The Montage of Sadness

This is going to be the first of what will be several posts on Red Flags. What do I mean by that? In this case, they are elements that frequently appear in screenplays that, while not a major problem on their own, are symptomatic of larger issues.

One such red flag is the Montage of Sadness. Usually occurring after the main character has been dumped or fired, this is a series of brief moments that show the character moping about. Sometimes they sadly make dinner for themselves. Sometimes they sadly burn that dinner. Or they sadly walk through a nondescript park, sadly watching people. They might also stare out windows, at pictures, at old home movies… Whatever’s handy.

What do we as an audience get from this? We learn that the character is sad. Very sad.

That’s it.

If time is being spent on generic beats of despair, it’s saying several things about the script. It says that the writer didn’t dig deep enough to find the specific things that this character would do in this situation. It says that there may be other pacing problems, because the script is wallowing in the moment instead of moving forward. It may even suggest that the character’s overall motivations are unclear, because there is a lack of motivation in the moment.

Can a character be sad? Sure. Can a character feel like they don’t know what to do with themselves? Absolutely. But it’s your job as a writer to make sure it doesn’t last too long, and that the way they deal with their sadness is specific to them.

Think about the relationship between a protagonist and a viewer/reader as being like a relationship between friends. If someone you care about is feeling sad, you want that to be a temporary state. You want them to pull themselves out of it or help them out yourself. It’s a similar reaction when we attach our hopes and fears to a fictional character. If we care about them; if we sympathize in some way, we want their suffering to end.

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