Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Flashback Voiceover Montage Dream Sequence

Why do overused screenplay devices get so much hate, when badly-written "ordinary" screenwriting is done just as badly, just as frequently? Probably because they're so easy to identify as a Thing Been Done Wrong. Voiceovers, montages, and flashbacks seems to get the brunt of the hate, as they're the most general screenplay devices.

There's two problems with this. One is the generalization that these devices are Always Bad and To Be Avoided, Because Readers Will Automatically Pass If Your Script Has Them. (Then come the inevitable counter-examples of huge, famous award-winning films that are chock-full of these "bad" devices. This of course is the Law of Screenwriting Rules, which is that the only true rules are the ones you can't get away with breaking.)

A subspecies of Always Bad syndrome is the They Are Harder To Do Well disease than "regular" screenwriting. This is horseshit. All screenwriting is hard to do well. Writing a scene between two people standing on a street is hard to do well. Montages, flashbacks, and voiceovers are extremely standard writing devices; they, I believe, are part of the basic lexicon of cinematic speech. Yes, there are certain things which really are harder to do well; interwoven dialogue like David Mamet wrote in Wag the Dog, that's harder to do well than ordinary dialogue. But a montage? A flashback? Voiceover? Come on. There's no significant difference in difficulty between writing a good montage and writing a good dialogue scene.

The second problem is that focusing ire on particularly misused writing devices does a disservice to the writer, because instead of identifying systemic problems with their writing, it puts all the attention on how their writing problems have been used in one particular instance, giving the impression that the real problem is that you used a montage here, not that your writing is (e.g.) generally dull and undramatic. How frequently does this happen:

Joe Writer: So what do you think of my script?
Bob Executive: It's great! We love it. Dialogue is great, characterization is great, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, couldn't put it down. Only one thing. Your flashback sequences suck more than a hooker at a vacuum cleaner convention.

A good screenplay with a bad montage can happen, of course, but it's not because the writer used a montage. Any screenplay element can be done badly in an otherwise good screenplay: a montage, an exchange of dialogue, pacing in a given scene or sequence, whatever. You can argue that these devices are often used when they shouldn't be, when there's no reason to use them other than that the writer thought it would be nifty. But that happens with everything. A scene might be unnecessary or just the wrong focus at the wrong time. A line of dialogue might be completely extraneous, providing neither a laugh, plot propulsion, or insight into a character. The "best buddy" character might be a pointless dipshit. But none of this means we should be especially wary of, or avoid using, scenes, dialogue, or characters.