Thursday, June 7, 2012

Crystal Clear Tone

            The title will become clear further into the rant.  Hopefully.
            Shamefully, some pandering, too.  My new novel, 14, just came out.  It's there on the sidebar.  Ebook only, at the moment, but this time next week that link should take you to the paperback version.
            As some of you know, I used to write for a fairly popular screenwriting magazine.  It let me talk to lots of professionals about their job, and it also let me see a lot of movies for free.  A lot of movies, sometimes weeks or even months before they came out.  To be honest, the last movie my lovely lady and I paid to see was V for Vendetta.  Before that was probably Batman Begins, which we saw twice—once with our friend Max and once just the two of us.
            But that really doesn’t have anything to do with this week’s topic.
            Or does it?
            Anyway, one day I was in the office and the editor, Amy, asked me about a film she knew I’d seen a few weeks earlier.  One of the other journalists had suggested the idea of doing a big piece on horror-comedies for the September-October issue, and the movie I’d seen (let’s call it Gorefest) was one of the ones that had come up as a potential subject.  Amy wanted to know if I thought Gorefest would fit the article.
            I didn’t think so.  The filmmakers were telling a horror story, and they knew that too many jokes and cheap laughs would shift the tone of the film and knock it into a different category.  Gorefest was a horror movie, and it had several moments of comedy in it, like a lot of modern horror films.  But it wasn’t a horror comedy.  They never crossed that line.
            The other journalist insisted it was, though, and used it anyway.  In the final article, the screenwriter of Gorefest openly said it wasn’t a horror comedy.  And Amy gave me a little grin the next time I was in the office.
            This is an example of someone being a bit tone deaf.  You’ve probably heard this term applied to both music and writing.  In music, it’s when I don’t realize that a group of notes or chords clashes with another group.  And that’s pretty much what it means in writing, too.  When something doesn’t work in my story, tonally, it means something’s clashing or overpowering something it shouldn’t, to the point that it stands out.  In this particular case, the journalist was projecting emphasis onto those comedy bits that wasn’t there in the script—he was deaf to the actual tone of the film.
            I interviewed Kevin Smith a few years back for one of his movies (Zach and Miri Make a Porno).  One question I asked was about working with Seth Rogen.  After all, Smith notoriously hates ad-libs and Rogen is famous for constantly riffing on lines, coming up with new ideas and variations for almost every take.
            He was quick to correct me, though.  His reputation for hating ad-libs came from his first few films, when he realized he and his cast were too inexperienced to be making big deviations from the script.  So back then, he was very strict about sticking to the page.  And while he’s loosened up a bit, he still favors the script over random interpretations on set.  “So often you’ll get an actor who just starts saying stuff that’s very funny to the crew or me or the other actors, but it’s not germane to the discussion,” he told me.  “It’ll be great on a friggin’ blooper reel, but I can’t fit this into the scene.”
            And, yes, I did clean up Kevin Smith’s quote a bit for those of you reading this at work.  Feel free to swap in the words you think he used.  You’ll be right.
            Just because something’s good in and of itself doesn’t mean something is good in the bigger scheme of things.  I can throw a great slapstick comedy scene into my Somalian pirates script, and it may be some of the greatest slapstick ever written.   But it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb amidst the gunfire, brutal killings, and mounting tension.  I could write some stuff right now that could make most of you reading this cringe or get grossed out.  It’s not really that hard. 
            The thing is, what would be the point of doing it right now?  You’re reading this to learn about writing, not to get nauseous.  It might be some fantastically disgusting imagery, but it just wouldn’t fit here any more than... well, a random discussion about the last couple of movies I paid to see.
            I see this kind of stuff all the time.  Random gore for the sake of gore.  Long monologues in an action film.  Comical sidekicks wedged in for no reason except to be the comical sidekick.  Romance that’s shoehorned in just so there’s a reason for a female character.
            Another quick story, one I’ve mentioned here before.  A friend gave me a horror script to look at a few years back.  It was a basic “cabin in the woods” setup with a clever idea behind it.  My friend knew that sex sells, and he told me before I read it that he'd added a nude scene.  It actually turned out to be a hardcore lesbian sex scene.  Three pages of boobs, some bondage, toys, and insertions.  It was so graphic, in fact, there was nothing to call it except pornographic.  And that’s a major shift in tone right in the middle of a fairly creepy horror story.
            This is one of the harder criticisms to give.  For a lot of people—especially inexperienced people—it’s also one of the harder ones to receive.  It’s very hard for some folks to grasp that something can be good and still not be right
            If I had to guess, I’d probably say part of the reason people have trouble with this concept comes from that reverse-engineering idea I mentioned a few weeks back.  Element X works well in story Y, therefore it stands to reason element X will work in story Z.  There’s also probably a bit of special snowflake mentality—the idea that doing something good should somehow automatically translate to success.  And, for some writers, there’s probably an empathy issue in there as well.
            Y’see, Timmy, tone is about my story as a whole.  Not this particular funny joke or that one creepy description or that strongly-implied (or blatantly shown) sex scene.  Tone is how my entire story feels overall and how it’s going to be viewed.  That’s not to say I can’t have comedy or romance or action in my story.  It’s these little moments of flavor and color that make a story really sing.  The trick is to know how much comedy and how much romance will work in a given story—and maybe accepting that the answer is “none.”  Because things that break the tone generally break the flow, too.
            And if you can’t tell you’re breaking the flow... well, don’t worry.  Your readers will let you know one way or the other.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about a wonderful lesson we can all learn from an old Benny Hill skit.
            Until then, go write.

2 comments:

Evan said...

"my friend knew that sex sells"

I've never been sure what to think about that quote. How does it sell and to who? Sure some people are influenced by it, but how many? I get so annoyed by the 'token set of tits' that is there for eye candy. I'd rather have someone who can act, surely I'm not in the minority.

To me it's the difference in network TV and cable shows. Most networks look like they ordered their cast out of the same Old Navy catalogue. Generic.

I guess my question is, does "sex sells" mean gratuitous? Or can "sex sells" mean something more low profile like Ripley being in her undersized underwear at the end of Alien?

Virtual Stranger said...

Fair question. To be honest, "sex sells" is a pre-internet rule of thumb that was very big in the '80s and '90s. I think producers have finally started to get past it (which tells you how long it hasn't been true). The bit with my friend took place back in 2001, if memory serves.

Y'see, back when cable and video rentals were a big market, someone realized that the films flagged as having "nudity" or "sexual situations" tended to sell the best (draw your own conclusions). Didn't matter who the nudity was, because people will tend to assume it's one of the leads.

So people learned that you could just stick in a random topless woman and this would almost guarantee that your film would get released. This is also how nudity got tied to slasher horror. You had a great return-to-investment genre and now you had a simple way to ensure the film got released and watched.

Again, business trumps everything else. :(