Twice upon a time

I mentioned on Twitter recently that I’d just remembered how to structure a dual time-period script, and was instantly flooded with almost two replies asking me how I go about such things.

Well, simple really, I remember stuff by running face-first into something solid until mind-images (I call them memories) are dislodged.

As for the dual time-period thing (which has a better name, I’m sure of it) … there are probably lots and lots of people selling seminars explaining the “NINETEEN CRUCIAL COMPONENTS OF SPLIT NARRATIVES WHICH WILL MAKE YOUR SCRIPT SHIT IF YOU DON’T GIVE ME SOME MONEY” and lots of other people telling you you should never do it because it lets evil pixies into your script or something; but I make it a rule never to pay for ‘how to’ classes by people I don’t trust, so I approach it something like this:

Rule number one (to be said in the voice of the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin):

I try not to think of the two time-periods as present day and the past (or flashbacks) because there’s something inherently dull about the past. I try to think of them as two present day stories, it’s just one of the present days was present in 1979. Or whenever – you may choose your own year. I don’t know why this is important, but it just is. To me. Doubtful if it’s important to anyone else.

Rule number two:

These aren’t really rules. I don’t even follow them most of the time. I should probably call them something different.

This one definitely isn’t a rule.

Vague idea number three:

Don’t make one time-period more interesting than the other. Sounds simple, but I’ve read a lot of scripts where one has way more story than the other. If you find yourself with two much of one time-period and nowhere near enough of the other … then do you need them both? Is this really a dual time-period script or is one of them unnecessary back story? Could you just tell one as quickly as possible and then move forward five, ten or three thousand years?

Some people think starting with one time-period then moving to the next fairly quickly means the original time-period is boring. If it’s short, then it’s just back story and doesn’t need to be seen – just get to the point. I think this is a damn good point in some cases; but not always – Pixar’s ‘Up‘ for example. The beginning and the montage meant I cried twice in the first eight minutes. You could easily have not shown them and explained what happened in a line here or there … but damn, those few scenes are better than most movies. Not seeing them would have been a crime.

Vague idea number four:

Leave each time-period on a cliffhanger. Doesn’t have to be huge, but it should pose a question you’re desperate to hear the answer to. Whatever time-period you’re in, you should be totally engaged … but at the same time, eager to flip back so you can find out what’s happening in the other one. Which kind of leads into …

Vague idea number five:

Forward momentum. Maybe flashbacks become naughty when the present day action stops for something in the past to be explained? If one time-period grinds to a halt while someone remembers something from their childhood … and then we come back to the same scene … it’s a bit dull. Nothing was happening in that scene while we were away.

Having said that, I think that’s a good writing tip in general – it’s not just the movie you’re watching which is important, it’s the movie which continues happening in your imagination while you’re off looking at something else. When you switch from the baddies to the goodies and back – hopefully the baddies have moved on with their plans. I think maybe it’s dull if they just stand around waiting for you to re-join them?

Vague idea number six:

Plot each time-period separately because it’s a real ball ache to try and do it all in one go. If you want to alternate scenes (which is what I’m doing at the moment) then split the movie in half and plot out each one separately. I do it on index cards – that way, when I shuffle them back together, the structures match up. The highs and the lows are in the same places and you don’t feel like you’re pinging around like a demented, bi-polar bee.

Or insect of your choice.

Vague idea number seven:

I’ve no idea how many of these ideas there are. That’s why they’re vague – I really haven’t thought this through in any great depth.

Vague idea number eight:

If you plot very loosely to begin with, once you shuffle the scenes into alternating time-periods, you can set consecutive scenes in the same locations or with the same characters so they feel more closely linked. Or maybe it’s better to plot them in pairs to begin with? Whatever works for you. Anything you can do with transitions or themes or bits of dialogue to link the leaps back and forward in time together will make the structure feel relevant instead of gimmicky.

Vague idea number nine:

I think maybe the first time you jump time-periods, you should have a completely different tone and feel so the audience are eager to find out how in the world the characters got from A to B.

I know it’s not a dual time-period movie; but I’m thinking about Iron Man here …


Tony Stark’s in Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere made up.

He gets blown to shit … it’s chaos!


Twenty-four hours earlier, Tony’s in a casino in Vegas.

What the fuck?

Go back to Iraq … actually, wait.

How the hell does he get from this happy playboy life to nearly dead in Iraq in only 24 hours? (Or is it twelve hours? I should really have watched the film again before using it as an example.)

It works as a flashback/cut to a different time-period because Tony’s situation is completely different with no clue as to how he got from here to there. If he’d been in his office talking about getting ready to go to Iraq … it would have been deadly dull. He’s in a different place, physically and emotionally – that’s why it’s interesting. Or at least, it’s interesting to me.


Vague idea number ten:

I haven’t got a ten; but it feels nice to have a list of ten things.

What else? Um … well, that’s about it, I think.

Maybe it’s nice not to have the past time-period labelled on screen as 1979 if the majority of the trailer will be set in the present day. That probably sounds odd and is more a directorial/marketing decision; but if you leave it out of your script then they might take some fucking notice. Probably won’t. Labelling the beginning as ‘The Past’ just creates a sense of ‘this isn’t important, the real story will start soon’.


Them’s my thoughts anyway. They probably could be more coherent and better thought out; but then I’m not really a coherent or well thought out kind of guy. If I’ve left anything glaringly obvious out, then it’s deliberate and there’s no need to pick me up on it.

Or you can educate me and leave your own ideas in the comments.

Yes, do the second one, that’s much more useful.

Categories: My Way | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Twice upon a time

  1. I’m going to use a spider. Oh wait, that’s not an insect. OK, a… a…

    No. I’m stumped.

  2. Magz

    Is an elk the same as a moose? (The four legged, antlered variety, as opposed to the chocolate fondanty type thing. Mmmmmm… chocolate…)

  3. I thought Mooses were made of… mousse?

  4. Pingback: 2012 « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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