Specs & The City: Writing Tone and ‘Children of Men’

There are certain things we learn as part of the “basics” as we grow in our craft as screenwriters; core aspects that we need to master. These four cornerstones – Premise, Plot, Character, and Dialogue – tend to receive the lion’s share of attention, but there are other aspects of your script that are equally as important, and have a tendency to be overlooked by writers as they’re developing their stories. Mastering this secondary group of script elements will not only help you write an impactful script, but they’ll also ensure that your script stands out from the rest of the pile waiting to be reader by a studio reader, development exec, or potential agent.

I’ve addressed several of these topics in previous columns, like theme and subtext, and this week I’d like to look at another one – Tone. To keep it simple, think of tone as the mood of your script. What makes tone so interesting to me is that it really permeates every aspect of your writing; from your action blocks to your dialogue, and even your slug lines, everything on the page can be used to set the mood of your script.

When done well, the tone of your screenplay should be evident as early on as possible; ideally from page one, or page two at the latest. If you go past that and there’s not a clear sense of tone being demonstrated, you’ve officially started off on the wrong foot.

So, how can get back on the right one? Here’s a look at…

Tone and ‘Children of Men’

Children of Men

Children of Men

Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Timothy J. Sexton (and based on the book by P.D. James), Children of Men is set in a dystopian near-future where the human race has been rendered sterile and no new children have been born anywhere on the planet for almost two decades. It’s a story about a society in its decline; of what happens to a civilization and the rule of law when everyone knows that the end is nigh. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and this is how it begins:

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Notice how the combination of the dialogue from the television, and the description of the crowd set an immediate tone for you right out of the gate. The faces watching the television are sad, hopeless, and middle-aged, and the mention of Diego being killed after refusing to sign an autograph gives the audience its first hint at the reality of this new world. In a society where no new children are being born, the youngest person alive on the planet would become an instant celebrity.

The scene moves on as Theo watches the news report with no emotion. He’s completely detached; as broken as the world around him. As the story begins, Theo is a living embodiment of the script’s tone.

This opening scene then concludes on the second page with the following:

COMen2-300x165

Based on just these two excerpts from the opening scene of the script, what can you tell about the tone of the film you’re going to get with Children of Men? You know that it’s bleak, paranoid, and violent. It’s heartbreaking and hopeless. And it’s all of these things from the very first page.

It’s worth noting that, in addition to setting your tone, it’s equally important to be consistent with your tone throughout the script. Imagine if the scene you just read were followed up by a scene of slapstick humor. Even if the scene was funny on its own merit, it would break the story, sticking out like a sore thumb amidst the rest of the script.

Think about this when you sit down to write your next script. What’s the tone of your story? How quickly do you establish it? Are you consistent with that tone all the way through your script? Answering these questions will help improve your script and make your story more engaging.

Until next time, keep writing.

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2 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Writing Tone and ‘Children of Men’

  1. NealR

    “Dark Rain”! Gotta love the internet! (Especially IMDB.)

    Okay, it looks like “Children of Men” ome out one month (January of 2007) before the Outer Limits episode “Dark Rain” (February of 2007). Obviously that’s too close for either to have been influenced by the other, especially since the book “Children of Men” came out way back in 1992. (And presumably the Outer Limits episode was inspired by it even though there doesn’t seem to be any formal credit given.)

    In any case, I still think that anyone who saw “Dark Rain” first (as I did) would think the film “Children of Men” is simply a muddled version of it. At least from a writing point of view; I understand Alfonso did some cool cinematic shots in his movie, but (as some others have pointed out) they come very close to diminishing, rather than enhancing, the story.

  2. NealR

    Excellent article!

    Though since you seem to have a bro-crush on Alfonso (based on this and your previous “five points” article) I guess this is a good place to ask the filmmaking/writing community I’ve been wanting to for a long time:

    Isn’t “Children of Men” simply (excellent tone establishment aside) simply a rip-off of a (much better) “Outer Limits” episode that basically had the same story and (I think) came out first?

    Does anybody know which episode I’m talking about? If so, do you agree? And can you remember the title, so I can confirm it came out first, and that it wasn’t written by Alfonso (or Tim Sexton)?

    Needless to say (based on my comment here and my one on the recent “Gravity” article) I think Alfonso is highly overrated.

    Which is surprising, because “A Little Princess” is one of my favorite movies of all time. But now I can’t help wondering if it would have been even better, and more successful (very few people have seen it, alas) if someone else had directed it?

    After all, as I understand it, it wasn’t like he (Alfonso) spear-headed the project (it which case I would give him kudos regardless of how things turned out); it was already underway and he was chosen by the producers to direct it.

    One of those questions (like whether Fletcher ever got off Pitcairn’s Island) that we’ll never know.

    P.S. Second times the charm! (Earlier today the link sent me to a different article. Though it was worth it for DeadManWalking’s comment: “And they needed a study for that? I guess the spoiled [USC] children needed something to fill the time in college.”)

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