Monday, July 04, 2011


Here's part of an email I got last week from a producer, about an outline I've been working on for a supernatural themed show set here in Cornwall:

'While I love the combination of spooky and funny and there’s absolutely no reason they can’t be combined (and have been successfully before) I feel that the tones are just too conflicting.' 

Which is a note I get wayyyy too often. Tones are either 'conflicting' or (worse, I think), 'confusing'. Often I'll meet a producer, having worked on an outline that defines a series' format, genre, central characters, future episodes and so on, and be met with the question 'yes, but what's the show's tone?'. And sadly, the response 'I don't know, I haven't written it yet' doesn't seem to be acceptable, which is a shame, because I like to write the way I cook: have a rough idea of what you want to make, find an appropriate playlist to bliss out to while you get on with, chuck in soya sauce/coriander/jokes about eighteenth century words for 'prostitute' and see what you end up with. So I tend to avoid describing a prospective show's tone altogether - which doesn't really work; in this case, the producer had just picked it up from my brief descriptions of how I saw the main character, the sort of stories I wanted to tell and so on. So not directly mentioning tone isn't going to get you out of it - you're still going to be asked. And in fact, whilst I was writing THIS VERY POST, I had another email on the same subject about a different outline. WELCOME TO MY WONDERFUL WORLD OF REJECTION:

Thanks so much for this.  I've had a good think about it and after lots of head scratching I've decided I don't think it's a goer.  So sorry to do this to you again.  It's partly because I know there are at least two other (REDACTED) ideas going about - including one by (MORE FAMOUS WRITER THAN ME).  So it's a competitive area but I also can't quite see the tone.

One problem is, I'm not entirely sure what they mean by 'tone' in the first place. Part of the problem is that 'tone' seems such a nebulous term; is a genre, or style? So I asked various telly people on The Great Hivemind Twitter what they mean when they talk about a script or outline's 'tone'.

@rosyposymagosy Interesting topic b/c I like(want) to write things where the subject and the tone clash (sad comedy) so wording becomes key. Exp: Meandering sentences, words out of Jane Austen era = more serious. Jaunty exclamations and obscene adj.'s =comedy.

@EddieRobson I think "tone" is a consistency thing. Is it all going to feel of one piece? I do think it's an issue with comedy-drama, where some scenes may be light, others heavy.

@EllardEnt (Andrew Ellard, Red Dward associate producer, IT Crowd script editor) Tempted to say "Whatever suits them at the time"! Depends on context but mostly the same as the rest of us, I guess.

@msmaddiep I suspect it's not dissimilar to when tone is used for voice. Is it bitchy? Snarky? Optimistic? Naive? Although that gets into another question of how you convey the voice of a whole show. Think it's often the cumulative voices of the lead characters, particularly the protagonist.

@ScriptwritingUK (Danny Stack) re: tone. I'd say they're talking about genre: "what is this thing? a crime drama? It reads like a Cornish dramedy!"

@kmpharwood (Kate Harwood, BBC, Controller, Series & Serials) Is it how you want it received? Luther is a crime show with a operatic tone; Silent Witness is a crime show with a gritty tone.

... all of which narrows it down a bit, suggesting that 'tone' in this context is really a further definition of something that's already been placed in genre, that helps the people commissioning it work out where and when the final result can be broadcast. So it's the partly style, partly sub-genre. Fine, you've outlined an idea for a spy thriller, but is it glossy, glamorous, fast-paced (Spooks), or subdued and downbeat (Smiley's People)?

I've always thought it was a bit presumptuous to describe a script's tone before it's completed - to continue the cooking analogy, you wouldn't tell people you're making something 'delicious' and 'exciting', because, well, it might not end up that way. But you should probably have some idea where your meal is going to be on the scale between, say, 'comfortingly bland' and 'spicy', and your description of tone should probably encompass this. So it's a question of refining exactly what I mean by tone, which I can do.

Or I could just stop doing outlines altogether and write everything on spec.

ADVANTAGES: the tone is right there on the page, and everyone knows where they stand. Also, writing is, kind of, you know, what you're supposed to be doing.

DISADVANTAGES: writing for no money is almost exactly the opposite of my business plan. Also, you can spend a month writing a spec pilot for a series about, say, modern-day witches, only to find every bugger and their cat is doing the same.

SO IN CONCLUSION: I was financially and emotionally better off when I worked in a bookshop. And there was free coffee.


Kniffler said...

I for one heartily appreciate all efforts to get more jokes about eighteenth century words for 'prostitute' onto the telly.

Anonymous said...

Ah but you're living the dream, you are, you glamorous scriptwriter you. And on Cornish coast, yet. Frankly you should be glad producers don't ask *you* to pay *them*. What, you want to pay the mortgage AND Be a Writer?! Spoilt!

(Go on then, do a bit about Cornish witches. Call it Sky Clad. Sexy nudie beach scenes, gwan.)

Ellie T said...

Don't be despondent: Now that you've clarified the 'tone' issue so well you've got the next one in the bag. Plus, my 10 year-old believes that writers live a life of bliss where they pen magical stories AND purchase unlimited lego minifigs to play D&D with, all because of you - don't disappoint him by returning to a boring, ordinary, paid job.

james henry said...

Thank you all - I should say I'm not quite quite as despondent as that post may have made me sound. Although I would quite like some of the money I'm owed please, production companies.

Kniffler: Hurrah!

Woolythinker: Yes, at least I'm in lovely lovely Cornwall.

Ellie T: Well I certainly wouldn't want to put T Junior off living the dream. And I could never return to a normal job, I no longer have the qualifications...

Boz said...

Our school art teacher used to bang on about tone in every single lesson. We had no idea what she meant either.

Layman question though: Surely the way something is directed influences the tone a lot anyway..?

Phill Barron said...

Is the tone not the limited range of emotions you sell to people in order to get them to watch/commission?

So the genre might be Western, but the tone is a lighthearted comedy - you expect to chuckle along without having to really think about it. If it was described a hilarious comedy then you'd expect to laugh out loud most of the way through. Gentle comedy means it's not that funny and might be a bit sad or just sweet ... and so on.

For me, not being able to understand the tone usually means the events of the story require you to lurch wildly from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.

So if you were chuckling along to a Richard Curtis comedy and suddenly a bomb goes off and there's 20 minutes of weeping while people pick bits of Hugh Grant out of their hair in graphic, unpleasant, nauseating detail, then it goes back to a gentle posh-English rom-com ... it's a bit weird. Tonally, what is it? How are you supposed to react? How do you explain that to people?

"It's a warm-hearted, gentle comedy about a struggling, family-owned Yorkshire biscuit factory." lets you know what kind of emotional range you're going to appeal to.

"It's a warm-hearted, gentle comedy about rape." doesn't.

Thinking about it, does the tone then help place the show on a channel at a specific time/day?

I might be completely wrong about this (and I'll happily admit I don't know nothing about nothing) but maybe if producers can't see the tone it's because there are two elements which don't sit comfortably together or perhaps aren't integrated properly?

You know, like 'Sean of the Dead' is funny first, horror second with the comedy poking fun at the horror bits so there's nothing really scary in it. It doesn't go funny, scary, funny, scary in random bursts.

Not saying your outlines are doing that, of course; but maybe it's worth looking at?

Or not? Is that mind-numbingly obvious? If so, sorry and carry on.

james henry said...

Boz: directors don't really get as much say with telly as they do with, say, films, due to lower budgets, less time to shoot and so on. So they usually have to work pretty much within the remit laid out by the writer. Which is just one of the reasons telly is considered more writer-friendly than film.

Phill: great comment, which I shall promote to a blog post of its own, cheers.

gillpea said...

One thing is niggling me about your cooking analogy. You're employed as a scriptwriter so the comparison should really be on a professional level. If I went to a restaurant I would expect the chef to be able to say their dish is 'delicious' or 'exciting', because it's their job to make it that. I think you writing a spec is closer to the chef deciding what dish he wants to try to perfect, before he starts trying different ingredients/methods etc. And at that point, it's rare for most chefs to be working without support from previous chefs. Which is like you saying 'this spec is Spooks crossed with Animal Hospital'.

Boz said...

Ooooo. That's interesting. I did not know that. You are a man who knows things!