The whole purpose of a screenplay is to tell a directory and film crew what to film. Yet far too many novices miss this point. As a result, their screenplays avoid being detailed enough to show emotional change within characters. Instead, they rely on flashbacks and montages.
There is a purpose for flashbacks and montages, but be wary of them. If your screenplay contains two or more flashbacks, your story probably should be rearranged. If your screenplay contains two or more montages, you probably aren’t telling your story.
Let’s look at flashbacks first. A flashback abruptly stops the current story and starts telling a different story. The same characters might be shown but the time period is different. Yet a flashback simply stops one story to start another.
The whole purpose of a flashback is to show us something important from the past and how it affects the current story. “Casablanca” had one of the longest flashbacks, but it provided crucial information. Most screenplays use much shorter flashbacks that show us something important, then jumps back to the current story. The shorter the flashback, the easier it can be to understand and the less disruptive it can be.
So be careful of flashbacks because they should only highlight important information that absolutely cannot be revealed any other way. If you’re revealing information in a flashback that could be told another way, you’re using a flashback wrong.
A second problem with flashbacks is that they should come immediately after some intriguing action that leaves us wanting to know more. In “Nobody,” the opening scene shows a bloodied man calmly sitting down to talk to two cops. Right away, we want to know who this man is and how did he get splattered with so much blood. Then the rest of the movie is the flashback that explains what happened.
But the flashback works simply because the previous scene grabbed our attention. If the previous scene showed someone drinking a glass of water, then jumps to a flashback, there’s no point for the previous scene or the flashback. Skip straight to the action and delete the pointless previous scene.
Montages are another crutch too many novices use to show growth without actually giving us details. This is like watching a video of Paris rather than actually visiting Paris.
Montages show the growth of a character without letting us experience the emotional struggle. As a result, montages are simply empty of emotion and screenplays are all about creating emotion. So every time you use a montage, you risk bringing your story to a screeching halt emotionally.
Rather than show a character going through a series of different scenes in rapid succession, let us experience the pain and struggle of the character as he or she goes through this growth period. That means focusing on a single point where the character starts to change.
Montages can work, but they must be amusing by themselves. Just showing characters doing something is boring. Show characters struggling while keeping us entertained at the same time. In “Zootopia,” the hero is a bunny going through officer training and she’s failing dramatically at everything she tries, which makes us laugh.
So montages should not just show a bunch of scenes, but each scene in that montage should be amusing and interesting by itself. Then the collection of scenes in the montage will all be interesting and that will make the entire montage interesting.
So be wary of flashbacks and montages. use them sparingly but if you must use them, use them correctly.