Just Write The !&*>^% Script Without The Tricks! (Part 2)

By Mark Sevi • May 17, 2021

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Narrative Tricks. We continue with the second and final part of our series on misusing narrative tricks in your screenwriting. Your screenplay should work just as well without them.

1) Montages

A montage basically compresses time. That’s why it exists and that’s the only reason it should be put into any script.

A character needs to learn a skill like in The Karate Kid and the training montages give us the impression of months of training in a few minutes of screen time to make his eventual skill level plausible.

Two characters must fall in love quickly so a series of dates are shown where they become close to each other in the span of a few scenes. These are perfectly acceptable uses of montage. Necessary even in many cases.

Montage is not for lazy or impatient writing as I see a lot of people do. Why would you take a reader so completely out of a story by inserting an artificial writing construct like this unless it’s absolutely necessary? It’s like saying: Insert Action Scene Here instead of actually spending the time to write a solid action set piece. Don’t laugh – I have seen this.

Readers are like anyone else – they want to be entertained. Trust me when I say they don’t want shortcuts to solid drama or suspense. A montage is a great tool to use when appropriate, but I can count those times on a few fingers.

Spend a little brain time finding ways around a difficult sequence instead of tossing a technique like montage onto it.

2) Voice-overs

In a word, ugh. Not always but most of the time. It is a valid technique certainly, but I can list a ton of times where voice over is just being used for lazy and/or incompetent writing.

The quirky and compelling series The End of the F***ing World uses voice-over to introduce the character of James (Alex Lawther) who is pretty sure, as he narrates, that he’s a psychopath. He details why in a series of quick flashes and voice-over narrative. His love interest Alyssa (Jessica Barden) is introed in similar fashion. It works. We are brought into this weird and off-putting (and funny) world and characters quickly and it grabs and holds you.

In TEOTFW the characters are so unique their voices and outlooks needed extra help. Voice-over is also used here to create a bond with these sometimes unlikable and challenging characters so you better accept and understand them. Anyone who plans to murder his first crush needs all the help he can get.

Wayne, on the other hand is similar in tone and nature but goes the more traditional route with its characters Wayne (Mark McKenna) and Del (Ciara Bravo) showing us who they are without also telling us through tricksy writing.

Honestly, I like both shows equally. I do however believe that it would have been possible to make even the unique, funny TEOTFW without the voice-over.

Conclusions

Every screenwriter should feel free to explore their voice and the style of the property on which they’re working.

Using devices can help that exploration, but also hurt it. Leaning on “narrative tricks” as a crutch diminishes the strength of your storyline, reduces suspense, and causes odd gaps in what should be a seamless narrative thread. Also, you should learn to write a screenplay without these devices first then explore them after you’ve gained some skill and understanding of story. Too many times writers skew toward directing their work (not really your job and intrusive) and not just writing it.

Consider one of the most successful series of recent memory. Game of Thrones as far as I can remember has little or no story games. There may have been a prophetic dream or vision or two, but that’s consistent with the world that George R. R. Martin created of which magic is a fully-installed part. The overwhelming majority of scenes over eight seasons (60 episodes) is just multiple stories told well.

Chinatown, a true masterpiece of cinema is straight-forward in all ways. Told in a narrative that never jumps around, we follow Jake Gittes exclusively (no cut-aways) which in and of itself bolsters just how powerful the writing is.

Academy Award-winning Green Book is straight ahead except for a small flash-forward in the very beginning. Another Oscar-winner Moonlight – well, you hopefully get my point by now. Or wait – let me do a dream sequence to further explain it.

The final point I want to make about this, and it’s a big one, is it’s so much harder to follow something in a screenplay than on the screen. Everything I’ve talked about here is based on the visual presentations of the work not really the script. In other words, we’re watching it. Sending a cut up, montage-filled, fantasy-sequence-laden script to a reader is inviting them to put it down. We want to engage at an emotional level that doesn’t invite someone to toss your script on the “no thanks” pile.

Work harder to make your stories, TV or movie, a strong, smooth, and connective piece without resorting to devices that actually weaken your narrative threads.

Mark Sevi

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