Getting In The Tone Zone

When you get a chance to pitch or write for a TV show, one of the most important things (if not THE most important thing) is to get the tone right. This can be especially difficult if it’s a brand new show and the tone is still in flux (you may get general guides as to what they want but they may not be entirely helpful: ‘adventurous but not too adventurous’). Still, a new show should provide you with some detail and context, usually in the shape of a series bible and a script or two (especially in children’s TV, but this also applies to prime time fare). The script(s) in particular will be vital in your understanding of the tone.

I like to think that I’m particularly good at nailing the tone of a show, but there’s been a couple of times where I’ve pitched (and even written for a show) where I was told I wasn’t getting the tone right. Being the sensitive writer-type I am, I got very upset about this, and I vowed that I wouldn’t let it happen again. Here’s a few things I now do to ensure that I understand the tone as much as possible (I’ve definitely felt the benefit of this):

  • Read the series bible once from start to finish without stopping. Then, write down notes of what I remember from the first read (almost like a test): all the character names, their particular traits, the core concept of the show and how it comes across to me, and anything else I can think of. Then, I read the series bible again, picking up on any detail that I’ve missed, and any other key aspects of the show.
  • Read the script once from start to finish without stopping. Write down notes afterwards about anything that struck me about the tone and general storytelling style. Write down as many of the plot beats as I can remember, any gags or dialogue I liked (and why), and how I felt about the characters, from one to the other.
  • Go back and read the series bible again, this time OUT LOUD. Not just a dull rendition, try to infuse the right pace and energy into the detail, as if you were pitching or telling someone the series bible.
  • Read the script again, OUT LOUD. Just like what you did with the series bible, now you’re getting into full storyteller mode, practically acting out the dialogue.

After all this, you’ll probably be clued in and inspired to think of a few ideas of your own that you can develop into storylines/pitches. The storyline pitch may not be too hard in itself in terms of getting across the tone, but any scene-by-scene document (and of course the script) will be the key. Overall, the point is this when going through the material: don’t just read and think you’ve got the vibe, really go through it and KNOW you’ve nailed the tone.

Previous post about tone/genre here.

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