Everyone loves a good voiceover, but if it's not serving the plot, it's a problem...
Have you ever been stuck in your screenplay and been unsure of how to convey a certain bit of information to the audience? There are lots of tricks, or plot devices, that screenwriters use to transmit important facts to the viewer.
We’ve all watched a movie or TV show and been annoyed when particular plot devices fail to convey the narrative. The truth is, the best plot devices are invisible. They seamlessly integrate into the story so much so that we forget they’re even there.
Today we’re going to go over some important plot devices like voiceover, montages, dream sequences, flashbacks, flashforwards, and cut-aways.
We’ll learn how to hide them in our storytelling, and what it takes for you to create the best plot devices for your movie or tv show.
Come with me if you want to write…
Plot Device 1 : Voiceover
Everyone is familiar with a voiceover. Perhaps it’s from a favorite noir movie, or definitely from The Shawshank Redemption, voiceover is a popular way to let the audience in on what’s happening within a character’s mind.
Some people love voiceover, some people hate it. Voiceovers are so divisive you can watch Blade Runner five different ways, depending on how you feel about it.
The best voiceover adds another layer to what we see on the screen. Think about the voiceover in Goodfellas. It’s not just Henry Hill’s story, but his inner desires. What we see on screen supports the voiceover, but it would still make sense without it.
The worst voiceovers are completely unnecessary and don’t add anything to the story. They can be frustrating, describing what we already know, or taking us completely out of the movie.
I’m looking at you, weird bookends of The War Of The Worlds!
TV has a few great voiceovers.
How would we ever know How I Met Your Mother without hearing Ted’s story from the future?
So if you want to utilize voiceover as your plot device, think about how it can add to the story. If your movie can still work without it, then maybe you don’t need it.
But sometimes you have a ton of information to dump on the screen and don’t think only the visuals will help. So voiceovers become important in those instances.
Especially if you’re writing a montage.
Plot Device 2: Montages
Montages can be tricky to write in films. They need to support and move the story forward. Sometimes it’s about advancing years, like the montage in The Lion King.
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Other times, it’s about crosscutting between simultaneous events, like the infamous baptism scene in The Godfather.
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Or the homage to The Godfather done in Breaking Bad where they execute all the guys in prisons across the country to cover their tracks.
Montages are nifty tools when you want to sneak a bunch of emotional moments together. Like in any rom-com, where you need to see a relationship to develop, or in an action movie when you’re trying to show the team preparing for a big event coming their way.
Montages can be cut fast, like the training montage in Creed.
What about this great montage from Bob’s Burgers?
Montages generally get a bad rap, but the movies that do them well really create an environment that sets the tone.
Like this montage of dead bodies from Goodfellas. The mafia is a dog eat dog world. This is serious…and it helps set up the second half of the movie.
Montages are great if you’re trying to convey a passage of time or a bunch of information, but what if you just want to get one point across…without having the actions of a character matter in the real world?
Enter the dream sequence.
Plot Device 3: Dream Sequences
Remember the divisive voiceover from Blade Runner? I’ll see that and raise a dream sequence.
Dream sequences are an excellent plot device if you want to show a character’s inner thoughts and desires, but you don’t want to use a voiceover, and you think it’s really cheesy for them to just say it out loud.
Dream sequences can support an entire plot. Like Nightmare on Elm Street. Which subverts the dream sequence tropes, and makes them affect reality.
But more traditional dream sequences are a portal into another character’s psyche. We love good dialogue, but sometimes it’s easier to use dream sequence instead of just having a character discuss what they feel.
Or maybe you need to set up what’s coming?
Look at these dream sequences from Marvel that set up Infinity War and Ragnarok.
Check out this dream sequence from The Burbs. In the movie, we know Tom Hanks is worried about his neighbors, but he’s supposed to be on vacation, relaxing.
Instead of having him say he’s stressed out, we travel into his subconscious to let the audience know he’s actually starting to believe his neighbors might be up to something.
Another dream sequence I love is from Waking Ned Devine. Waking Ned Devine is one of my favorite movies of all time. There’s a moral choice at the center of the movie. Is it okay to cheat the lottery and claim the ticket of a dead man?
Since the movie deals with life and death, it seems fitting to add a dream sequence here, so that the lead character can discover Ned’s wishes….since Ned is dead.\
This plot device helps pivot the plot toward the midpoint and thrusts us toward a hilarious and exciting ending.
Dream sequences are a little harder to pull off in TV since you need to always be moving the plot forward, but one famous one occurred in the 1980s when the show Dallas used the “who shot J.R.” storyline with a payoff that it was all a dream…
But what if you think a dream sequence will throw off the tone of the movie or tv episode you’re working on?
Then maybe a flashback is right for you.
Plot Device 4: Flashbacks
Ah yes, the flashback. When I was a script reader, I hated flashbacks. The worst of these feel incredibly forced and always cheat the audience. The best flashbacks have some bearing on the story in the present and don’t feel like a gimmick.
We all know the greatest flashbacks of all time were on the television show, Lost.
Lost built the entire series on flashbacks. It was an incredible way to contextualize the present on the show and change our perception of each character.
Remember, the best plot devices add another layer, and those flashbacks deepened the show’s meaning and ability to connect with the audience.
Subtle flashbacks are present in a lot of mystery movies. They’re used for the reveals in the Sixth Sense, Shawshank Redemption, and Usual Suspects.
If you’re using flashbacks as a plot device, make sure they are necessary, and that the information you’re going to flashback to has clear setups in the pages of the script beforehand, so this information doesn’t feel shoe-horned into the story.
What if you don’t want to add information from the past, but want to focus on the future?
Plot Device 5: Flash-forwards
Look, we all know where this is going. The greatest TV plot twist of all time was the flash-forward in Lost. Lost did everything perfectly.
It was a masterful way to subvert audience expectations and a unique way to tell a story.
But who else used the flash-forward plot device well?
The Sandra Bullock movie, Premonition, makes flash-forwards part of the plot as well. If she knows what’s coming at her, then she’ll be able to change the present to affect the outcome.
The same goes for the Final Destination franchise.
Again, this builds the narrative around knowing the future. But what if you just want to use it to alter the present, without making it a device?
The 1990’s TV show, Early Edition, had the premise of “what if you got tomorrow’s newspaper today?”
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They used this to subtly put in flashforwards, so that the characters in the present could act.
It was a clever way to use flash-forwards without them being too overt as a plot device.
So we’ve flashed forward and back…but what if you want to go sideways?
How about using a cutaway as a plot device?
Plot Device 6: Cutaways
Cutaways are great plot devices for comedy. They enable you to make a referential joke, and then clear up that reference for the audience and get a second, visual, laugh.
The show Family Guy is built on cutaway jokes. Not only are they able to make pop culture references to get you engaged, but when they cut to the joke they double-down on the humor and set up the wacky tone of what’s happening on screen.
But what about a more subtle cutaway?
I absolutely love the cutaway to Marcus Brody from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
This is a brilliant way to trick the audience into believing a character is in control of a situation, and then pulling the rug out from under them.
Cutaways are a great device to show the audience you’re in control of the story. When used correctly, they assuage everyone that they’re along for the ride, and the storytellers have an excellent journey ahead.
But bad cutaways confuse an audience and interrupt the flow of each scene.
Summing Up Plot Devices
So what did we learn about plot devices?
I think the most important takeaway from this plot devices article is that these are tools to help your story, but you should use them sparingly.
Some inventive TV shows and movies use them to build the narrative, but most know that using these as a tool to tell the story is great, as long as they don’t become a crutch.
What are some of your favorite plot devices?
Put them in the comments.
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