Mood & Tone in Screenwriting
A guide to understanding look and feel.
In the context of screenwriting, let’s consider the important differences between “tone” and “mood.”
When it comes to screenwriting, “tone” is merely suggestive. Although the screenwriter is the author of the piece, filmmaking is a visual medium. So, it’s the director who sets the “tone” of the film. The Director of Photography (DP) and the screenwriter can advise, but it’s the director’s responsibility to “tell the story.”
We discuss this in greater detail a littler further down the page.
WHAT TONE ISN’T
– A specific character’s attitude toward something.
– The attitude of the narrator. This includes the attitudes of first-person fictional narrators.
– The mood or moods evoked by the piece.
If you’re familiar with screenwriting then you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Don’t direct the page.” In simple terms, “Just write the damn script.”
Directors are exceptionally good at what they do. Directors bring words to life with their vision. And in many cases, that vison aligns with the writer’s.
What about MOOD?
While “tone” and “mood” are often used similarly, in filmmaking the two are distinct.
“Tone” is the filmmaker’s attitude toward the subject of the piece. The director’s use of camera angles, lighting, colour palette, and editing sets “tone.” “Tone” can indeed influence “mood.”
“Mood” is what the audience feels as they watch. Their emotional state.
I know it may seem obvious to some, but screenplays and novels are two very different types of writing. A screenwriter can merely suggest tone and imply mood.
WHAT MOOD ISN’T
– The atmosphere of a scene (atmosphere is the sensation imposed upon the audience through “tone”).
– How a character feels.
– How the screenwriter feels.
MOOD and TONE working together
The “tone” of a film often influences what one feels while watching. But remember, the “mood” can change from scene-to-scene even while the “tone” of the film remains untouched.
The audience can feel excited (emotion) while simultaneously getting goosebumps (sensation). A screenwriter’s dialogue in the final scene of a movie, combined with the director’s “tone” set earlier on, can lead the audience to experience a rush of different emotions and feelings throughout.
When the screenwriter and director are “on the same page,” the result is pure bliss!
Why are we telling you all this?
Have you ever watched a movie at the cinema and heard someone in the audience laugh at a scene that wasn’t meant to be funny? That being said, keep in mind that screenplays in this category are based on my own interpretation of the writing.
Also, we’ve combined both “tone” and “mood” to simplify things. For example, the tone of a screenplay can be inferred as “dark,” and the mood as “sentimental.”