The Magic of Tone: Diary of a Teenage Girl
By Jacob Krueger
Tone is one of those really challenging things for writers, particularly on a movie like Diary of a Teenage Girl, which touches on some extremely controversial, taboo and uncomfortable subjects. In lesser hands, rather than being the delightful (but disturbing) movie that we saw at the theatre, Diary of a Teenage Girl would be a Lifetime movie: yet another tear jerking melodrama about a child victimized by an unfair world.
So in this podcast, I’ll be talking about how to control tone in your writing, whether you’re writing an original script, adapting a book or novel to screenplay form, or writing from the experiences of your own life. (In fact Diary of a Teenage Girl was adapted from a novel inspired by author Phoebe’s Gloeckner’s life experience as a child).
Jerry Perzigian who teaches our TV Comedy Writing class has a saying that I really adore. For those of you who know Jerry, he was the showrunner on The Jeffersons, The Golden Girls, Married With Children. If it was a hit show in the 80s or 90s he was probably on it. Jerry has this saying that I really love. He says: “First, write it true. Then make it funny.”
And I think this is one of the greatest bits of wisdom that you can take when you’re thinking about tone; it’s realizing that tone does not begin with trying to be funny or trying to be sad, or trying to be dramatic, or trying to be melodramatic, or trying to make the audience cry or trying to do anything.
Tone, in fact, is something that is layered on top of truth. So, our first step as writers is about getting our own personal truth on the page. In order to do that, sometimes we need to let go of our desire to control the tone. Sometimes we need to write the scene in our comedy that makes us cry, or makes us disturbed, or goes to that incredibly dark place that we don’t want to go to. Sometimes we have to write the scene in our drama that gets experimental or playful, or oddly, inappropriately funny.
In acting there is actually a technique for this. If you’ve ever been in a play or in a film rehearsal there is often a period where the performance starts to get really tight. Usually at the first reading everything seems great: the actors haven’t figured out the character yet and they’re just playing. They’re just having a good time. And everything is filled with energy and excitement and fun. They seem to be hitting all the right notes, flying free and using their instincts.
But there then comes a point where they’ve started to figure out the piece. They’ve started to figure out their character. They’ve started the figure out what’s really going on, the structure of the character’s arc, how things are changing, who the character really is and how to play them.
And at that time, a strange thing happens.
Oftentimes, the performance suddenly gets rigid or tight. Suddenly it feels less truthful, less compelling, less exciting than it did early on, before the actor had figured out anything intellectually. Usually the reason for that is, having figured out 90% of the character but not that full 100%, rather than focusing on their instincts, on their creative mind, on bringing themselves and their personal truth to the performance, the actor is now suddenly now focusing on getting it right, doing it correctly, making sure that everything they do fits with all their other choices and with their intellectual conception of who the character is.
This is a really normal thing in the rehearsal process, and if you’ve ever been in that phase of the rehearsal process with a good director, you know what the director does. She stops everything and says “Okay, you know what? Do the musical theatre version of this scene. Do the sci-fi version of this scene. Do the Star Trek version of this scene. Do the thriller version of this scene, the film noir version of this scene.”
And the reason the director does this is to get the actors playing again: to get the actors to forget the intellectual decisions that they’ve made about who the character is, what the movie or play is, what the structure is, and to let go of their concept, their monotone concept of tone for this character or this story.
The director will encourage them to make choices that cannot happen in the final product in order to explore the range of tone, in order to remind the actor that there is a whole world of possibilities out there. They are not limited to the small conception of what has already worked. In fact, they can paint with any color in the rainbow.
And then, only then, after the actor has played and gotten loose, and usually discovered something that they didn’t know was there, then the director will bring them back to the real scene. And an amazing thing often happens: suddenly the play or screenplay opens up for the actor. Suddenly, they are able to play that scene with the same high energy that they had at the beginning of the project, with that freedom, not to have the tone define them, but to take the learning that they got by playing outside of the tone and start to shape it within the color palette, within the tonal palette of the piece that they’re making.
In fact in her adaptation of Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller actually does a similar thing with tone. She adjusts some of the darker aspects of the piece to fit with the feeling of her movie. And what’s beautiful about the way that she does it is she does it without losing any of the truth. She does it without losing who this character is, or what is happening to this character, or the incredibly disturbing psychological and sociological ramifications. She does it without skirting around the foundational questions of the novel, and at the same time, in a way that feels consistent tonally with what she’s really building in her screenplay.
So, how does Marielle Heller control the tone of this movie? The first way she does it is by painting the character without judgment. It is easy when we are adapting, whether we’re adapting a true story, a novel, a life event, even our own idea. It is really easy to get caught up in our anger at the injustice, at our own frustration. And oftentimes when we do this we end up writing the story of victims rather than the story of protagonists.
If you’ve listened to my podcast about Tangerine, you already understand the importance of not bringing your own moral judgments into the world of the character, and instead of allowing your characters’ moral view of the world to define the moral view of the movie.
And this is a very challenging thing as a writer. As writers, we all have things we want to say and it’s very easy to get up on our soapbox and start preaching to the choir. But the true power of movies comes when we refuse ourselves that pulpit, and instead simply visualize the movie as if we were inside the character’s worldview, the character’s morality, the character’s world.
If you’re adapting from true life, sometimes this means letting go of your anger toward your husband, your wife, your ex, your child, your father, your mother, your grandfather. Sometimes it’s about letting go of your anger toward those who are politically opposed to your viewpoints, those who have wronged you; so that you can step inside of their truth and their view of the world.
Now, I’m about to start getting specific about Diary of a Teenage Girl. So, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, you may want to pause this podcast and come back to it after you’ve seen the film because there are going to be spoilers ahead.
Diary of a Teenage Girl, is a movie about rape. And what’s wonderful about Marielle Heller’s script is she does not shy away from the fact that this is rape. We have a fifteen-year-old girl, who is having sex with a thirty-something-year-old man who also happens to be dating her mother.
And as excited as this little girl might be about losing her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend, this is about as messed up of a situation that you can see in a movie.
But, this movie is not painted in the bleak tones like a movie like Todd Solondz’ Happiness. It’s painted in the bright, cheery tones of a coming of age story set against the 70s, of a little girl figuring out who she is.
And what’s incredible about this script is that Heller manages to do this in a way that does not detract, does not gloss over, the disturbingness of what is happening.
In fact, one of the most effective scenes happens when the main character, Minnie, is on the sailboat and she and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe, are having sex and the owner of the sailboat is just outside. And Minnie’s playing a little power game with him, a little flirtatious power game: she starts shouting “he’s raping me!”
And this is a masterful use of tone. In a darker script, in a more melodramatic script, in a script that was designed to get the audience to cry or be upset or rise up or be disturbed or emote, or feel anger toward the abuse, you might do that cliché scene of her starting by teasing “he’s raping me,” and ultimately moving toward the point of heaving sorrow.
But what this writer does is stays true to the worldview of the character, even while the character says those disturbing words. Even while the character voices the truth that she is not yet ready to tell herself, that she is not yet, at age 15, able to look at honestly. And this amazing choice allows you to at once recognize that this is indeed rape. That this is indeed wrong. Without losing your genuine connection with the main character; without losing your genuine understanding of how she is also a driving force in her own life.
We see this from the very start with that overly sexualized shot of her walk, and her delighted announcement in voice over: “I had sex today.” And that’s really what we’re watching. We’re watching the truth of a fifteen-year-old girl who honestly doesn’t have enough world experience to know that she is being used and manipulated, who is simply delighted that somebody wants her.
If you’ve studied in our Meditative Writing class, this movie probably set off a bunch of light bulbs for you. Because the character’s emotional need for love, and the way that emotional need drives every single action that she takes, is so incredibly clear. This little girl whose mother, Charlotte (played brilliantly by Kristen Wiig) is so coked up, drunk and filled with the vibe of the 70s, that she is completely absent for her daughter. This mother who, even at the moment where she finds out what’s happened to her daughter, ends up blaming her daughter for her choices. This mother who, even at the moment where her daughter tries to talk to her about what her experience was, refuses to hear her daughter’s feelings. This mother who, it’s implied, may still actually be dating this guy after all of this has happened. If this mother was only capable of being there for Minnie, that need for love wouldn’t be so strong.
Similarly, her psychoanalyst father, who knows exactly what is happening to his daughter, and even confronts the mother about it, cannot hear a single emotion that his daughter has. In fact, he cuts her off in the middle of a sentence when he decides she’s getting emotional.
We have a brilliant portrait here of how the nature of her family leaves this girl in an incredibly vulnerable position where she is desperate for love. So, how do you write a movie where you have a main character who is desperate for love, you have a main character who quite honestly is a victim of her circumstances: a victim of her father, her mother, her stepfather, her world. How do you write a story of a character like that without losing the drive of the story? Without ending up with a character who feels bandied about by events from the moment her horny stepdad first puts his hand on her breast?
How do you keep a character like that active when the whole movieis being driven by people around her? You do it by tapping into your inner truth as a writer, that part of you that desperately needs love.
You do it by tapping into that emotional need in your character, and allowing that emotional need to drive, not the events that happen to your character, but the choices that the character makes in relation to those events.
That is what is so wonderful about this movie. Even though the events are happening to Minnie, we can feel her making bigger and bigger choices in relation to those events. We can feel her seeking out the relationship with Monroe. We can feel her joy in the relationship. We can feel the way that she is pushing this relationship to happen, from that very first seduction scene in which, out for a beer with her stepfather, she tells him she wants him to fuck her, and literally puts her hand down his pants.
Now, rather than having sex with his girlfriend’s child, a better man would have, at this point, said “Wow, there is definitely something going on! What’s wrong kid?” But what’s successful about the way that Minnie drives that action is that even though she may be a victim, she doesn’t feel like one. She is not somebody we have to feel sorry for. She is someone we can actually root for.
The next thing that makes this structure so successful is the way that these choices Minnie is making and the way she pursues her emotional need for love actually take her on a coming of age journey toward learning who she is: toward understanding her sexuality, her passion in life, what’s okay with her and what’s not okay with her, her strength as a human being, and her mother’s and her stepfather’s weakness. And that’s where the effectiveness of this movie comes from.
The truth of the matter is, once you have that kind of drive for your main character, once you have a character with an emotional need, in this case love, and a tangible object, in this case sex with her stepfather, we will root for that character pretty much no matter what they are doing. If that character continues to make strong choices, even if those choices are messed up, even if those choices are choices that we might judge, even if those choices are choices that lead them to dark places, eventually they are going to go on a journey that changes them forever.
This works similarly for you as a writer.
If you are willing to allow yourself to make choice after choice after choice, to make big choices in your screenplay. If you are willing to be driven, not by your intellectual concepts, but by the emotional needs in yourself that make this movie worth writing: the real stuff going on in you, whether it fits or not into the movie you think you’re building. If you are willing to follow your instincts, even if (like the main character of Diary of a Teenage Girl) you lack some of the experience to know where those choices are going to take you. If you allow yourself to make those big choices, and you allow your character to make those big choices, you give yourself a structure that you can then paint with any tone you want.
You can make it playful. You can make it dark. You can make it a Thriller. You can make it a Noir. You can rewrite that truth and shape it into any form you want. Because that work is just Craft.
The real work of being a writer is not about tone. The real work of being a writer is about voice.
And that is the final piece that I’d like to talk about with this movie. Because we’re not just watching a little girl’s coming of age story in relation to sex. We are also watching a little girl’s coming of age story in relation to being an artist.
As we see at the beginning of the movie, she starts as many of us start, by finding a great artist and emulating her. But slowly, as the movie progresses, the animation starts to change. It stops being driven by somebody else’s truth and by the imitation of another great artist, and starts being driven by her own personal truth. Her own personal voice. The artistic choices, not that somebody else has made, but that only she could make.
This is the real journey of being an artist, and this is the real journey of being a writer: learning to find that creative voice and trust it without judgment. Not because judgment doesn’t exist, and not because you don’t have a moral compass, and not because there isn’t something that you need to say. But because the journey of being a writer is about allowing yourself to discover your own voice and your own structure, and then arming yourself with the craft you need to shape it into any form you’d like.