Updated: January 2018
Devices With A Bad Name …
There are lots of devices in scriptwriting that we hear are “frowned on”: you shouldn’t use voiceover or flashback is the usual (or voiceover WITH flashback!), but I’ve heard montage maligned in a similar fashion, as well as intercut and dream sequence.
This is a load of rot as far as I’m concerned. You can use what you like. These accusations we see levied like “flashback is a lazy way of telling a story” is just another generalisation. Flashback is no more a “lazy way of storytelling” than I am Chinese. Flashback can be an amazingly dramatic way to tell a story.
… For A REASON!!
I think the reason however these devices end up “frowned on” is because writers don’t always use them in a dramatic enough fashion. In short, they simply don’t know HOW to use them properly. The writer doesn’t know how dramatic a good voiceover, flashback, montage, intercut or dream sequence CAN be. Perhaps they’ve not noticed them in the films they’ve watched; or they’re trying them out for the first time. They undoubtedly not enough RESEARCH.
Other times the story they are telling just doesn’t warrant it – just because you can use a device, doesn’t always mean you should. I get a lot of scripts that use flashback for example that just don’t need it: it’s not that I don’t like flashback, I love it; it’s just that *particular* story would be BETTER TOLD in a linear fashion, its style effectively is obfuscating its story.
Below is a list of what I think are good examples of these devices, plus links to articles to go with them: I’ve recommended them to clients before and they’ve helped ensure a writer harnesses the device for their draft … Remember: you might not like the entire movie, these are just elements to help people clarify what the device is and how it can be used.
Voiceover is most associated with the film noir genre and why it should be considered “lazy” is just beyond me. A good voiceover gives us insight into a character’s motivations: why they are doing what they are doing. I mentioned in my review of The Brave One for example that I really liked its voiceover; I liked those in American Psycho, Adaptation, Pitch Black, When Harry Met Sally and a whole host of other movies too.
So why is it so maligned?
Well, Robert McKee of course: he goes to great pains to tell us why we shouldn’t use it in his book Story and he is even portrayed by Brian Cox in Adaptation telling us the same.
This one-size-fits-all idea seems daft to me, but as a reader I can understand how it has come about. Most spec writers do not use voiceovers to explore character motivation or even irony – instead they use it as an expositional tool to basically tell us WHY events are happening or even what will come next. As a result, the story can feel flat and lifeless.
So every time you’re tempted to use voiceover, ask yourself: does my character NEED this element? Or am I using it because it is easier? Here’s a recent video where I talk in more detail about this.
Lots of writers attempt to use flashback and don’t understand it when readers don’t understand them. The reason for this I find is because the writer has not, what I call, “restructured their structure”.
Flashbacks need to have some kind of discernible pattern and logic for their placing within the overarching narrative, else they will seem disjointed and the story ultimately won’t make sense.
Two recommendations I make to my Bang2writers is they watch The Crow. Not because it’s an amazing film, but because it’s a very simple plot – in comparison to something like say, Memento, which *can* bamboozle people.
The Crow’s main plot of course follows Eric Draven out of the grave and into a dark metropolis where he avanges his and his fiancee’s murder. The sub plot then is very simple, flashing back first to how happy they had been and then to what happened to them that fateful night.
Though fragmented, if you actually stick the flashbacks together in the order they play out in the movie, you have a completely coherent narrative all on its own. Don’t believe me? Then check this out (thanks someone on YouTube!).
Flashbacks follow the rules of storytelling every bit as much as the main plot – or should do. Stick ’em in where you feel like it and you’re bound to be met with confusion. The Bourne Supremacy does the same as The Crow as Jason Bourne recalls his assassination of the diplomat in that Berlin hotel.
Of course, not all flashbacks tell *complete* stories in such a linear fashion as The Crow and The Bourne Supremacy, but they DO all have their own kind of logic. Without re-structuring your structure then, you cannot make that logic obvious.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective may not be your cup of tea; its kind of madness and daft humour is not for everyone, plus its particular brand of humour has dated HORRIBLY (especially *that* ending … holy crap! Transphobic much??).
However, like many 90s comedy movies, it has a very obvious montage sequence. In it, Ace Ventura must track down a footballer via the ring he would have been given for the championship. Ace is a detective, this is literally part of his investigation – he must find the ring that is a missing a stone. To do that, it is a process of elimination. There’s quite a few people in a football team, so finding all the WRONG guys would be dull. So they compress them all together in a montage.
In other words, a good montage has a PLOTTING function. It contributes to pushing the story forward in some way. Yet in so many of the scripts I see montages just seem to be a series of images, in sequence: characters will be eating their dinner or having showers typically, though I’ve also seen them delivering packages etc in a way that could be cut and literally no one would notice.
So why have a montage? Tell a story with your montage, thus push the whole story on.
Intercut is not the same as flashback. The reason scribes can get confused is because little “pieces” of flashback are sometimes inserted into scenes to remind us of who a character is or what has happened previously.
Back to The Crow (which if you recall, also uses flashback, the two are frequently used together, hence scribes’ confusion).
When Eric breaks into Gideon’s Pawn Shop to search for his fiancee’s engagement ring. He has both a flashback in this scene when he recalls his finacee finding the ring, but one of those little “reminders” is intercut to remind us who the character Funboy is. In other words then, an intercut like this is a TOOL for the audience, an expositional “anchor” if you will.
The reason we know this part of the sequence then is an intercut is because Funboy is seen from Shelley’s POV in that fragment, not Eric’s. We see Funboy because out of the gang, it is this guy Eric will focus on and kill next – thus the story is pushed on and the use of the device is justified.
Apart from those instances of intercut-as-reminder then, intercut is mostly used during phone calls where the writer wants to show both sides of the call. Very straight forward and means you don’t have to keep writing millions of sluglines which make the page look messy.
I really cannot imagine why this device would be “frowned on”, but perhaps it’s because some phone calls go on for pages and pages in spec scripts (never a great idea) or because the narrative overly relies on phone calls to keep it going. Whatever the case, moderation is always key.
5) Dream Sequence
I don’t see many dream sequences in the specs I read and this consistently surprises me. I think a good dream sequence can do wonders for a narrative, especially if they give us a sense of ‘unstable space’ or surprise. Yet when I do read dream sequences in spec screenplays, they’re often very literal dreams – eg. characters will wake up after a lovely dream on a tropical island, only to have to go to work.
There is a reason horrors and thrillers (especially those bordering on the supernatural) use dream sequence more than your dramas or comedies. It’s because dream sequence offers a fantastic basis in horror and thriller for shock value. Dreams often start of perfectly natural in these sequences, as if it’s “reality” within that film: then suddenly WHAM! There is murder, mayhem or something even more shocking and/or disgusting.
That is the primary purpose of the dream sequence – give us something we do not expect (it doesn’t have to be scary either if you’re in a genre that ISN’T horror or thriller remember). ‘They’ say you should never start with dream sequence … BUT you can, IF you nail it – like The Babadook, which manages to freak us out with something unexpected AND give us some important character information in one fell swoop, within SECONDS of the movie starting. WOW!
Dream sequence should gives us important hints about the character’s motivations. Two of the most famous cinematic dream sequences have to be The Monster Nazis with Guns scene in American Werewolf In London, plus of course Ripley’s chest burst in Aliens:
- In the first, American Werewolf’s focus is on his family in his dreams, not to mention his fears for them if he was to return home – feeding into the fact that he DOESN’T and dies in London (but not before phoning home to say goodbye!).
- Ripley’s dream chestburst in Aliens portrays her post-traumatic stress at her initial brush with the Alien in the first movie, asking us to believe she is facing her fears head-on by returning.
What Writers Can Do
So, in real terms, if you WANT to use a device like this? Please do. Just make sure you have:
- Done your research
- Know HOW to use them
- Ensure it’s JUSTIFIED in your story
Good luck with yours … and make sure you NAIL IT!
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