Imagine a movie that followed a gritty, violent scene with a sentimental comedic scene. It would be jarring and distancing to the audience. It might even strain suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, you don’t want to be two one-note. A relentlessly depressing or relentlessly cheerful film will become tedious and wear on the audience.
I think it’s best to stake out a tonal landscape where your story will live. This will put your audience in a specific mood, which will help you land certain elements of your story.
I divide tone into three axes: Comedic to Dramatic, Light to Dark, and Fantastic to Realistic. Each is a range. Your story will probably fall toward one end or the other of each. You can visualize them as a three dimensional graph.
(Note that it is hard to represent three dimensions with a two dimensional image. Imagine the dark/light axis extending out toward you and back away from you.)
Comedic to Dramatic
People often talk about comedy and drama as genres, but they are really more of a tonal continuum. At one end is broad, slapstick comedy. As we move toward the middle we have wittier, character based comedy. When we get onto the dramatic side of the range, we first have realistic drama and move out to melodrama on the end.
Light to Dark
This axis relates closely to the rating of your film. Is it more toward the gritty and disturbing end, or more light and fluffy? On the dark end we have graphic violence and sex, and disturbing themes. Adult popcorn movies are mostly somewhere in the middle. On the light end we have children’s films.
Fantastic to Realistic
Some films live in the real world, the world we’re familiar with. Others are in completely fantastic realms. Between these poles are films that mix some fantasy into the real world.
Let’s place some specific examples at each corner of our three dimensional graph (the size of the dot/text indicates whether it is closer (larger) or farther away (smaller) on the dark/light axis):
Not every film is going to be at these extremes. For example, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is not exactly realistic, but not as fantastic as Star Wars. So it might be in the middle on the realism range. And Imitation Game lands somewhere between Theory of Everything and Requiem for a Dream in the darkness scale, though like those films it is dramatic and realistic.
(In fact, even these movies probably aren’t at the very corners of the graph – Theory of Everything has some darkness in it and Sweet Home Alabama is probably not all the way to the left on the comedy scale.)
As you start considering where films fall on this graph, you might notice the most popular films are not evenly distributed. Movies that fall in the dark/comedic range (whether realistic or fantastic) tend to be niche cult films. I find hits tend to be light/comedic films (whether realistic or fantastic) or dramatic/fantasy films (whether light or dark).
MPAA ratings are not assigned based on tone, of course, but the things that get a movie a more restrictive rating tend to put a movie further on the darker end of the light/dark scale. This may explain why hits tend toward the lighter – a more open rating makes it easier to market a film and allows for a broader audience.
So how do you use this information as a screenwriter? First it might help you get a sense of how commercial an idea is. Place it on the graph and then try to identify movies that would fit in a similar area. Were they hits?
Second, it can help you identify scenes that might fall wildly outside your tonal range. If you are doing a light, realistic comedy, is a huge slapstick set piece appropriate? Is a rape scene appropriate? Note that tone can be pretty flexible (check out The Apartment for a light, realistic comedy with some very dark sections). But you must handle the transitions deftly.
Also be careful to set up the proper tone at the beginning of your screenplay. Once a certain tone is established for a story, it’s difficult to get the audience (or a reader in the case of a screenplay) to accept a significant shift in the tone.
Sometimes writers will put something into the early part of the screenplay specifically to establish where the tone might go. For example, the prologue with Trinity at the beginning of the Matrix establishes there are fantastical elements to a story that might otherwise seem realistic. The creepy scene where all the kitchen cabinets open in The Sixth Sense establish both a fantastical and a darker element in a movie that will otherwise take a while to get either fantastic or dark.
Where does your story fit on these axes? How far does it drift?