Mood & Tone

Compass and broken glass metaphor

Mood & Tone in Screenwriting

A guide to understanding look and feel.

You’re writing a script, not a book.

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 is not.

– 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.” While it’s certainly okay to make suggestions, a screenwriter’s job is to write.

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.

Okay, so ‘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.’ Likewise, ‘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 is not.

– 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

It’s all about being a team.

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?

It’s about me, not you.

Keep in mind that screenplays in this category are based on my own interpretation of the writing. I didn’t write them, so I’m going by what I felt and imagined.

Browsing Hint:

You’ll notice on the download page that each script is tagged with a specific genre, subgenre, mood, and tone. Just look under the feature image!


Subgenres Reflecting Mood & Tone

There are too many to list, but here is a small collection of the most popular.


Films that are ‘cerebral’ are more appealing to the mind than the heart. They can make you feel emotions, but they’re really meant to feed the mind.


Films that are ‘dark’ deal with fear, death, and the sinister side of human nature. Basically, subject matter that is generally considered taboo, serious, or painful to discuss.


Films that are ‘deadpan’ are amusing while affecting a serious manner.


Films that are ’emotional’ can be tearjerkers, that is true. But also those which evoke moderate anger or laughs can fall under this category.


Films that are ‘exciting’ come with great enthusiasm and eagerness.


Films that are ‘feel-good’ evoke feelings of happiness and well-being.


Films that are ‘goofy’ are somewhat ridiculous, or mildly ludicrous. Sort of like crazy and eccentric in a harmless way. Basically, any Adam Sandler comedy.


‘Gritty’ is often used to describe things that are dark and edgy. If a film is gritty, that means it is likely violent and depressing.


Films that are ‘heartfelt’ are sincere, and wholehearted. And deeply and strongly felt.


Movies that are ‘imaginative’ are creative and inventive. James Cameron’s Avatar franchise is a primo example of imaginative films.


Films that are ‘inspiring’ are very encouraging. They make you feel like you want to do something real. Patriots Day (2016), the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the aftermath, inspired some people to be a cop or soldier.


Films that are ‘irreverent’ have content that shows a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously. In terms of comedy, this is actually a compliment.


Films that are ‘mind-bending’ are often very difficult to understand. They feature complex storylines and characters. Movies like Memento (2000) and Inception (2010) are prime examples. Well, basically any Christopher Nolan movie.


Films that are ‘offbeat’ are different from the ordinary, usual, or expected. Perhaps even a little… off. Knives Out (2019) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) are good examples.


Films that are ‘ominous’ give the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen. A threat is omnipresent; and there’s no indication if anything will or will not happen. Suspense-thrillers can often have a very ominous tone.


Films that are ‘quirky’ have peculiar or unexpected traits in them. Wes Anderson’s movies basically define the genre. The French Dispatch (2020) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012) are two excellent examples of quirkiness.


Films that are ‘raunchy’ are generally vulgar, and often involve sexual activity. The American Pie movie franchise is a good example. HBO’s Euphoria, although not comedic in nature, could be considered as ‘raunchy.’


Films that are ‘scary’ are alarming and frightening. This feeling is not exclusive to horror movies, either.


Films that are ‘sentimental’ evoke feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.


Films that are ‘suspenseful’ arouse excited expectations or uncertainty about what may happen.


Films that are ‘understated’ are subtle but very effective, in their presentation.


Films that are ‘witty’ are clever and funny and timed just right. There’s dialogue that demonstrates sharp, biting humor and delivered playfully.


Subgenres Reflecting Primary Genres

Sometimes we have to make difficult choices.

There are hundreds of other subgenres that are the offspring of the ‘Primary 13.’ If you’re looking for something more nuanced than ‘Drama,’ like, ‘Crime-Drama‘ or ‘Film Noir,’ then check out our extensive list.


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