Monday, April 16, 2007


I've been away for a long time. I've been busy. Heydon Park, if you still exist, this one's for you.

Heydon Park writes... "What do you think of flashbacks? Some readers say they hate them and dump a script soon as they see one, others say they are acceptable depending on the story. Same for Voice Overs. I'm not taking a poll or anything but reading your posts, you seem to have some genuine insight that's not been twisted out of shape by cynicism and bitterness. And that seems to make you a rare reader indeed. thx, heydon park"

Years ago I was sitting next to a playwright named Lanford Wilson taking a playwriting class at a theater that has since gone bankrupt. When one of the students asked Lanford what he thought of using imagery in a stage play the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright said rather disgruntledly, "Imagery? Fuck imagery. It doesn't get you anywhere..." Then he added, a bit more glowingly, "...Unless you're going somewhere."

I think much the same can be said for both flashbacks and voice overs. They have to be taking you somewhere. They need to follow their own specific trajectory and have not only a solid beginning, middle and end, but also be intricately connected and provide insight into the growth of your main character as well as illuminate theme. The rule I heard years ago, and have found to be true, is when considering the voice over or flashbacks in a script you must ask yourself not only if the story can still stand on its own if they were pulled out, but what emotional, structural or thematic layers would be lost by their removal.

Two Kevin Spacey movies pop into mind. American Beauty and The Usual Suspects. Both heavily employ the use of flashbacks and voice over to tell their narrative. In both movies both techniques work incredibly well. Why is that? Because both the techniques in those movies tie directly into the major dramatic question of each movie. And they directly relate to the objectives and thematic state of each of the main characters. In Suspects, the flashback is a fable constructed by the main character in order to get away from the police. But what makes it thoroughly integrated is that the fable is created from elements in the cop's office in the present day storyline. And the flashback itself, like the persona of the main character, turned out to be an elaborate fantasy, leading us to a thoroughly enjoyable ending reveal of both objective and theme. In American Beauty, much like in Sunset Boulevard, voice over is used as a bookend to establish a flashback that tells us the story of how our main character has wound up dead. In the telling, we not only find out about how he died, but we're shown through the main characters interactions with other characters how he neglected to connect with others emotionally and live a full life. So the voice over and flashback in this story tie not only into the major dramatic question, but also the thematic through line of the piece.

Look, readers hate voice over and flashbacks because novice writers tend to rely on their use as a gimmick, or a slight of hand that does its best to distract the reader from the fact that the story itself is barely there. Readers are jaded from being duped so much by promising but ultimately poorly integrated flashback and voice over techniques. (See my first blog entry about starting with a dream. For the reader, it's pretty much the same key into the level of writing you're about to encounter.) Because you are going to be up against such jaded readers, you have the responsibility to not let them down. You, as a writer, have to honestly ask yourself if the techniques you are using are both furthering the story and adding an emotionally satisfying layer.

Be honest with yourself... When your voice over starts reading like the internal monologue of a character from a novel, it's crap screenwriting... If you're using voice over to comment on your main character's emotional state, and avoiding having your main character reveal character through his actions, choices, and interactions with others while pursuing his objective then it's crap screenwriting... If you're flashing back to a section of the main character's past that doesn't have anything to do with furthering his objective, then it's crap screenwriting... If you have to ask whether or not to keep your voice over and flashbacks, you probably already know the answer. Ask yourself honestly if you can remove the techniques from your story and still have your script pack the same emotional and structural heft... Remember, a reader really wants nothing more than to be able to fully invest in your script. If you knowingly use either of these techniques without doing them to the best of your ability, then you're just going to alienate the reader.

Whether it's voice over, flashbacks, or any of the other myriad of techniques you're debating using, just remember... it's not that you can't use them. It's just that you can't use them badly. Don't let anybody tell you differently.