If you walk into a fast food restaurant, you expect to get a hamburger, fries, and a drink. You don’t expect to buy a sofa, oil paintings, or brake linings. Yet that’s exactly what many screenplays do.
Every screenplay must let the audience know right from the start what type of story to expect. I read a screenplay that started off as a drama involving two gay men at a family gathering, but the gay man had never told his family that he was gay. Right away, this sounds like it could be a serious drama or a comedy, but suddenly in the last ten pages, a demented relative showed up and slaughtered the entire family.
When you decide on a particular type of story and tone, you must maintain that story type and tone from start to finish. Suddenly changing will disorient your audience as much as driving to a fast food restaurant and finding that they only sell motor oil and balls of yarn.
Start with the title. Does your title give a hint at what type of story to expect? Too often, movie titles are too vague like “Voices” or “Love”. (Look up these titles in Rotten Tomatoes to see how many movies use these meaningless one word titles.)
A better solution is to create a long title and then see if you can shorten it as much as possible. Ideally, a title should give a hint at the story and tone. When you read a title like “The Wrath of Becky,” you can’t help but suspect it’s a comedy involving violence.
Beyond the title, the first scene sets the tone of the story. In “The Wrath of Becky,” Becky is sent to a foster home with parents who are religious nut cases. Becky pretends to be the perfect religious child to mock them, and then makes her escape the second they leave her alone. This early scene sets the tone for what type of story we can expect, lots of humor based on current events and lots of violence for comedic purposes.
At no time during “The Wrath of Becky” does the tone or story change. We expect a comedic, violent movie and that’s exactly what we get from beginning to end.
Compare “The Wrath of Becky” to “John Wick.” Both indulge in violence but “John Wick” leans towards a more dramatic tone. In both movies, violence is over the top and unrealistic, but while “The Wrath of Becky” leans towards comedy, “John Wick” leans more towards action.
“The Wrath of Becky” uses violent for humor. “John Wick” uses violence to pump up our adrenaline. We know the violence “John Wick” isn’t realistic, but it’s not as over the top as in “The Wrath of Becky.”
So when creating your own story, decide on the tone of your story and the best way to keep emphasizing that tone over and over again. Focus less on realism and more on simply maintaining a consistent tone because consistency will help you create a focused story.