A device used in the service of storytelling is technique; a device used for its own sake is a gimmick.
Modern filmmaking is very gimmicky. Quite a few in the current crop of young, mainstream directors – many of whom cut their teeth making music videos and television commercials -- love to adorn their movies with tons of visual “style:” slow motion shots, fast motion shots, subjective shots, a constantly moving camera, ramping, bullet time, distorted color, Cuisinart cutting, etc. These devices can look very cool, but the problem, from a storytelling point of view, is that they are often used without purpose – in ways that have little or nothing to do with the story being told.
These directors have forgotten (or perhaps never learned) that cinema has a grammar just like language does. Over a century of filmmaking, specific visual devices have come to have very specific meanings. For example, just as a comma in a sentence always means pause, and a period always means stop, a dissolve tells viewers that time is passing and slow motion tells them to pay close attention to a particular bit of business.
However, many current filmmakers use visual devices in ways that don’t take into account these meanings. For example, I recently saw a film in which a gang of thieves was heading out to commit a caper – they picked up the tools they were going to use to pull the job and walked out of the room. There were approximately twelve shots in the scene (showing the characters picking up the tools, putting them into bags, shouldering the bags, putting on sunglasses, walking towards the door, etc.). Although the scene unfolded in real time, the director decided to dissolve between each shot rather than simply cut. While it certainly did look stylish, it wasn’t clear why we were being given a visual cue to indicate that time was passing between each of these shots when it obviously wasn’t. The device looked cool, but it didn’t “read” correctly and so was confusing rather than captivating. Another recent film contained an action sequence in which every other shot was done in slow motion, even though the events in the slow shots had no more significance than the events happening in the regular speed shots and so did not require any additional scrutiny or attention. Once again, the device looked interesting, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the storytelling purpose of shifting from normal speed to slow motion to normal speed to slow motion and so on was meant to be – there was no connection between the form and the function. As a result, what could have been an innovative narrative technique became nothing more than a pointless (and rather distracting) gimmick.
Modern screenwriting can be similarly gimmicky. There are four devices in particular that are so popular with writers that at least one (and usually two or three) turn up in approximately 90% of the scripts that I read, although they are often used in ways that hinder the storytelling process rather than enhance it. They are:
- Non-Linear Storytelling: ever since the one-two Tarantino punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, screenwriters have become enamored with conveying the events of their tales in out-of-order fashion – sometimes they like to smash the narrative into pieces, then jump around from bit to bit; sometimes they like to begin in the middle, then jump back to the beginning, catch up to the middle, and then move forward from there; sometimes they like to start at the end and then work back to the start. Like all devices, non-linear storytelling can be very effective when there is a strong thematic or narrative reason for doing using it, such as in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in which the out-of-order chronology perfectly mirrored the protagonist’s quest to work backwards to regain his lost memory. The most effective use of non-linear storytelling that I have ever encountered was in the original draft of the screenplay for the 1996 film Shine, in which the story was delivered in a series of seemingly random fragments that perfectly dramatized the confused, disoriented perspective of the movie’s schizophrenic main character (in the finished film, the story was told in a much more straightforward fashion, apparently because the filmmakers worried that the audience wouldn’t be able to follow such a fractured narrative). In both cases, there was a perfect marriage of form and function – the out-of-order storytelling not only supported the themes and enhanced the plots, but actually became an integral part of the stories themselves. Unfortunately, in most of the scripts that I read that employ the device, there is no real reason for using it other than because it’s fashionable. In these instances, the device becomes a gimmick, and an annoying one at that – when reading such scripts, I usually have to put a lot of effort into comprehending the story rather than simply enjoying it. And if I have to work that hard just to understand a script without there being a significant narrative payoff, the odds are that I’m probably not going to give the piece a good review.
- Flashbacks: flashbacks (and their close relative, the cut-away) are an expository tool. When used well (Citizen Kane, The Pawnbroker, Batman Begins, The Hunger Games, etc.), they both flesh out the story and drive it forward. When used poorly, they are a clumsy, obvious way to spoon-feed information to the audience by writers who aren’t skilled enough to integrate exposition into the main bodies of their stories in subtle, organic fashion. Inspired in part by the use of the device on a number of popular T.V. procedurals and comedy shows, flashbacks (and cut-aways) have become a staple of modern screenwriting, especially among those who write spec scripts. Unfortunately, they are almost always used poorly, to the point where I now tend to shudder whenever I open a script and see the word “flashback” on a page (and I really shudder when I see it on the first page of a script. A lot of current writers actually begin their scripts with a flashback, which always makes me laugh, because these scribes apparently don’t realize that you can’t actually flash back until you have established something to flash back from).
- Voice-Overs: like flashbacks, voice-overs are an expository tool that when used well (Double Indemnity, Goodfellas) flesh out the story and drive it forward. Used well (Memento, The Big Lebowski, Taxi Driver) they can also serve as a counterpoint to the onscreen action or add an additional dimension to the characters or the narrative. Used poorly, they are simply slapped into a script in order to fill in plot holes or to impose thematic or philosophical notions onto the piece that the drama itself fails to generate – in other words, to make up for weak writing. As with flashbacks, voice-overs are used so frequently and so poorly in so many modern specs that my spirits sag whenever I see one (sometimes I am happily surprised to find that the voice-over has been used well and really enhances the script. Most of the time, however, I am not).
- A Smart-Alecky Writing Style: this one has been popular on and off since the days of William Goldman and Shane Black, although it’s been really “on” lately. There are two reasons this one is problematic. The first is that very few writers do this sort of thing – peppering the stage directions and description with pseudo-clever asides to the reader that attempt to persuade him/her that what they are reading is really cool or fun or amazing or whatever -- nearly as well as Goldman and Black do, so it can often be incredibly irritating to read. But the main reason is that it’s pointless: viewers can’t read the script – all they can experience is the action or the dialogue -- so all that clever attitude is ultimately for naught. As far as this reader is concerned, I’d much prefer that writers put all of their energy into perfecting their stories and dialogue rather than waste it trying to dazzle me with irrelevancies.
If you’re going to use devices in your writing, only do so if they enhance your story or your storytelling. If you’re only using them because they’re cool or because everyone else is using them, then don’t, because all they’ll do is distract and detract. In other words – embrace technique and avoid gimmickry. Your work will be better for it (and your readers will be grateful).
Now, if only we could get some of those directors to do the same…