Monday, July 11, 2011

'Tone' part 5 - Writers

Couple of writers have been kind enough to get back to me on 'tone'.

James Moran (Severence, Doctor Who, Primeval, Torchwood) says:

I always treat it as "what *kind* of horror/scifi/chicken-snuff story is it" - for example, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica are both TV science fiction shows. But Firely is a fun, action-adventure show with plenty of laughs and witty banter amongst the dangerous situations, whereas BSG is a dark, gritty, serious show with parallels to the recent war in Iraq. Basically, is it a funny show or a serious show. Or both. Or whatever. I usually put a line or two in near the start to make it clear what sort of thing it is, and usually mention a couple of shows that, while they may have different setups and live in different genres, will have a similar tone or feel to this one. Innit.

And Ben Teasdale (Coming Up, Spine Chillers, Twisted Tales) says:

Isn't it also somehow a kind of CONTRACT between the writer and the audience? You set up in the first few scenes the kinds of flavours and emotional notes you're going to be playing with - like the emotional DNA of the piece - and then the audience know "where they are" with it. It's like setting out your stall - people know what they're signing up for.

And then, while people want and expect to be "surprised" in terms of the actual Things What Happen, they DON'T, as a rule, want to be surprised by a sudden change of "tone". It's like changing the RULES of the thing - the emotional equivalent of gravity suddenly working in the wrong direction, or people whipping out blaster guns in the middle of a historical scene. If you've set that up as part of the "rules" up top, people are fine with it - but not if it's late enough to cause a disjunct.

For me the prime exemplar of how to lay down tone swiftly and elegantly is the pre-credits tease of the first ep of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Boy and girl break into school at night - some sexual goofing around - he's pretending to scare her, it's funny but with an edge that there MIGHT be menace lurking there somewhere - then boom, switcheroo, she bares her fangs and it turns out she's the vamp and kills him. Pretty much all the flavours of the next seven seasons of it are right there in those first few minutes, so we trust it whenever it cleaves to them, and when it doesn't - it requires work to win our trust again (cf. the Spike/Buffy rape stuff).

You CAN do jolting things with tone, but it tends to put you in the territory of arthouse stuff - eg. the end of There Will Be Blood, where it all comes down to *SPOILER ALERT* a guy smacking another guy's head in with a bowling ball. For me that's a gear shift - like going from 2001: A Space Odyssey to A Clockwork Orange - but it kind of works because it's a self-consciously arty film, and the THEME (violence and power) holds it together.

Friday, July 08, 2011

'Tone' part 4 - a BBC script editor speaks

Had this email from Madeleine Sinclair, BBC script editor on South Riding and Robin Hood, as well as, in another incarnation, Primeval. I've also been working with her for some time developing my BBC4 eighteenth century comedy/drama thing.

Maddie says:

"I'd say tone is really the feel of the piece - it's what sets expectations really. The tone of the script helps you to understand what to expect from it - and so when something leaps out that feels unexpected (and not in a good way), it's often because it's tonally not a fit.

(An example that springs to mind for some reason... is when I found myself watching Deathproof at a festival in Amsterdam... I sat down in the midnight hours, a little worse for wear, thrilled to be treated to an outdoor rom-com watching experience with all my pals... I saw Kurt Russell (and was hoping for Goldie Hawn) in a rednecky sort of bar, flirting with a barmaid who I think may have been wearing his cowboy hat. He offered to give her a ride home... So far, so good. She even satin the back of his car... All very chivalrous... He asks her if shewants to go left or right... She makes the mistake of giving the wronganswer and before you know it, her brains are dripping down the window.

As the colour drained from my face and I reached for a sick bag, I realised I had made the error of misjudging the tone of this film! All the signals were there for rom-com fun and suddenly, I was inhorror-ville. (Yes, I'd got the genre and style wrong too - but it feltrom-com like in tone if you ask me (for those few minutes anyway)... And then suddenly blood and guts a go-go).

However, if I'd been aware of the title, my expectations would have been set... and had I not been so inebriated, I probably would have questioned why a field full of blokes were so eager to watch it! Guess the point I'm trying to make is how important tone is in setting expectations - and what can happen when you misjudge it!

Establishing the tone of something is crucial really in defining what it is and how it should be executed - before every drama begins shooting, there's always a big tonal meeting where the director (informed by the writer of course!) sets out his vision and all the HoDs talk about how they're going to achieve this... (Sure you know all this but just thought it might help in your exploration of what the flip 'tone' really means).

Tone is the defining characteristic of a piece really - you can have two very different dramas about the same subject that are differentiated by their tone... Bad example but Waterloo Road vs. Teachers... Same territory, very different shows, very different attitudes. In fact, attitude is probably another useful way to think about tone - you can have two cop shows (same genre, same subject) but their attitudes can differ hugely and that, I'd say, was down to tone."

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

'Tone' - part 3

I can't comment on my own blog at the moment, as Opera seems to be playing up, so here comes another comment turned into an actual blog post.

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'."

I quite like the 'X crossed with Y' setup, as a means of selling your idea, although I think it's a bit frowned upon if you do it too blatantly. Maybe it's best to try and subtly lead the person you're pitching to come to that conclusion themselves. Like 'Inception'.

Re. the 'delicious' or 'exciting' thing - see, I think it's a bit presumptuous to give that sort of description before the actual script has been read (bear in mind we're talking about outlines here, where the actual script is yet to be written. It's a bit like when dads say 'I know a joke, and it's a really funny one!' Because that's up to the listener to determine once they've heard it. More specific descriptions of how you see the final product, be it script or meal, are probably more balanced and helpful.

MEAL: I wouldn't say 'this meal is going to be delicious!' But I might say 'this meal is going to be a bit more coriander-y than most people like, but the sauce is a bit richer/darker than I normally do it. which should balance things out a bit'.

OUTLINE: I wouldn't say 'this crime drama is going to be really exciting and dramatic!' because, well, you'd hope it would be anyway. But I might say 'the show has a murky, noirish feel, although its rural setting allows a fresh take on the old noir tropes'.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

'Tone' - part 2

Interesting and useful comment from Phill Baron on the previous post, which I thought deserved promoting to a post of its own. Phil says:

"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?"

Which might be it, actually. I think the outlines I've been suggesting have relying heavily on the producer being easily able to see how all the fun stuff (stories, basically) can flow naturally from the clash between the two conflicting elements - whether they're comedy and horror, as with the 'Sean of the Dead' example, or, dunno, supernatural and romance, say. Not that these are elements that have never gone together before, but I've probably been expecting producers to connect the dots themselves to too great an extent. Realistic if they're familiar with genre, and a pleasing number are, but most aren't.

Also, I think yes, the 'tone' thing is very much about what time/place in the schedules the proposed show would have. I used to think 'why can't I just write the show how I want, and you work out where to put it?' - well actually I still think that, but I suppose that's not terribly helpful for the person who's trying to help you put the thing together.

Hmm. Cheers Phill.

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.