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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good Examples: Voiceover, Flashback, Montage, Intercut, Dream Sequence

WARNING: Spoilers

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?

Why Robert McKee is Wrong About Voiceover

5 Defences of the voiceover

Voiceover defined and explored

A film theory essay about voiceover, including some examples of films with voiceover


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 Tragedy of Eric And Shelley

The Bourne Supremacy Plot (including info about the assassination flashbacks

Bourne Supremacy Script [PDF]

A look at flashback
on The Guardian’s blog.


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.

How to show intercuts between phone calls, etc

John August’s thoughts on Intercut


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 - 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 is 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)

Ripley’s chestburst in Aliens
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.


John Soanes said...

Off the top of my (questionable) haircut:

Voiceover - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (all of it)
Flashback - Citizen Kane (a cheat answer, perhaps, but still...) / Casino Royale (opening a film with a flashback within a flashback? No wonder people liked the script for Mr Craig's first 007 film) / Airplane (seriously)
Montage - Team America: World Police (and a song about it too)
Intercut - Silence Of The Lambs (doorbell/SWAT team)
Dream Sequence - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (or the series - the dreams affect events).

(Spoiler alert) A VERY BAD dream sequence is in the Nicolas Cage film 'Next'. Basically they pretty much fall back on the 'it was all a dream' thing, which shocked and startled me. I was told off for that at junior school...

Lucy V said...

"It's all a dream"/"it's all in the protag's mind" etc is overused, but it CAN work well I think if done well... ANGEL HEART made great use of this (or DID IT??) as did the adaptation of AMERICAN PSYCHO I thought, probably because they were both quite ambiguous. If a writer uses it as a "get out of jail free" card then that only leads to audience dissatisfaction I think.

Scaramanga said...

"just because you can use a device, doesn't always mean you should."

I agree , as long as it serves the story and there is a valid reason for having it then it's ok to use any of those devices. but not just using it for the sake of it.

Out of interest, would Momento be considered a whole film in flashback?

I watched that again the other day, and that film is genius.

Lucy V said...

Good question CW - though I would say it was more a case of clever restructuring, as opposed to flashback, for the main plot ("John g") is told backwards, the sub plot "Sammy Jankis") is told forwards, paid off around the second plot point before the resolution with NEVER ANSWER THE PHONE.

but this is what I mean with "restructuring structure" - what appears random and disjointed is actually super structured.

Oli said...

About half and hour of Romey and Michelle's High School Reunion is a dream sequence, which kind of threw me as I wasn't expecting it to do anything remotely clever.

I hate hate hate the dream sequence in Scream 3, because dream sequences are not a part of the 'vocabulary' of the first two Scream movies, so it feels totally wrong in there. Plus, it's a rubbish dream on its own terms.

Lucy V said...

Franchises can impose their own "rules" and audience expectations... Aliens was the only one that had a dream sequence out of the four though and it didn't seem "wrong": I know what you what mean, though (I haven't seen Scream 3 or 2).

Scaramanga said...

I agree. Momento is brilliant because you dont notice that it is "super structured".

Im using the "" again. I promised myself I would stop....

Good choice of dream sequence. American Warewolf in London is a classic.

John Soanes said...

Agree completely about Memento -the way the sequences run contrary to each other like music is quite startling. And, from the same stable, Batman Begins has good use of flashbacks.

I don't mind 'it was all in his head' or a dream if it has some actual impact on events as presented in the story, but if they're just there to ... I dunno, fill up screen time, I'm not so keen. I seem to recall Wes Craven saying the studio insisted he insert a dream sequence into 'The Serpent and The Rainbow' because of his previous successful films featuring dreams, which sounds rather unnecessary.
Fight Club uses some of the techniques you mention well, Lucy, but I won't say which for fear of spoiling a good film (no such fear with my previous comment re 'Next', though)!

Chip Smith said...

On the Batman Begins theme, The Prestige is a complete smorgasboard of flashback, as is Following, which is well worth a look. Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film that plays enitrely in flashback as well.

Full Metal Jacket has a very selective use of voiceover, and it's used at points in the story to demarcate act breaks. And if it was good enoguh for Kubrick, it's good enough for the rest of us, I reckon.

On reflection, perhaps Fight Club had too much voiceover - or what about Blade Runner as another example? Good or bad? Hmmm...

Lucy V said...

It's obviously a compulsion CW, don't fight it... I recall the first time I saw those dream sequences, I was still a child both times and I was SO FRIGHTENED by both, especial AWIL. My Mum found out I'd watched it on the sly aged about 11 and I was SO GROUNDED.

John, everyone seems to like Fight Club but I don't remember a thing about it, weirdly. Batman Begins was alright, but I didn't think its flashbacks were dramatic enough.

Chip - not keen on the Bladerunner VO myself...

Scaramanga said...

The most terrifying dream sequence for me as a child was the nightmare on elm street one with the girl in the body bag.

I was about 7 and absolutely..well I was scared.

Didnt get grounded though. My parents were either cool or dumb.

It will be interesting to see how Wes Craven will handle the dream sequences for his re-imagination of the original ANOES.

I wonder if he will try and use them in a different way seeing as it's over 20 years since it was released.

Jaded and Cynical said...

Agree with all of that. The issue is not the device itself, but how it's used.

I loved the voiceover in Dexter, for example, because it brought us into the world of a character we'd otherwise struggle to understand.

But the portentous, pseudo-mystical crap at the start of shows like Heroes and The Sarah Connor Chronicles adds nothing.

evil twinz said...

Lucy I'm baaaaack! Ah, Leicester - my favourite place. Not. Tell me when I can earn enough to live in the South West again??? Also, I would like to tell you that my esteemed twin dropped a log in the bathroom earlier and then went on a 12 hour shift, talk about a welcome home... Lol. And we're out of milk and bread. GIT!

I don't understand why everyone likes HEROES. And LOST. And anything much actually, are we in a time for the worst TV EVER? Reason I ask is nowadays my leisure time is v important to me (I don't get enuff) but every time I sit down I am disappointed.

Except when it's CSI time. Like you, I can't get enough of it but that's more to do with Catherine aka MILF...

Thanks for having me by the way. Again. I promise I will tell you I'm dropping by on my way to Soton next time... Yeah right.

Adaddinsane said...

Here's an unusual dream sequence: In True Lies when Arnie's character is driving the used car salesman, and punches him out ... totally unexpected.

And then we find Arnie was just imagining it, because that's what he really wants to do.

There's no indication you've moved into the dream (daydream in this case) only when it stops do you realise.

Lucy V said...

CW, didn't realise Nightmare on Elm St was being remade, I must've been hiding under a rock or something... I don't think it will be as scary this time around, those 70s/early 80s movies had the advantage that weird dream-like quality (regardless of actual dream sequences I thought), maybe because nothing like them had been done before and in this day and age that is lost.

J&C and ET: I'm not keen on the likes of Heroes as you know, but I wouldn't say ET that I'm "consistently disappointed" by US TV at the moment... Having said that, thinking about it I ONLY watch crime shows which the US has always excelled at, so the likelihood is my perception is skewed there.

Steve - that's an excellent example, especially since it's not a horror one and shows that you don't HAVE to be scary. Ally McBeal in its early years showed how well comedy dream sequence can work I think.

And ET - send us a text next time yeah?? Esp if you want to dob Mike in for being gross! Thanks!

will said...

People who don't like voiceovers would absolutely hate The Thin Red Line which uses about 5 of the things.

One that can be slightly confusing is the begining of Serenity. Which turns out to be a dream within a flashback/intercut.

Anonymous said...

I'm sad that I didn't came across this article sooner... like two years ago, LOL. It's extremely insightful, and anyone who's seen "Inception" (which really should be just about EVERYONE by now) can probably better relate to what you're saying- even if they, too, are among the majority who generally frown upon flashback/ dream sequence type plot devices. Inception literally uses ALL of the devices you've covered, but in a way that nobody will ever be able to accuse of being "lazy". While the film was extremely complex and difficult to follow with an open-ended closing scene that made many of our heads hurt, it was also that much more compelling and effective in telling a story that both DEFINES and DEFIES time, space, and perception altogether. Between that and the controversial conclusion to "Lost" earlier this year, I think screenwriters will be taking a step back and re-examining their own creative guidelines and taboos.

You're absolutely right to say that voice-overs, flashbacks, dream sequences, etc. all have their place and really shouldn't be used outside of it. All too often the writer uses any one of these in an attempt to force the plot forward or add depth to a thread-bare storyline, which 99.9% of the time just DOES NOT WORK. There HAS to be a legitimate need for it to work. When called for and used properly, these devices can take a decent story to a whole new level.

I've been working on a YA novel called "The Other Side of the Pillow" for a little over a year now in which the entire premise of the story is the main character's struggle to escape a dream she can't wake up from. It's not an original storyline by any stretch of the imagination, but in this day and age no storyline is. It's all about HOW you tell the story, and for this piece I'm as confident now as I was when I started writing it about shifting between time and place, linear and non-linear perspectives, reality and surreality to tell a story that will hopefully leave readers thinking and wondering. Was it really just a dream, did she make it out alive, or was this really just the story of one troubled girl's final flashes of life passing before her eyes as she died? For this story to work I'm not sure there's any other way to tell it even if I wanted to, because the story itself is based entirely in dreams, memories and misconceptions.

Someone else here also mentioned "Heroes", which I'm inclined to agree is a perfect example of device-dependent writing at it's worst. Like Lost and Inception, the writers of Heroes used every last one of the techniques discussed here and for a while it worked very well for them. As time passed, however, the story began to take on so many fantastical elements that it became completely dependent on them and lost sight of the characters and story itself. Plot-holes began to emerge and there was no way to close them all without creating more holes somewhere else... until the story finally just collapsed upon itself under the weight of it's own absurdity.

I was a huge fan of Heroes once. That ended when Season 1 did.

Lucy V said...

Hi Angel, glad you liked the post - better late than never!

I haven't watched INCEPTION so I couldn't really say, sorry! ; ) Thought Lost and Heroes was a bunch of slimey pants from the beginning tho... The former lacked forward-looking momentum for me and shrouded everything in mystery for the sake of it, which frustrated me greatly; the latter was filled with such bone-crunchingly expositional dialogue - "Your husband, my son" - it gave me the RAGE. Lol

William Gallagher said...

I would offer that it's not a dream sequence that needs to be good to work, it's the exit from that dream: I don't believe I've ever seen a film where I didn't feel cheated when the character woke up and everything was alright again.

In some ways the greater the shocks in the dream, the more total the let down the exit. It tells me, it shouts at me, that the story is not going to do anything that dramatic to the character in "real life", so to speak.

Interestingly, to me anyway, Caprica opened up its second batch of episodes with a genuinely powerful and shocking incident, strong enough that I thought yes, the show is fixed. But it was yet another of that series's virtual reality sequences and, moreover, we learned we were being shown it by a particular character. Now, given which character and what she was attempting to do, the dream/virtual reality we saw didn't ring true: she would not tell that story that way.

So I came out of this opening minute bummed that it was another empty moment and also certain that the writers/producers were not connecting with their own characters. They did a strong thing solely because they could and they wanted a strong thing, but it was handled badly twice over.

I honestly knew at that moment that Caprica was going to be cancelled and it was.