Thursday, May 11, 2006


It is widely advised that you shouldn’t begin your screenplay with a flashback. Strictly speaking, it’s impossible to have a flashback at the beginning of your story. If it’s the first scene then what’s it flashing back from? On a pedantic level, it would be more accurate to call it a prologue. You may revisit a different part of this prologue later on in the story, thus creating your first flashback.

So ‘don’t begin your screenplay with a flashback’ is misguided advice. Those who instruct that you should NEVER, EVER have a flashback in your screenplay should simply grow up and get a life. Flashbacks are a natural and essential screenwriting device that can strengthen the narrative, build suspense and develop character. They’re fine, they’re cool, they’re fun…but they’re difficult to place.

What really bugs people about the technique is that most writers implement poor flashbacks to explain an indulgent part of the backstory or express a dull piece of exposition. This kind of writing suggests a TV series of its own: “When Flashbacks Go Wrong”. And let’s face it, a lot of flashbacks are of this quality, hence why so many people advise to stay well away from them.

In truth, using flashbacks is a creative and challenging way to keep your story interesting and dramatic but it’s been tarnished by writers and directors who’ve made it an easy avenue for sloppy storytelling.

Basically what it comes down to is this: backstory and exposition bad, drama and revelatory information good. The trick is to make the flashbacks an organic and ONGOING part of the narrative so it doesn’t jar with the advancement of the PRESENT DAY story. A flashback should do one of many things: build the tension, raise the stakes, develop character, reveal crucial information, make the tea (joke)...

In Signs, M Night used (I think) about six flashbacks that revolved around the car crash of Mel Gibson’s wife. The first few were intriguing glimpses, nothing more, and were carefully structured around the ongoing drama of the alien invasion so that the audience wanted to know what was going to happen. The flashbacks ended with the emotional release of the wife’s death (along with her final words that would have a pay-off later) so it helped to develop Mel’s character and reveal crucial information. Some people dislike the wife’s last words and its pay-off but the basic flashback sequence and its place in the story shows a writer/director who’s on top of his craft.

A few years ago, FLASHFORWARDS were all the rage. This sprightly sibling of the flashback would dramatise a key scene out of context to the normal flow of the story and then tease you to stick around to see how the plot reaches that dramatic point. Opening sequences like to do it quite a lot: Mission Impossible 3 does it, Carlito’s Way and A Perfect World too. The latter films reveal the protagonist’s death and then the rest of the film tells you the story of how he died, which is dissatisfying for me. Ideally, flashforwards should be intriguing and full of tension, not clear and absolute.

Also, if you’ve got a terrific flashforward, you’re at a disadvantage as the audience knows what’s going to happen in the story, to a certain degree. What you want to try to do is defy expectation and avoid predictability so that the flashforward is not the END of the film but possibly just one of the main turning points in act two. That way, when the audience reaches that point, they’ll be none the wiser about what’s going to happen for the remaining twenty minutes or so of the film.

What I love about Closer, written by Partick Marber (directed by Mike Nicholls), is that every scene pushes the story forward (it's a terrific script, so lean, incredibly deft), not one scene is wasted. What's particular interesting is that the narrative continually jumps forwards. Weeks. Months. While not strictly a flashforward, the narrative jumps ahead in time at a few crucial moments but you never feel out of synch with the characters and story.

Flashbacks, flashforwards. Some deride them as storytelling tricks, ostentatious bells and whistles to make up for the lack of story. But they’re not. They have a place. They can enrich and enliven a story. But they have to be done right. Remember, backstory and exposition bad, drama and revelatory information good.


Dan said...

Battlestar Galactica is a TV show that seems to be in love with flashforwards right now. Personally, I find most shows that use a flashforward as their opening scene quite lazy. It's as if the show doesn't have enough good climaxes to cover itself, so has to pre-empt itself!

Lucy V said...

I really liked the flash forwards in Perfect World - Kevin Costner lying in the field of grass, the money blowing about him, was presented as a utopia at first (what Butch wanted: peace and money), but gradually it became more and more obvious all was not "as it seemed". That's how I saw it, in any case. I last watched this movie BEFORE I started writing myself though, so it would be interesting to view it again.

I think flash-forwards, done well, can be every bit as gripping as a flashback. I love flashback as a device and use it myself, but do feel nowadays it's massively overdone in some contexts, thrillers in particular. What I really loved about the American Psycho film was it moved forward constantly, thru Xmas and into Easter and beyond without the audience even realising it...Like Danny says it was "lean".

Dominic Carver said...

I'm not a big fan of Flash forwards or flashbacks. In fact the only time I have ever used them is when I have wanted to heighten comedy value.


Enamel and Barnaby mid chat

ENAMEL: Do you think it wise to go after Paul Robson's girlfriend bearing in mind how he treated you at school?




Paul Robson, all muscle no brain, holds Barnaby's head down the toilet pan one handed while smoking a cigarette with the other. Barnaby's legs kick wildly in a vain attempt to get himself free.

I feel it's too easy to use flashbacks as a lazy alternative to good writing.

James Moran said...

Alias does flashforwards in nearly every episode, I think - but when you get to that scene later on, it's usually the opposite of what you expected, which I love.

Lost uses the flashback very well, at least the first season did (I'm only 2 eps into season 2) - particularly the Sawyer and Locke episodes, they were incredibly relevant and tied to what was happening in the present. I love a good flashback, in fact my next thing has one featured prominently - one of the "reveal a bit more each time" ones.

Danny Stack said...

Technically Dom, I'd call yours an 'INSERT': a sudden cut to a scene to demonstrate what the previous scene was talking about. Used lots in comedy. Spaced was particularly good at it.

Lianne said...

I'm in favour of flashbacks. At university I had a script that required flashbacks and my tutor suggested looking at the flashbacks in The Go-Between, which was really useful. The flashbacks I used were very brief, non-narrative snippets and they helped a lot to flesh out the main character and they also added to the theme, the atmosphere and the pace. The script wouldn't have had the same appeal without them. Granted though, flashbacks are difficult to do.

Anonymous said...

interesting and timely post. I am doing my first story now with Flasback and Flashforward. It is a challenge but I am excited by the process and the discovery as I make something happen

Dan said...

As James said Alias does it well. And surprise surprise if it didn't crop up in Mission Impossible 3 (as Danny said). Something to do with the film being directed/written by none other than Alias creator JJ Abrams me thinks? I guess he likes them so if you get the chance at directing/scribing a movie, go with what you're known for.

I didn't enjoy it by the way. Give me the Robert Towne/Brian De Palma combination any day.

Paul said...

I quite enjoyed the use of flashforwards in Spike Lee's new "joint" Inside Man.

The film itself is decent, a heist flick, but it disarms the conventional predictions of the audience with Denzil's cop interviewing released hostages in bleached-out ffs. The hostages reveal much about what happened.

The traditional tensions in this form of storyline then make way for other thoughts from the viewer, motives and characters in play.

Happily Spike constructs these richly enough to carry it off in my opinion.