Screenwriting : When is it okay to use flashbacks and voiceovers in a screenplay? by Donna - Marie

Donna - Marie

When is it okay to use flashbacks and voiceovers in a screenplay?

I’ll always remember my lecturer from my screenwriting MA saying that novice screenwriters should avoid using flashbacks and voiceovers. She suggested screenwriters, who are new to the craft, often struggle to leave backstory out of the narrative. In their attempts to communicate the inner thoughts and past torments of their characters, new screenwriters would employ VO and FB as a plot device (lazy screenwriting). I also remember my lecturer advising the class that we could employ these tools if they were used as a stylistic element of the narrative. Films such as ‘Memento’ and ‘Citizen Kane’ illustrate how flashbacks can be used as a form to enhance a narrative. ‘Orange Is The New Black’ is a fabulous example of how flashbacks can and should be used. Research carried out for a project I am working on, revealed to me that prisoners often experience vivid dream states of their everyday lives whilst they are incarcerated. They are often shocked and disappointed when they awake and orientate themselves to their prison surroundings. The use of FB in OITNB adds another layer to the narrative. For OITNB, FB’s are a plausible way to add dimension to the characters by allowing the audience to gain insight to the characters backstories; a great stylistic element which separates OITNB from other inmate series. Films like limitless, for me, are an example of how not to use VO. The VO tool is used when the writer cannot think of another way for his lead character to off load some exposition which the writer thinks is integral to the plot, and considers the audience too uneducated to figure out the plot or the character motivations for his actions. If the latter two problems exist in a screenplay, it is because the writer has not done their job in executing a well written draft; they should revisit the script and play about with different solutions; employ a script doctor who may help them find an alternative; or set up a workshop with other writers. Another piece of advice my lecturer taught us, ‘was to ignore the rules of screenwriting, once we knew and understood them’. Donna – Marie Dowe MA Screenwriter/consultant www.turnanewpage.com

Beth Fox Heisinger

Like all tools available to the screenwriter, their use all depends on the story. Or, rather, how best to tell that story, to construct it. Voiceovers and flashbacks are tools that should be used sparingly. And if you do, use them smartly and uniquely. Their past overuse has made them prosaic. The only film that I truly enjoyed VO was in "The Princess Bride." Listening to Peter Falk read a story to young Fred Savage, and to all of us -- pure joy. :)

Donna - Marie

@Beth. Lol. The wonder years right?

Mark Souza

Use them when they will make the story stronger, or when there is no other way. I guess you could say that of all techniques.

Marvin Willson

It's recognized as a rookie cliche. Not to say it has not worked, but it is a bugbear of a lot of readers/producers

Robert Hadley

It's only to be used if you have no other way to to push the story forward. When you use it though you have to make sure it works in the story. If it doesn't work; you will kill your story.

Donna M. Carbone

I believe the rules are made to be broken. Some of my screenplays contain not one flashback. Others pivot on flashbacks. I tell my students to write... worry about what's useable and what's not later. Of course, my class is different from a normal teacher/student environment. We're more a think tank where every week pages are read and to some degree performed so that the writer can hear/see his/her characters in action.

Chuck Dudley

When is it okay to use reds and greens in a painting? A good writer can have an entire story told in flashbacks and voice overs. A good story is a good story. It just so happens many first time writers overuse the technique -- like first time painters using too many colors.

Antoine Mellinger

Just watched "The Book Thief" and it was amazing. Excellent cinematography, moving music and overall a great story... And then the stupid VO always showed up at the best moments to ruin everything. Just wish they had realized that John William's score tells more of a story than any VO they could have made. I would advise against the "All screenwriting rules are meant to be broken" kind of thinking. How many successful movies had you ever seen that have followed this recipe? I believe that rules and structure make for the best work. Creativity is the way to transcend established boundaries while still adhering to them. Even notable films like Memento, Pulp Fiction or Irreversible that seem to break rules still follow closely all structure rules, except for the temporal narrative structure.

Robert Hadley

Antoine well said. Most people don't understand that or get it. When you try and change something that has been around since the beginning of storytelling you are bound to fail. I don't understand these new "screenwriters" that think they can come in and beak the rules or change them. Part of the problem is you have this trend of people who are giving out screenwriting advise and have never even sold or even optioned out a screenplay. The independent world is filled with really bad scripts as the base of their film, because people thought they could break the structure. Or some never even new it in the first place.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, I don't think there are exact "rules" in screenwriting, more like heavily suggested "guidelines." ;)

Robert Hadley

I think the words rules and structure are interchanged. It's more structure than rules.

Beth Fox Heisinger

I was making a joke... :) Rules and structure certainly are two different things. Structure is more about building a complex system; and rules is more about a code of regulations. As you pointed out, Robert, structure seems far more an appropriate term when talking about screenwriting. :)

Marvin Willson

Antoine, Robert is right. Beware of the words "rules are meant to be broken".

Antoine Mellinger

Rules, guidelines, restrictions, framework, etc... call it whatever you want to call it, in the end we are talking about the same thing :) Some people do get away without respecting them, however there is also a set of rules for not respecting them :D Take David Lynch's Mulholland Drive; it's quite all over the place. It works because Lynch is a film veteran who has cultivated a style over the course of his career and the film is understood within the artistic framework Lynch has established in the past. It works because the film is made for the artsy-fartsy LA/NY crowd made of ultimate art hipsters who glorify him even though they all come up with a different explanation as to what the film means. It works because the screenplay is written by the director who ultimately shoots the film; he is not trying to sell a screenplay, he is writing his own art film. Now I'm pretty sure you go show that film in a mall in the middle of the US people will leave the theatre and say they don't understand what hell the movie means. And the same goes for other rule-breaking directors like Lars Von Trier or Terrence Malick; they write their own artsy style of movies for a posh intellectual niche market. But as a screenwriter you will NOT sell a screenplay like that because the handful of directors that can make those films will write their own anyway. I don't think people really mean to break the rules when they say that, it is probably another way to tell them "be original". So yes, be original but stick to the structure because it is necessary for other people to understand your script. And as far as writing goes scriptwriting is the most structure bound writing form. Everybody has great stories to tell but being a good screenwriter is knowing HOW to tell them.

Evan Marlowe

Well said. However. In light of such god-awful yet incredibly successful scripts as sharknado and man of steel, I'd submit that being a good screenwriter is not necessarily a step in the right direction.

Roy Lionheart

rules are meant to be broken or just twist them to your own desire. Right now I'm writing a short which consults of the main character being a bit insane. Where he believes that both realities are real.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Guys, catch phrases like "rules are meant to be broken" and/or "think outside the box" are such nonsense. Sorry, I worked in advertising for years. These phrases drive me crazy! Especially when applied to creative endeavors like screenwriting. Whatever "rules" or "box" you are trying to think around or break, the mere fact that you are considering them and are aware of them is NOT free thinking. In fact, those phrases usually mask a desire to return to conformity. I don't care how much you think you are "breaking rules" in screenwriting, you really aren't. Screenwriting has a structure. Storytelling has structure. There's always a beginning, middle and an end. Sure, use tools and elements differently, bend or flex structural points like Quinton Tarantino did with "Pulp Fiction." As an example, QT's film is structured with three distinct but interrelated storylines. Each of those individual stories follow storytelling structure. Where QT mixed it up was allowing those individual stories to intermix with each other creating an amazing nonlinear narrative story structure as a whole. Obviously, QT knows and understands structure extremely well. He did not "break the rules" but rather used structure to his advantage, presented structure in a different way. Even "Pulp Fiction" has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Robert Hadley

Well said Beth.

Donna - Marie

Guys, I hope my post was clear... when I mentioned breaking the rules; guidelines; whatever you choose to call it, what I meant by this is 'learn the craft of screenwriting; study the form and then, if you choose to, use which ever nuanced technique that is best suited to your style of writing and the genre of your project. My point is this: Once you are aware of the many elements, structure being one of them, which are needed to create a great screenplay then you can play around with them. Many film audiences will not forgive you if you offer them a genre piece and you have not conformed to any of the conventions (rules); however, if you present the conventions in a different way, you have offered a fresh take on this new genre and may even start a new trend. Or you can stick to classic screenwriting, you are the auteur, until the director gets his hands on it. LOL! Happy writing people!! :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

@Donna-Marie. The last sentence of your opening for this thread was, "Another piece of advice my lecturer taught us, ‘was to ignore the rules of screenwriting, once we knew and understood them’. Sorry, but that is horrible advice. Do that, and you'll never work in the industry. Period. There is a basic structure (rules) to storytelling that has been there since the beginning of time and will be there until the end of days. Like, having a protagonist(s), needing an inciting incident and breaking down the three acts.... Think of it like architecture. When designing a building you will always have to consider gravity, weight distribution, structural integrity, having a door, et cetera... And yet, there are countless styles of buildings. I totally get what your instructor was trying to say, but the choice of words was poor. I believe what's more constructive to talk about is developing one's own style, one's own voice. Study other writers, study structure, learn techniques and tools available to the writer; VO, OS, flashbacks, linear narrative, nonlinear, pacing, dialog, and on and on. NOT "ignore or break rules" but rather learn them well and become a great storyteller. Use what's known in a way that's unique to you. I mean, there's no one like Quinton Tarantino, right? :)

Robert Hadley

Beth, I love the fact that I'm not the only one that is so passionate on this subject :) Couldn't have said any of it better.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Hey thanks Robert. We all are artists, are we not?! Pioneers!!

Donna - Marie

@Beth, I agree with what you have said. This is the argument I am making. I refer to structure as an element, not a rule. I have not once said anything about not using a structure . Rules are more geared towards genres anyway. I have written many blogs in which I have always stated that, in my opinion, all the elements of a screenplay (character; theme, structure; plot; story world etc) need to be present to create a great script. Happy writing, and thanks for contributing to the debate!!!

Robert Hadley

@Donna how many screenplays have you sold or optioned?

Donna - Marie

@Robert One, and yourself? And why is that relevant?

Donna - Marie

I've written a post with good intentions, they are my opinions. Slate it, rate it; or hate it I really don't mind. :) :)

Robert Hadley

It's not important, the reason I ask is that there is a growing trend of people who are out there giving advise to people, but yet they have never even sold a script. Not saying that is what you are doing, but it has become a problem. The problem is that people who do not even know what sells, or how to break into Hollywood are giving people advise on how it's done. And a lot of theses people are advising people to ,cut your own path, or you can make your own rules. Giving them this false sense of reality, because they truly don't understand the craft of screenwriting.

Beth Fox Heisinger

@Donna-Marie. Yeah, great thread! However, we are getting into that territory where the meaning/use of words means something different to different people, and we'll go around and around... For example, to me, structure is structure -- not an element, not a rule. You then said, "Rules are more geared towards genres." Huh? I'm not sure what you mean? What rules? A genre is just a different class or category of film. Anyway, the troublesome word here is "R U L E." Man, avoid using it in creative discussions. It comes across far more restrictive than what's intended. Controlling. It invites argument. Getting back to my advertising days... Our creative director said, "If I hear one more client say they want to 'break the rules' or 'think out of the box' I'm gonna smack them across their patronizing faces with my keyboard!" You know, I think he meant it!

Donna - Marie

@Robert. It is my bug bear when people think that anyone can write. One of my screenplays took me two years to write. I have received favourable reports from the CWA and I am still unsatisfied with it. I respect the craft so much that I continue to take classes even post my MA. I guess in my first post I was speaking as a graduate and forgetting that not everyone has studied screenwriting; but, this is why I said 'learn the rules first'. If you are writing a narrative writers should think what genre the narrative belongs to, learn the rules and only then, they can decide if they want to bring something new to it. All the best!

Donna - Marie

@Beth Rule! Rule! Rule! Okay convention! :)

Donna - Marie

@Beth Yes genre is just a different type of film, but each genre comes with its own (rules) expectations which audiences will pay to see at a cinema.

Beth Fox Heisinger

@Donna-Marie. Wow...

Donna M. Carbone

I write according to this quote by Jack Epps (Top Gun/Dick Tracy) said, “If people try to write to marks, you’ll write a boring story because the best stories ‘happen’. They happen because the writer feels it, he writes on instinct, and his instincts are deep. Whether you have this happen on Page 25 or have this happen on Page 45, it just doesn’t matter. I don’t know a single professional writer that writes that way. One of the biggest arguments against the teachings of McKee, Syd Field, and other screenwriting gurus is that they’ve helped make storytelling too beholden to rules and structure.” It's important to know the basics but that doesn't mean to you can't try something different if it feels right.

Donna - Marie

@Beth. Okay

Robert Hadley

People don't write to pages or plot points huh? That's why you can watch a movie and 99% of the time. Go right to the 20 to 30 minute mark and it's at plot point I? If these guys, that are who Hollywood turns to, for structure are "beholden" people then a lot of those people who are beholden are selling a lot of screenplays, lol. You can write however you want, but it doesn't mean it will be any good or will ever sell it. For the record I never once heard anyone ever argue the teaching of Field, Mckee, or even Trottier.

Donna - Marie

@Beth@Robert. Thanks for the great discussion.:) :) I'd better get some work done now!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well said Robert!

Beth Fox Heisinger

I'm sorry, but arguing against the teachings of McKee and Syd Field is just not a good argument. Period. It's like arguing against the laws of physics. You know, like the existence of gravity.

Marvin Willson

Storytelling can be organic, but within a structure. I've read the Mckee's and Field's and all those in between, IMO some of it over-complicates story telling. But whatever you write there has to be one constant... EXECUTION. No story or rules can save a badly executed screenplay. 99.9999% of screenplay will never be made and poor execution is one of the main reasons why.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well said Marvin. Execution is key. And, great execution boils down to great talent. :)

Marvin Willson

It does indeed. Thanks for the compliment... LOL!!!

Beth Fox Heisinger

No problem, man! ;)

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