candy, Tom and John play Volunteers in a South American Village. The film started out relatively normally but then, as the movie progressed, the actions got sillier and sillier to a point where, ala "Airplane", John and Tom crash through a large road map for humorous (or lack of humor in my opinion) affect.

What bothered me about this wasn't the fact that it was going for a cheap laugh or something like that, but the fact that the film's "TONE" had changed. Where the film started out in "A" it was now in "B" and where would it go from there?

You're sitting down to your computer keyboard or your typewriter or your yellow pad of paper and you begin to write. Do you think of the tone of your script? Is it something you even contemplate? If you're starting in seriousness are you ending in humor (or vice-versa)?

In a screenplay I recently edited, there's a scene at the beginning where one of the characters takes a person's severed arm and wards off an attacker with it. This scene can be taken either very seriously or with a lot of humor. Which is it? Really, honestly what are YOU as a writer going for? Are you setting the right tone?

In the film "Nurse Betty" the first act contains a horrific act of violence that seems to shift the tone of the whole picture. Part of that tone was fed to me, and others, through the advertising of the picture as a "cute and funny story" but the reality of the actual film is that there is a depth to it and a seriousness that goes beyond what the marketing people pushed. But that shift of tone, whether real or imaginary, can push the audience away.

In one of my screenplays I have two children, a brother and sister, get separated on their way to Seattle. As the sister fades into the distance, the brother calls back to her: "REMEMBER THE SPACE NEEDLE!" As I wrote this, it was a powerful, moving moment. But then, as the screenplay was being read aloud by a handful of actors, the audience gave the line a really good laugh. That's not the tone I was going for.

As you write your screenplay and place the words on the paper, think about that tone. Think about the scenes you've written. If you're going for seriousness, could it be taken as funny? If you're going for funny, could you see how someone could think it might be serious? What's the tone? And are you being true to it?


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