Voice over, Flashbacks & Multiple Protagonists. Why Never Never Really Means Never.

Voice over,  Flashbacks & Multiple Protagonists. Why Never Never Really Means Never.

Every screenwriting book/ teacher lists the same list of “don’ts”:

Don’t use voiceover

Don’t use flashbacks

Don’t have multiple protagonists.

Yet everyone can probably point to the list of their favorite movies and find it full of movies that break these rules: The Shawshank Redemption, A Clockwork  Orange, Badlands, Goodfellas, Magnolia, Nashville, Slumdog Millionaire, Casablanca, Inglorious Basterds, Memento, Reservoir Dogs, Rashomon, 8 1/2, etc.

No sane teacher could actually mean never do these things, and if they do, run fast away from them before they damage you as a writer.

What they are really saying is: “Yes, a movie can have voice over, flashbacks and multiple protagonists. But you shouldn’t do it, because if you do you’ll fuck it up.”

And they are right. You will.

The truth is “the three don’ts” are crutches that novice writers use to cheat. And each one comes with a price:

Multiple Protagonists

A multi-character story can show the interconnectedness between characters united by a theme.  In movies like Magnolia, Crash or Nashville, this can be a powerful choice.  The idea then becomes bigger than character.

However, most writers thinking they have a multi-character story just haven’t decided who their protagonist is.  Pick a hero already, people.

If you split your film up between multiple protagonists it may be a lot easier to fill 120 pages, but the impact of the character’s arc is split between as many characters.  Do the math: 120 minutes split between five characters means five twenty-minute arcs.

Imagine fitting the arc of Scrooge into twenty minutes instead of 120?  There’s no time for the audience to see him change, no time to develop his greed, no time to see how he became such an ass.

Voice over/narration:

The rule of Voice over is, if you are using it to show what we can see any other way, cut it. That is cheating.

Lousy writers use voice over to tell us what they should be showing us, or even worse, explain a character’s motivations.  If we hear a character’s inner thoughts, is that as interesting as trying to decipher those ideas from their actions?

For example: Take “Breaking Bad” We understand Walter White’s motivations by watching him act. When he poisons a child or orders the death of an innocent man, we don’t need a monologue to convince us of the the complexity of his reasons.  We’ve seen it.

However, there are two good reasons to use it:

Reason #1 -- Voice over as counterpoint:

Movies like Taxi Driver or A Clockwork Orange let us get into the mind of an unreliable narrator.  They do not show us what is happening on screen, they show us what, in the protagonist’s deranged mind, they think is happening.

Reason #2 -- Speeding through a story too large for the screen:

Fight Club and Goodfellas fit a story that should take four hours into just over two.  The narration allows them to speed up the pace and keep the audience from getting lost.

Flashbacks:

Flashbacks are often used by novice writers  to give us vital information or help us understand a character’s motivation, but what a veteran screenwriter knows is all we need to understand a  character is to watch them act.

We don’t need a flashback telling us Hannibal Lecter’s mother never loved him to know he’s a sociopath, we just need to see him eat a security guard’s face.

When a story is told non-linearly, like in “Slumdog Millionaire” flashbacks can show a contrast of who a character was and who they have become. Non-linear storytelling makes connections through time and space, which can be a powerful choice.

So, if there are good reason to do the don’ts, why to the books still push them?

The Rules Are Outdated.

The Syd Field rules were written in the seventies, a time when cinema was dominated by storytelling which existed for the purpose of creating a believable reality into which the audience should be swept up in.  Any deviation from creating that continuous reality separates the audience from the experience.

Take for instance, the films of Spielberg.  People give him a lot of shit for being overly sentimental, but no one can argue when he is good he is a master of sweeping the audience up in his constructed reality.

Imagine Jaws, E.T. or Raiders of The Lost Ark with narration. It would create a separation that would kill the energy and disengage us from the story.  Sometimes the old ways are the best and often telling a good story simply is the best way to tell it.

However cinema is an amazing and vast world with many possibilities, and not every filmmakers goal is to create a believable reality. Some wish to break down reality or offer intellectual discourse.  Godard in Breathless used Brecht’s distancing techniques to destroy the construct of film and engage the audience intellectually.  For instance: A character in a Godard film might break the fourth wall and address the audience.

Still, this is an outdated idea. Modern audiences are so used to having their constructions destroyed that these distancing techniques no longer work.  No one watches Ferris Bueller and thinks; “he is breaking the fourth wall so I intellectually separate and think about the nuances of American High School life”. We just wanna watch him have a day off.

But the modern writer needs to keep this in mind. Do I want to create a reality to be swept up in? Or show a point of view? If I throw in voice over am I undercutting my ability to get the audience working?

In other words, to break the rules without knowing why is cheating, and to follow the rules blindly because some book told you to, is just plain stupid.

Let’s replace the list of don’ts with a new list:


  1. Don’t use voice-over, multiple protagonists or flashbacks to cut corners and avoid the hard working of telling an honest story.

  2. Don’t use techniques unless you know how to use them.

  3. Don’t listen to Dogma.

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About the Author

Mark Fogarty is a story consultant and co-producer on the film, Respite Road, filming Spring 2018. Mark runs the filmmaking program at Bishop Hendricken High School, a Catholic school for boys. The program allows students to study film every day of their High School career and combines theory with production. Before becoming a teacher Mark worked as a video editor and cameraman for Numark, and Pet Fashion Week. He has made every kind of video imaginable, including short films, fashion videos, DJ tutorials and more.

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Craft Advice

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Screenwriting

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