I’ve just passed the halfway point in this project and it crossed my mind that I have yet to dedicate a post to the rather important topic of “tone.”
“Tone” is what makes the 1971 Mel Stuart film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the 2005 Tim Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory entirely different movies. They have essentially the same characters following along essentially the same story beats. Yet, I challenge you to find a person who would say “Yeah, those films are one in the same. I’m equally happy watching either one of them.”
Now tone, like anything else, is not 100% in the hands of the screenwriter. The director has a lot to do with it too. However, it’s still important to have a tone in mind as a writer. Tone gives you the sort of clarity you need to zero in on what your writing will be. If I gave you a simple prompt of “Describe the setting of your film” that’s not as clear as “describe the setting of your creepy, horror film” or “describe the setting of your family comedy.”
The best question I can think of to ask yourself when considering tone is “how do I want my audience to feel during this two hour experience?” Please note that that’s not “how should this particular scene make my audience feel?” Some movies help us relax, while some movies are intentionally designed to make us uncomfortable. Some movies are designed to stimulate us intellectually while others focus more on touching our emotions. None of these are right or wrong choices, but I think it’s important to ask yourself not only “does my story work?” but also “what do I want this movie to really do for people?”
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory strikes me as pure escapism. It’s fun. It makes you want to live in this wonderful candy world and forget the miserable world you actually live in.
Regardless of whether or not you enjoy Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I know I prefer the 1971 version) I just can’t help but think that Tim Burton wasn’t TRYING to do what the 1971 movie did. He wanted to make his audience feel a little uneasy. Perhaps he was trying to make some statement about how fantasy worlds are never all they’re cracked up to be or how being a creative genius means nothing if you don’t have a loving family. I’m not sure what he considered his mission to be, but I definitely think it was something beyond just “make a movie that’s fun.”
What do you want your movie to do for an audience? Once you know that, you can figure out what kind of tone you want, and then can help you fill in some of the nooks and crannies of your script beyond main story points.