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Story & Plot Devices In Your Screenplay

By Ray Morton

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When you read scripts for a living, one thing you learn is that screenwriting, like fashion design and the stock market, is subject to trends. At any given time, there are certain genres, premises, and plots that are extremely popular and show up in script after script after script. What is especially interesting about this is that there doesn't seem to be any sort of conscious decision-making or coordinated efforts behind these trends - they apparently just bubble up out of the zeitgeist, spread like a virus to the point where they are almost ubiquitous, and then vanish to make way for the next fad. This phenomenon doesn't apply only to story material, it also applies to the gimmicks that writers use to tell their stories. "Good" gimmicks are those that enhance a script and make it more effective. They usually tend to go unnoticed. "Bad" gimmicks are the ineffective ones that can severely undermine or even ruin the screenplays in which they are used. They tend to stick out like a sore thumb. Between my usual workload and assignments from several screenwriting competitions, I have been reading a lot of scripts lately and so have been encountering a series of gimmicks that are quite "bad," and yet seem to be extremely popular with screenwriters these days. The following is a list of the most egregious:

Non-Linear Storytelling: This technique's popularity with modern screenwriters began with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and really took off with Memento. It is so popular that has been utilized in approximately 30 % of all of the scripts I have read in the past six months. My problem with Non-Linear is not with the technique itself, but the indiscriminate way in which it is frequently used. I am a big believer in the idea that form follows function. In other words, if you are going to employ a certain technique in your writing, then I think you should have a specific thematic or storytelling purpose for doing so. In Memento, for example, the film's fractured time line was the perfect way to dramatize the protagonist's fragmented memory - the technique enhanced the theme and the theme gave weight to the technique. However, most of the scripts that tell their stories in a non-linear fashion have no such a connection -- they are instead just regular dramas, thrillers, and comedies whose writers have chosen to tell their stories in a fragmented way simply because it is currently fashionable to do so. As a result, the technique is reduced from an organic component of the tale to mere window dressing and produces a lot of scripts that are pointlessly jumbled and hard to follow.

Closely related to the misuse of Non-Linear Storytelling are two wrongheaded approaches to utilizing flashbacks that are also currently in vogue:

Flashbacks On Page One: Traditionally flashbacks are used to provide extended exposition concerning a story, a character, or a situation. As a result, they are usually not employed until after all of the major elements of the script have been clearly and solidly established - i.e. somewhere in Act Two or Three. However, in the past year or so I have encountered a growing number of scripts (an amazing 85 out of 100 in the last contest I read for) that introduce their first flashback after the first or second paragraph on page 1. The problem with introducing flashbacks so quickly is that you end up with providing the reader with detail and exposition about stories, characters, and situations that have yet to be established, so rather than clarifying matters, the only things that all of this jumping back and forth accomplishes are to confuse the reader and make it harder to get into the story. Another distinctive aspect of this approach to using flashbacks is that most of the scripts that use it only jump back a short amount of time - often to just a few minutes or hours before the beginning of the script, which always causes me to wonder why the writers even bother - if the events depicted in the flashbacks are so vital, then why didn't they just start the story a few minutes earlier?

It's Raining Flashbacks: As previously stated, flashbacks have traditionally been used to present extended pieces of exposition - i.e. the depiction of a key event or the presentation of a backstory that is vital to the film's present-day plot. Traditionally, flashbacks have not usually been used to relay brief or casual bits of exposition or explanatory material. Such material has usually been incorporated into the script's here-and-now dialogue or visuals. Lately however, there has been a real trend in using flashbacks to illustrate every little point about a character or a situation. These flashbacks are usually quite brief and are dropped into the middle of a scene already in progress, often several at a time. My friend and fellow reader Angel Orona has dubbed this practice the "CSI Effect," since it is a technique used constantly on that very popular television series. It may work on CSI, but in most of the spec screenplays I've read it comes across as an amateurish, ham-fisted approach to exposition by writers that don't appear to be skilled know how to properly integrate vital information into the body of their scripts.

Introducing the Not-the-Main-Character: Traditionally, a screenwriter is supposed to use the first 10 or so pages of a script to introduce and establish the story's protagonist. The purpose of this is, of course, to give us a clear idea of the person we will be spending the next two hours following, and the goals he/she will be pursuing. For some reason, however, it has become extremely popular in a large number of recent specs to spend the first 10 pages of the script establishing a non-primary character (or characters). Sometimes these are supporting characters, but sometimes they are characters that turn out to be minor characters whose relevance to the script is only incidental (and who often vanish as soon as the 10 pages are concluded). I'm not sure why so many writers think this is a good thing to do - all I do know is that I find it to be extremely confusing. I also find that it often turns me off of the script, because I resent becoming completely invested in a character only then to be told that he/she doesn't really mean anything. It makes me feel like I have been wasting my time, which is a sure way to persuade me to pass on the script.

The Couch Trip: Does the idea of watching two people sitting on a couch talking sound like exciting cinema to you? Me neither. Does it sound like a gripping way to begin a movie? I agree, but apparently a lot of spec script writers out there do not, because I cannot tell you how many scripts I have read in the last year that begin with two characters sitting on a couch talking (often for five or more pages - apparently the people that favor this technique are also incapable of being brief). I find this totally mystifying, because I can't imagine how even the worst writer in the world could think this was a good way to go, and yet obviously many do. Just thinking about this makes my head spin. I think I better sit down. On the couch.

Inappropriate Fart Jokes: I guess I'm not sure if there's any such thing as a appropriate fart joke, but I do know that following the success of There's Something About Mary and similar films, gross-out humor has become quite popular and many screenwriters out there have attempted to jump on the rude-and-disgusting bandwagon. The problem is that rather than start from scratch with a suitable vehicle for such humor, many writers are instead just jamming off-color material into pre-existing scripts or stories where it is not the least bit appropriate. For example, I recently read a Sturges-like romantic comedy set in high society in which the key plot complication - which in a script like this would normally be something like class warfare or a case of mistaken identity -- revolved around an aggravated case of explosive diarrhea. However funny this bit of bad taste might have been in other circumstances (and to me that is an extremely debatable issue), in this particular script it was awkward, unfunny, and frankly just a little bit bizarre. It's important to remember that in comedy, as with many other areas of life, context is everything.

Stealing: We all have films that we love and it's natural to want to pay tribute to these movies in our scripts, but there's a difference between homage and outright appropriation. In recent years, I've noticed that more and more screenwriters are stealing gags, lines of dialogue, and sometimes even entire scenes from other films. The most popular stolen scene seems to be the "Comparing Our Battle Scars" scene from Jaws, which I have come across in literally dozens of scripts. The action set pieces and one -liners from the James Bond films are also popular. The most blatant example of this I have come across is a script in which a writer took David Mamet's play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, changed the names of the characters and the setting (to New York), retyped it in screenplay format and presented the piece as his own (having apparently forgotten that the play had already been made into a movie - 1986's About Last Night). I'm not quite sure why so many writers are doing this right now - perhaps there has been some sort of massive, zeitgeist wide failure of the imagination or maybe in this age of sampling people don't see know that such a thing is wrong. It is wrong, however - it's called plagiarism and it can get you in a lot of trouble. You have to remember -- most readers, development people, and producers are film buffs too. We know these movies as well as you do and can spot these lifts from a mile away. I know that when I come across stolen material, I automatically give the script a PASS and I'm willing to best most other readers do as well.

Like all strange phenomena, interest in these gimmicks will soon fade and they will pass into history, only to be replaced by approaches and techniques that are equally popular and equally odd. In the meantime, I hope this list will help you avoid wasting your time with a lot of pointless slight of hand and allow you to focus your energy and attention on the thing that matters most - good writing.

© 2004 by Ray Morton

About Ray Morton

Ray Morton is a writer, script consultant, and script analyst. A senior writer for Script Magazine, he writes its bi-monthly "Legends of Screenwriting" column. Morton's first book, King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon, was published in 2005 and his latest book, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film, has just been published by Applause Books. Both are available in bookstores and online at Amazon.com. Morton is available for script consultation and can be reached at [email protected].
Screenwriting Article by Ray Morton

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