Setting the Tone of a Scene

Far too often, screenwriters focus on writing scenes from an objective perspective where they simply describe the location with no sense of emotion or subjective coloring.

This creates a boring screenplay.

When you’re reading a screenplay, you want to get sucked into a story and you can’t do that if there’s no emotion. Emotion is the key to storytelling whether it’s dialogue, character descriptions and actions, or scene location. Always add colorful, emotions in every word you write because that will give your overall screenplay a distinctive voice.

When describing a scene, consider using one or more of the following ideas:

  • Underscore
  • Reflection
  • Foreshadowing

In text editing, an underscore underlines word for added emphasis. In scene writing, an underscore emphasizes the tone of your story within that particular scene.

For example, watch horror movies and you’ll notice that every scene contains an element of horror. In “A Quiet Place,” the opening scene shows a family moving silently among an abandoned town. Yet there’s an element of horror because there’s an unknown reason why the family moves so quietly in the open in broad daylight, yet seem so fearful. This scene simply underscores the sense of horror.

Reflection involves characters in a scene seeing themselves reflected in the setting of the scene such as in objects or other people. In “Star Wars,” Luke has earlier been reluctant to leave his planet despite his desire to do so. Later when he’s stuck in the Death Star and discovers Princess Leia is being held prisoner, he’s eager to go save her but suddenly Hans Solo is the reluctant one, which mirrors Luke’s earlier reluctance to pursue an adventure.

Foreshadowing provides a hint of what’s to come although at the moment, we may not be aware of its importance. A later scene in “A Quiet Place” shows the husband and wife dancing quietly with the wife’s noticeable pregnant belly. Although this is a romantic scene, it still exudes an element of horror because at this point, we know the couple has to stay quiet to stay alive and the woman’s pregnancy complicates this task.

So go through your screenplay and examine every scene to see if you’re just blandly describing a setting or if you can apply the underscore, reflection, or foreshadowing techniques to make that scene more integral and compelling.

Chances are, you can improve any scene by just following one or more of these techniques. If every scene in your screenplay grabs and holds an audience, you can be sure that your entire screenplay will grab and hold an audience as well.

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