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How To Use Plot Devices – Voiceover, Flashback, Montage, Intercut and Dream Sequence


Plot Devices With A Bad Name …

There are lots of plot devices in scriptwriting we hear are “frowned on”. We shouldn’t use voiceover or flashback is the usual (or voiceover WITH flashback!). I’ve also heard montage maligned in a similar fashion, as well as intercut and dream sequence.

This is a load of rot as far as I’m concerned. You can use what you like. These accusations we see levied like “flashback is a lazy way of telling a story” is just another generalisation. Flashback can be an amazingly dramatic way to tell a story.

… For A REASON!!

I think the reason however these devices end up “frowned on” is because writers don’t always use them in a dramatic enough fashion.

In short, they simply don’t know HOW to use plot devices properly. The writer doesn’t know how dramatic a good voiceover, flashback, montage, intercut or dream sequence CAN be. Perhaps they’ve not noticed them in the films they’ve watched; or they’re trying them out for the first time. They have undoubtedly not done enough RESEARCH.

Other times the story they are telling just doesn’t warrant using plot devices. After all, just because you could use plot devices, doesn’t always mean you should. Below is a list of what I think are good examples of these devices, plus links to articles to go with them, as well as video.

Remember: you might not like the entire movie, these are just examples to help people clarify WHAT the plot devices are; HOW they can be used and WHY. Let’s go …

FIGHT CLUB is a cult movie with a voiceover

1) Voiceover

Voiceover is most associated with the film noir genre and why it should be considered “lazy” is just beyond me. A good voiceover may give us insight into a character’s motivations, or it may signpost important plotting information, or both. This is a good thing.

So why is it so maligned? Well, Robert McKee of course: he goes to great pains to tell us why we shouldn’t use it in his book Story and he is even portrayed by Brian Cox in Adaptation telling us the same.

This one-size-fits-all idea seems daft to me, but as a reader I can understand how it has come about. Most spec writers do not use voiceovers to explore character motivation or even irony – instead they use it as an expositional tool to basically tell us WHY events are happening or even what will come next. As a result, the story can feel flat and lifeless.

So every time you’re tempted to use voiceover, ask yourself: does my character NEED this element? Or am I using it because it is easier?

2) Flashback

Lots of writers attempt to use devices like flashback and don’t understand it when readers don’t understand them. The reason for this I find is because the writer has not, what I call, “restructured their structure”.

Flashbacks need to have some kind of discernible pattern and logic for their placing within the overarching narrative, else they will seem disjointed and the story ultimately won’t make sense.

The Crow

One recommendation I make to my Bang2writers is they watch The Crow. Not because it’s an amazing film, but because it’s a very simple plot in comparison to say, Memento, which *can* bamboozle people.

The Crow’s main plot of course follows Eric Draven out of the grave and into a dark metropolis where he avenges his and his fiancee’s murder. The sub plot then is very simple, flashing back first to how happy they had been and then to what happened to them that fateful night.

Though fragmented, if you actually stick the flashbacks together in the order they play out in the movie, you have a completely coherent narrative all on its own. Don’t believe me? Then check this out (thanks someone on YouTube!).

The Bourne Supremacy

Flashbacks follow the rules of storytelling every bit as much as the main plot – or should do. Stick ’em in where you feel like it and you’re bound to be met with confusion.

If you want another example, The Bourne Supremacy does the same as The Crow when Jason Bourne recalls his assassination of the diplomat in that Berlin hotel.

Of course, not all flashbacks tell *complete* stories in such a linear fashion as The Crow and The Bourne Supremacy, but they DO all have their own kind of logic. Without re-structuring your structure then, you cannot make that logic obvious.

3) Montage

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective may not be your cup of tea; its kind of madness and daft humour is not for everyone, plus its particular brand of humour has dated HORRIBLY (especially *that* ending … holy crap! Transphobic much??).

However, like many 90s comedy movies, it has a very obvious montage sequence.

In it, Ace Ventura must track down a footballer via the ring he would have been given for the championship. Ace is a detective, this is literally part of his investigation – he must find the ring that is a missing a stone. To do that, it is a process of elimination. There’s quite a few people in a football team, so finding all the WRONG guys would be dull. So they compress them all together in a montage.

It’s About Moving The Plot FORWARDS

In other words, a good montage has a PLOTTING function. It contributes to pushing the story forward in some way. Yet in so many of the scripts I see montages just seem to be a series of images, in sequence: characters will be eating their dinner or having showers typically, though I’ve also seen them delivering packages etc in a way that could be cut and literally no one would notice.

So why have a montage? Tell a story with your montage, thus push the whole story on.

4) Intercut

Intercut is not the same as flashback. The reason scribes can get confused is because little “pieces” of flashback are sometimes inserted into scenes to remind us of who a character is or what has happened previously.

Back to The Crow (which if you recall, also uses flashback, the two are frequently used together, hence scribes’ confusion).

When Eric breaks into Gideon’s Pawn Shop to search for his fiancee’s engagement ring. He has both a flashback in this scene when he recalls his finacee finding the ring, but one of those little “reminders” is intercut to remind us who the character Funboy is.

‘Anchor’ Your Audience

In other words then, an intercut like this is a TOOL for the audience, an expositional “anchor” if you will.

I really cannot imagine why intercut would be “frowned on”, but perhaps it’s because some phone calls go on for pages and pages in spec scripts (never a great idea) or because the narrative overly relies on phone calls to keep it going. Whatever the case, moderation is always key.

5) Dream Sequence

I don’t see many dream sequences in the specs I read and this consistently surprises me. I think a good dream sequence can do wonders for a narrative, especially if they give us a sense of ‘unstable space’ or surprise. Yet when I do read dream sequences in spec screenplays, they’re often very literal dreams … Eg. characters will wake up after a lovely dream on a tropical island, only to have to go to work.

There is a reason horrors and thrillers (especially those bordering on the supernatural) use dream sequence more than your dramas or comedies. It’s because dream sequence offers a fantastic basis in horror and thriller for shock value. Dreams often start of perfectly natural in these sequences, as if it’s “reality” within that film. Then WHAM! There is murder, mayhem or something even more shocking and/or disgusting.

Give Us Something We Do Not EXPECT!

That is the primary purpose of the dream sequence. It doesn’t have to be scary either if you’re in a genre that ISN’T horror or thriller.

‘They’ say you should never start with dream sequence … BUT you can, IF you nail it.  The Babadook manages to freak us out with something unexpected AND give us some important character information in one fell swoop, within SECONDS of the movie starting. WOW!

Remember character motivation

Dream sequence should gives us important hints about the character’s motivations. Two of the most famous cinematic dream sequences have to be The Monster Nazis with Guns scene in American Werewolf In London, plus of course Ripley’s chest burst in Aliens:

  • In the first, American Werewolf’s focus is on his family in his dreams, not to mention his fears for them if he was to return home. This feeds into the fact that he DOESN’T and dies in London (but not before phoning home to say goodbye!).
  • Ripley’s dream chestburst in Aliens portrays her post-traumatic stress at her initial brush with the Alien in the first movie. This then asks us to believe she is facing her fears head-on by returning.

What Writers Can Do

So, in real terms, if you WANT to use a device like this? Please do. Just make sure you have:

Good luck with yours … and make sure you NAIL IT!

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26 thoughts on “How To Use Plot Devices – Voiceover, Flashback, Montage, Intercut and Dream Sequence”

  1. Off the top of my (questionable) haircut:

    Voiceover – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (all of it)
    Flashback – Citizen Kane (a cheat answer, perhaps, but still…) / Casino Royale (opening a film with a flashback within a flashback? No wonder people liked the script for Mr Craig’s first 007 film) / Airplane (seriously)
    Montage – Team America: World Police (and a song about it too)
    Intercut – Silence Of The Lambs (doorbell/SWAT team)
    Dream Sequence – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (or the series – the dreams affect events).

    (Spoiler alert) A VERY BAD dream sequence is in the Nicolas Cage film ‘Next’. Basically they pretty much fall back on the ‘it was all a dream’ thing, which shocked and startled me. I was told off for that at junior school…

  2. “It’s all a dream”/”it’s all in the protag’s mind” etc is overused, but it CAN work well I think if done well… ANGEL HEART made great use of this (or DID IT??) as did the adaptation of AMERICAN PSYCHO I thought, probably because they were both quite ambiguous. If a writer uses it as a “get out of jail free” card then that only leads to audience dissatisfaction I think.

  3. “just because you can use a device, doesn’t always mean you should.”

    I agree , as long as it serves the story and there is a valid reason for having it then it’s ok to use any of those devices. but not just using it for the sake of it.

    Out of interest, would Momento be considered a whole film in flashback?

    I watched that again the other day, and that film is genius.

  4. Good question CW – though I would say it was more a case of clever restructuring, as opposed to flashback, for the main plot (“John g”) is told backwards, the sub plot “Sammy Jankis”) is told forwards, paid off around the second plot point before the resolution with NEVER ANSWER THE PHONE.

    but this is what I mean with “restructuring structure” – what appears random and disjointed is actually super structured.

  5. About half and hour of Romey and Michelle’s High School Reunion is a dream sequence, which kind of threw me as I wasn’t expecting it to do anything remotely clever.

    I hate hate hate the dream sequence in Scream 3, because dream sequences are not a part of the ‘vocabulary’ of the first two Scream movies, so it feels totally wrong in there. Plus, it’s a rubbish dream on its own terms.

  6. Franchises can impose their own “rules” and audience expectations… Aliens was the only one that had a dream sequence out of the four though and it didn’t seem “wrong”: I know what you what mean, though (I haven’t seen Scream 3 or 2).

  7. I agree. Momento is brilliant because you dont notice that it is “super structured”.

    Im using the “” again. I promised myself I would stop….

    Good choice of dream sequence. American Warewolf in London is a classic.

  8. Agree completely about Memento -the way the sequences run contrary to each other like music is quite startling. And, from the same stable, Batman Begins has good use of flashbacks.

    I don’t mind ‘it was all in his head’ or a dream if it has some actual impact on events as presented in the story, but if they’re just there to … I dunno, fill up screen time, I’m not so keen. I seem to recall Wes Craven saying the studio insisted he insert a dream sequence into ‘The Serpent and The Rainbow’ because of his previous successful films featuring dreams, which sounds rather unnecessary.
    Fight Club uses some of the techniques you mention well, Lucy, but I won’t say which for fear of spoiling a good film (no such fear with my previous comment re ‘Next’, though)!

  9. On the Batman Begins theme, The Prestige is a complete smorgasboard of flashback, as is Following, which is well worth a look. Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film that plays enitrely in flashback as well.

    Full Metal Jacket has a very selective use of voiceover, and it’s used at points in the story to demarcate act breaks. And if it was good enoguh for Kubrick, it’s good enough for the rest of us, I reckon.

    On reflection, perhaps Fight Club had too much voiceover – or what about Blade Runner as another example? Good or bad? Hmmm…

  10. It’s obviously a compulsion CW, don’t fight it… I recall the first time I saw those dream sequences, I was still a child both times and I was SO FRIGHTENED by both, especial AWIL. My Mum found out I’d watched it on the sly aged about 11 and I was SO GROUNDED.

    John, everyone seems to like Fight Club but I don’t remember a thing about it, weirdly. Batman Begins was alright, but I didn’t think its flashbacks were dramatic enough.

    Chip – not keen on the Bladerunner VO myself…

  11. The most terrifying dream sequence for me as a child was the nightmare on elm street one with the girl in the body bag.

    I was about 7 and absolutely..well I was scared.

    Didnt get grounded though. My parents were either cool or dumb.

    It will be interesting to see how Wes Craven will handle the dream sequences for his re-imagination of the original ANOES.

    I wonder if he will try and use them in a different way seeing as it’s over 20 years since it was released.

  12. Agree with all of that. The issue is not the device itself, but how it’s used.

    I loved the voiceover in Dexter, for example, because it brought us into the world of a character we’d otherwise struggle to understand.

    But the portentous, pseudo-mystical crap at the start of shows like Heroes and The Sarah Connor Chronicles adds nothing.

  13. Lucy I’m baaaaack! Ah, Leicester – my favourite place. Not. Tell me when I can earn enough to live in the South West again??? Also, I would like to tell you that my esteemed twin dropped a log in the bathroom earlier and then went on a 12 hour shift, talk about a welcome home… Lol. And we’re out of milk and bread. GIT!

    I don’t understand why everyone likes HEROES. And LOST. And anything much actually, are we in a time for the worst TV EVER? Reason I ask is nowadays my leisure time is v important to me (I don’t get enuff) but every time I sit down I am disappointed.

    Except when it’s CSI time. Like you, I can’t get enough of it but that’s more to do with Catherine aka MILF…

    Thanks for having me by the way. Again. I promise I will tell you I’m dropping by on my way to Soton next time… Yeah right.

  14. Here’s an unusual dream sequence: In True Lies when Arnie’s character is driving the used car salesman, and punches him out … totally unexpected.

    And then we find Arnie was just imagining it, because that’s what he really wants to do.

    There’s no indication you’ve moved into the dream (daydream in this case) only when it stops do you realise.

  15. CW, didn’t realise Nightmare on Elm St was being remade, I must’ve been hiding under a rock or something… I don’t think it will be as scary this time around, those 70s/early 80s movies had the advantage that weird dream-like quality (regardless of actual dream sequences I thought), maybe because nothing like them had been done before and in this day and age that is lost.

    J&C and ET: I’m not keen on the likes of Heroes as you know, but I wouldn’t say ET that I’m “consistently disappointed” by US TV at the moment… Having said that, thinking about it I ONLY watch crime shows which the US has always excelled at, so the likelihood is my perception is skewed there.

    Steve – that’s an excellent example, especially since it’s not a horror one and shows that you don’t HAVE to be scary. Ally McBeal in its early years showed how well comedy dream sequence can work I think.

    And ET – send us a text next time yeah?? Esp if you want to dob Mike in for being gross! Thanks!

  16. People who don’t like voiceovers would absolutely hate The Thin Red Line which uses about 5 of the things.

    One that can be slightly confusing is the begining of Serenity. Which turns out to be a dream within a flashback/intercut.

  17. I'm sad that I didn't came across this article sooner… like two years ago, LOL. It's extremely insightful, and anyone who's seen "Inception" (which really should be just about EVERYONE by now) can probably better relate to what you're saying- even if they, too, are among the majority who generally frown upon flashback/ dream sequence type plot devices. Inception literally uses ALL of the devices you've covered, but in a way that nobody will ever be able to accuse of being "lazy". While the film was extremely complex and difficult to follow with an open-ended closing scene that made many of our heads hurt, it was also that much more compelling and effective in telling a story that both DEFINES and DEFIES time, space, and perception altogether. Between that and the controversial conclusion to "Lost" earlier this year, I think screenwriters will be taking a step back and re-examining their own creative guidelines and taboos.

    You're absolutely right to say that voice-overs, flashbacks, dream sequences, etc. all have their place and really shouldn't be used outside of it. All too often the writer uses any one of these in an attempt to force the plot forward or add depth to a thread-bare storyline, which 99.9% of the time just DOES NOT WORK. There HAS to be a legitimate need for it to work. When called for and used properly, these devices can take a decent story to a whole new level.

    I've been working on a YA novel called "The Other Side of the Pillow" for a little over a year now in which the entire premise of the story is the main character's struggle to escape a dream she can't wake up from. It's not an original storyline by any stretch of the imagination, but in this day and age no storyline is. It's all about HOW you tell the story, and for this piece I'm as confident now as I was when I started writing it about shifting between time and place, linear and non-linear perspectives, reality and surreality to tell a story that will hopefully leave readers thinking and wondering. Was it really just a dream, did she make it out alive, or was this really just the story of one troubled girl's final flashes of life passing before her eyes as she died? For this story to work I'm not sure there's any other way to tell it even if I wanted to, because the story itself is based entirely in dreams, memories and misconceptions.

    Someone else here also mentioned "Heroes", which I'm inclined to agree is a perfect example of device-dependent writing at it's worst. Like Lost and Inception, the writers of Heroes used every last one of the techniques discussed here and for a while it worked very well for them. As time passed, however, the story began to take on so many fantastical elements that it became completely dependent on them and lost sight of the characters and story itself. Plot-holes began to emerge and there was no way to close them all without creating more holes somewhere else… until the story finally just collapsed upon itself under the weight of it's own absurdity.

    I was a huge fan of Heroes once. That ended when Season 1 did.

  18. Hi Angel, glad you liked the post – better late than never!

    I haven't watched INCEPTION so I couldn't really say, sorry! ; ) Thought Lost and Heroes was a bunch of slimey pants from the beginning tho… The former lacked forward-looking momentum for me and shrouded everything in mystery for the sake of it, which frustrated me greatly; the latter was filled with such bone-crunchingly expositional dialogue – "Your husband, my son" – it gave me the RAGE. Lol

  19. I would offer that it's not a dream sequence that needs to be good to work, it's the exit from that dream: I don't believe I've ever seen a film where I didn't feel cheated when the character woke up and everything was alright again.

    In some ways the greater the shocks in the dream, the more total the let down the exit. It tells me, it shouts at me, that the story is not going to do anything that dramatic to the character in "real life", so to speak.

    Interestingly, to me anyway, Caprica opened up its second batch of episodes with a genuinely powerful and shocking incident, strong enough that I thought yes, the show is fixed. But it was yet another of that series's virtual reality sequences and, moreover, we learned we were being shown it by a particular character. Now, given which character and what she was attempting to do, the dream/virtual reality we saw didn't ring true: she would not tell that story that way.

    So I came out of this opening minute bummed that it was another empty moment and also certain that the writers/producers were not connecting with their own characters. They did a strong thing solely because they could and they wanted a strong thing, but it was handled badly twice over.

    I honestly knew at that moment that Caprica was going to be cancelled and it was.

  20. I’m not sure so much it’s these devices *themselves* at fault; or that they should necessarily be avoided. This sounds far too much like join-the-dots Mckeeian ‘rules’ to me, however I do know one writer with a real hatred of dream sequences, for example. We all have our dislikes, I guess.

    You are right, Lucy. What’s wrong – as with anywhere else in a screenplay – is they way they’re handled, and therein lies the problem. It’s the idle tropes and cliches that are used to populate these devices that induce reader-groan.

    My own take on using these devices is : A) make them different, abstract, interesting somehow B) part of the story, but not convenient solve-all for story progression.

    I would suggest asking yourself if what you are doing is hackneyed by any perception (and herein lies the trick – getting over yourself and admitting that). Are you solving a story problem a little too easily? If so, could there but a story problem in general?

    1. Definitely Austin, there’s no point using a device if you genuinely don’t like them. But never worry about others’ perception of them, just whether you can use that device well and if it’s the “best” for the story, whatever that means! 🙂

  21. Pingback: Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure – Part 2 by Xandria Horton | Scriptangel's Blog

  22. I LOVE this site! I’ve recommended it to a few friends to help them with writing assignments, and definitely love using it myself. This section has been super helpful in one of my teleplay writing assignments. Thank you!!!!!
    x Emily

  23. Dear Lucy,

    Thank you!
    I can’t say how grateful I am to you for elevating screenwriting and the teaching of it far above the primary school level, and for kicking McKee and other Campbell-heirs’ fat asses as soon as necessary.
    Maybe because you’re not American?
    On blogs and networks, so-called readers and scripts doctors boast by the dozen about dropping-without-reading every script using such devices as above! I even read recommendation by a certain GS for not wasting time in reading screenplays or going to the movies (sic!)
    Worse: that’s not only about storytelling devices; that’s about everything in storytelling, from reducing plots and action to blowing hot air, to making Hercule Poirot a gesticulating puppet saddled with a Buffalo-Bill mustache! (Although it involves a British director and a mostly British cast, but working for a US production with a US script) …
    – All these people are actually killing the movies by raising to compulsory rules what were just a few folk remedies among myriad.
    – All these people are killing the movies by reducing storytelling to a paint-by-the-numbers art targeting only decerebrated teens and housewives.
    – They killed Terry Gilliam, they emasculated Quentin Tarantino, they spoiled Kenneth Branagh …

    Keep going please. Help us to prevent them of killing European and International movies. The few American authors/directors who do so like Wes Anderson, … are those who win awards and the next shift is already on board (Jim Cummings, Danny Madden…) Help them to make American movies great again!

    Thank you again.

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