Holy hell, do I hate flashbacks. Nothing bogs down a new screenwriter’s script like adding flashbacks. They’re usually clumsily written or terribly transitioned into. They’re a crutch writers use in order to reveal exposition and it has to stop.
While working at Pipeline last year I came across so many examples of bad uses of flashbacks. A majority of the time, these flashbacks were bad. I remember one incident of a flashback within a flashback. It was dreadful.
What Is A Flashback?
A flashback is a scene that takes place at an earlier time before the story.
Essentially they’re a plot device used, usually, to reveal something that has happened in the past. Today, because of the quality of video editing and storytelling, flashbacks are becoming normal yet stylized plot devices in television. Lost was very heavy handed with their use of flashbacks but the flashbacks were usually pertinent to the main story-line Desperate Housewives’s earlier seasons relied on flashbacks narrated by the deceased Mary-Alice in order to reveal plot or character developments. The first seasons of ABC’s Once Upon a Time and Revenge also relied heavily on the use of flashbacks for their main narratives. Like Lost, the flashback was often used parallel to the main storyline in order to create some motivation for a character’s actions.
Flashbacks are also being used more and more in comedies under the guise of cutaways. Family Guy is a notorious show for its use of cutaway gags. But in essence those cutaways are flashbacks – scenes from the past that happened prior to the narrative – as wacky as they can be. 30 Rock also uses a lot of flashbacks in its writings similar to Family Guy. They’re gags. But they’re used to establish actions the characters have previously done. New Girl has also utilized flashbacks in their storytelling for comedic purposes.
Film has various degrees of examples when it comes to flashbacks. Some are really good. Some are not.
A good example that comes to mind is V for Vendetta. There was one particular flashback that worked extremely well – far superior to the others. It was the letter which Natalie Portman’s character read regarding the lesbian couple being arrested. The segment was silent except for the narration. The scene was short. It was poignant. And it helped move the story forward. Natalie suddenly became sympathetic towards the movement. She was no longer a coward.
Batman Begins used flashbacks. It’s use of flashback wasn’t as strong as V for Vendetta. Our first flashback was when Bruce was training with Raas, and we flashback to Bruce’s origins story. The transition was clean. The actual flashback was adequate but it’s essential to the Batman mythos to tell that story.
Luckily, bad flashbacks rarely make it to the big screen. But they do find their ways into more independent movies you can find on Netflix and Hulu. One of the worst uses of flashbacks came from a movie I caught on Netflix, Fear Island. In this film, a survivor recounts the terrors she experienced on a trip with her friends. The story is told from a series of flash backs but some of the flashbacks shown are shown from a POV the character narrating could not have known unless (spoiler alert) she was the killer.
Syd Field has written, “Flashbacks are a tool, a device, where the screenwriter provides the reader and audience with visual information that he or she cannot incorporate into the screenplay any other way. The purpose of the flashback is simple: it is a technique that bridges time, place and action to reveal information about the character, or move the story forward (1).” While reading scripts from Pipeline, I’ve come across a lot of examples of poorly written examples of flashbacks. The flashbacks were written as a way to show something about a character that could’ve easily been said or shown some other way in the script. The flashbacks read so intrusively and it annoys the fuck out of me.
One of the most ghastly examples I’ve read to date come from a script titled, “Too Much of Nothing.” If memory serves correctly, the story was about a cab driver who is helping his lover kill her other lover in order to rob him. However, their plan gets derailed when their target accidentally kills his wife in the process. The plot itself was convoluted. However, the plot was made more convoluted by the use of flashbacks that constantly interrupted the narrative. Here’s a portion from my coverage:
The story is dragged down by the use of flashbacks. The writer of this script used approximately 25 flashbacks, some of which were flashbacks during flashbacks. Worst of all was the fact that the flashbacks were coming from all three characters when the entire story is told from the point of view of Sam. There was even a flashback from Laura’s wife.
At least 25 flashbacks in a script that 97 pages long? The script wasn’t even being told in a non-linear style either. It just had at least 25 flashbacks. Poorly transitioned ones, no less.
I remember laughing out loud while reading the script when the flashback within a flashback came. The Bernie Maddoff-like character was being consoled by his mistress when out of nowhere we cut to an intrusive flashback of Maddoff and his wife arguing about who leaked his misdealing to the SEC. She swears she didn’t do it but agreed to testify against him when she found out he cheated on her. He then accuses her of being a cheater too to which we cut to her riding a handsome guy.
(FROM “This Last Lonely Place” by Steve Anderson.)
Oh, spare me. Don’t be so high and mighty.
I’ve seen your latest conquest. Mr. Handsome? In our bed?
Tit for tat, Frank.
Laura can’t hide her almost lustful smile.
INT. MANSION BEDROOM – NIGHT
Upstairs, Laura Devore is naked on the massive bed, vigorously riding Mr. Handsome. It’s good sex, very good sex. Both parties seem to be completely enjoying themselves.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
With each affirmation, he thrusts harder, deeper. She leans forward, holding both of his strong hands for balance…
Holding tight, Mr. Handsome is Cameron Kane.
RETURN TO FRANK’S FLASHBACK
INT. BEVERLY HILLS MANSION – NIGHT
Laura smiles, quivering just a little at the memory.
Alas, it will be her last quiver ever.
That added flashback was completely unmitigated. It was unnecessary. It was useless. Clearly her response and body language spoke more volumes about her infidelities than that stupid flashback ever could. The film is in production. I’m sure a few years from now it will be available on Netflix.
Have I seen good uses in screen writing by writers? Yes, I have. One that comes to memory is a script I read called “Lucky Them” by Huck Botko and Emily Wachtel. The script is about a music columnist who is sent on a search to find out if her former lover, a Kurt Cobain-like figure, faked his own death. The script makes good use flashbacks by never showing flashbacks. Instead the flashbacks are spoken. It allows a reader to imagine the tale. If were to be onscreen, it allows a performer to shine.
In terms of actual flashbacks used as they’re meant to be used, I have read a couple of scripts where they don’t feel intrusive. Part of the problem I’ve seen is the transitioning from present to flashback.
“Waldo Salt, great screenwriter of Coming Home and Midnight Cowboy, told me that he thought a flashback should be thought of as a “flashpresent,” because the visual image we’re seeing is what the character is thinking and feeling at that present moment, whether a memory, or fantasy, or event; a flashpresent, he remarked, is anything that illuminates a character’s point of view.
Syd Field (1.)
Writers should think about what is triggering a flashback when they write one. If there’s no good trigger then there probably isn’t a need for a flashback. Is the flashback going to tell me something that can’t be shown any other way? If not, there’s probably no need for a flashback.
To Write a Flashback or Not?
I am a firm believer writers shouldn’t be restricted to writing with rules. There are no rules in writing besides grammar and punctuation – and some writers have thrown those conventions out of the window.
However, every writer wants to make their script into a movie. Writers should be very careful when writing flashbacks. They can often times make or break a script in my experience.
As a script reader, I read all movie scripts with an open mind. If I come across a flashback I’m not going to stop reading. I am however going to be extra critical about the writer’s judgement to include it.
1. Field, Syd. Uses of Flashback. LINK.