Thursday, 23 October 2008


Imagine a flashy, trashy TV series. Something like 'Miami Vice'.

Our two leads work for Lieutenant By-the-Book. They are Flashback and his colleague, Voiceover.

Flashback was probably in 'Nam, where he caught the dreaded VFS (Vietnam Flashback Syndrome) disease. That, or he saw his wife murdered. Or - well, you know the sort of thing: a trauma that just won't go away.

Voiceover is a smartass with a personality disorder. He has a compulsive need to narrate his own story, to tell himself, and anyone else who'll listen, what's going on.

What adventures these two could have! Voiceover could tell us precisely what he's thinking and doing while Flashback is continually reminded of something that happened in the past. One stays cool while the other goes bonkers - but it all works out right in the end. Voiceover can tell us what he and Flashback have learnt from the experience, while Flashback rearranges his memories so that they don't keep jumping up and biting him on the bum. And they'll both have a wry laugh with By-the-Book, who just ten minutes earlier was about to fire them.

What a pile of faeces.

They'll probably commission it.

Flackback and Voice Over (V.O.) are two of the budding screenwriters most familiar allies. And, if you want my advice, you'll steer well clear of them both. Because they're idiots.

Scripts convey information. Two kinds of information. They tell us what we see and what we hear. This information is presented in the present tense. The script tells us what the characters are doing and what they are saying to each other.

Flashback and Voice Over are attempts at presenting information that, in reality, we are able neither to see nor to hear. Both take us inside the head of a character. With Flashback we are given a privileged glimpse of a character's memories. With V.O. we hear the character's thoughts.

Apart from the fact that both are unrealistic, they both tend to be used for the wrong reasons. Flashback is often deployed by the writer to break up a dull part of the script (no script should have dull bits!) and to hint at an on-going build-up of tension. Voice Over is resorted to so that a) the plot will make sense, and b) the audience will identify with a particular character.

Neither is necessary.

Flashback can be used as a structural device. Some of my favourite films start with the death of the main character and then go back to tell the story of his life. That's fine.

And there's a clever way of using Voice Over to make smooth transitions between scenes (effectively, making the soundtrack cut at a different moment from the visual edit, so that the dialogue from one scene can run over or anticipate the start of the next scene). And that's fine.

But otherwise, I almost always feel that the writer has plumped for using Flashback or Voice Over, not because they should, but because they can.

Let this be a warning to all beginners: KEEP AWAY FROM THE EFFECTS PEDALS!

Flashback and Voice Over are easy options. They're often used as if they were a natural addition of the screenwriters palette. But they're not. They're cheap tricks. And I've hardly ever come across a script that would not benefit from being rewritten without them.

Try writing your script without indulging in these fancy practices. Try writing it straight - just what we see and what we hear - as if the camera just happened to be there to capture the action.

You know, before he wandered off into Cubism and started painting women with their eyes in the wrong places, Picasso really could paint a perfectly representational scene. He did what every artist should do: start by learning how it's done before you try breaking the rules.

Start by mastering the straightforward, linear narrative before you get the toy-box out. Try it. If you can tell your story without using Flashback and Voice Over, then they were never needed in the first place.

Chances are, your script will work a lot better without them.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I have written about 6 spec screenplays so far and only ONE of them has Flashbacks/VO, but I can justify why they're there in the first place.

I try to avoid them, though.

Blackbeard said...

I found myself surfing the web, and came upon a blog post by some douche who portends to understand script writing. He was snarky and droll and entirely typical. It was just like that time I . . .

melaniehaynes1 said...

Good to know about Flashback.
Voice Over Talent covers many fields. It is a fast-growing market to explore which can offer huge opportunities. Written language no longer stands alone, image and sound have become essential with regard to getting messages across to the audience. It sounds really exciting, doesn't it?

Michelle Pearson said...

Good to know about Flashback and Voice Over. I didn't expect that they are two of the budding screenwriters most familiar allies...
Can flashback be used to increase Professional Voiceover Talent?