Creating Tone When Crafting Your TV Series

Everything you put in your script contributes to tone.  Tone is the mood or feeling the audience gets from the show that underscores your overall message, giving your show a distinctive voice.

Every show has a tone, but some are stronger than others.  The ones with a weaker voice are more or less ‘cookie cutter’ shows: the characters are a little bit hollow, the show’s formula is glaringly obvious, the plot is more important than the characters, and the visual style is kind of bland.  Give your show that extra punch with a strong sense of tone.  Examine some of your favourite shows and write down all the elements that contribute to tone.  Here’s a few to get you going:

Shows with a similar premise can easily set themselves apart through tone.  The Vampire Diaries and True Blood are both about vampires living amongst people, but both have a very different tone: Vampire Diaries is a dark teen drama, which is perhaps a bit more palatable than the gritty and much slower-paced True Blood.

Buffy has a distinctive tone; it’s Valley Girl meets Underworld.  Joss Whedon plays off the contrasts of sunny happy California high school using bright colours, sunshine, and normal everyday situations with the dark and scary world of the Hellmouth.  He also uses comedy to contrast tragedy. 

Mad Men is set in the 1960s when life moved at a much slower pace.  As a result, Matthew Weiner slowed everything down; scenes are longer, story lines take several episodes to develop, people don’t say a lot and when they do talk, it’s calm and thoughtful.  It’s a much more innocent time, but it’s also a time when no one really spoke their minds so every character says and does what’s expected of them.  The colour of the show is the 1960s washed-out style of the films at the time.  Sets are clean and simple like the wardrobe: perfectly presentable.

When creating the tone for your own series, keep these things in mind:

  • What is the overall message you’re sending with your series?  How can you carry that through in all aspects of your show?
  • Where is your series set and why?  Don’t pick a setting because it’s cool or trendy or you think someone else will like it, pick it because it means something to your story.
  • How do your characters speakGilmore Girls had all their characters talk like they were starring in a 1940s film.  What’s unique about how your characters talk and how does that contribute to tone?
  • What is the predominant colour in your series?  Consider the mood are you aiming for.  Happy usually means bright colours, mysterious means dark or dull colours, realistic means somewhere in between.
  • What’s the genre?  Is it a comedy, dark comedy, satire, heavy drama, suspense or procedural? 
  • What’s the pacing of your show?  How much information is dropped in an episode?  How long are the scenes?  Parks and Recreation has short, quick scenes; Mad Men has long, languid scenes.

A little bit of irony or contrast doesn’t hurt either.  If your show is really dark, try throwing in some humour or bright colours.  If all your characters are very serious, try making one bubbly and fun-loving.  Too much of one thing can be overkill.  If you’re going to mix it up, make sure there’s a reason behind your choices beyond just “I wanted to mix things up”.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss visual style.

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