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.
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 the scripts I read, this is often because 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.
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.
So here’s a list of what I think are good examples of these devices and some 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?
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.
The Bourne Supremacy Plot (including info about the assassination flashbacks
Ace Ventura may not be your cup of tea; its kind of madness and daft humour is not for everyone. However this eight minute sequence contains a very clear montage. In order to not be killed by the deadly Wachootoo tribe, Ace must pass a series of tests, all more difficult than the last.
What I like about this montage is its function in the story is quite obvious – ie. if Ace doesn’t pass, then he dies and the story literally cannot continue. But instead of eking it out, they compress the events together. And that’s what a good montage SHOULD do I reckon: push the story forward in an economical way.
Yet in so many of the scripts I see montages 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 yet no one would notice.
So why have a montage? Tell a story with your montage, thus push the whole story on.
Watch the clip here.
My thoughts on montage
John August’s thoughts on montage
Danny Stack’s thoughts on montage
If you have a squizz at all the links above, you’ll see everyone has slightly differing views – however, the general rule of thumb appears to be the notion that montages need a specific purpose in the story and need to be as dramatic as possible too. As with everything, don’t stick ’em in because you feel like it (oo er).
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.
The Crow does this 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 “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. Watch the sequence here.
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 – yet writers often confess they think they’re a bit daft (perhaps this is down to Alice In Wonderland or Bobby Ewing’s death in Dallas?). When I do see dream sequence, I often wonder what the point of them are or they tell me what is going to happen next.
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).
The secondary purpose of the dream sequence gives us the character’s motivation again. For example, we see The American Werewolf’s family in his very famous dreams and 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.
American Werewolf in London Dream Sequence (sound not great on this one I’m afraid)
Any further suggestions? UPDATE: Oh, forgot to say – spoilers are welcome in the comments too given the nature of this discussion, but don’t forget to warn other readers on what you’re going to reveal.
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