IS YOUR FLASHBACK HELPING OR HURTING YOUR SCRIPT?
You know that exhilaration when you’re going uphill on a busy highway, your car finally gets momentum and you’re rolling along at last? Huzzah, life is good!
Only to have to pump the breaks because of traffic, or someone cutting you off, and you’ve lost all that hard won impetus?
That’s how I feel about 85% of all flashbacks in scripts. They suck all the momentum, energy and emotional involvement the writer worked so hard to create in the script.
Not all flashbacks are created equal.
Some flashbacks work brilliantly. For instance, in Netflix’s limited series, The Queen’s Gambit, often the episodes start with a flashback of the main character’s messed up childhood, giving the viewer insight about how Beth got to be the way she is.
There are many feature examples as well, from Rashomon to Forrest Gump, that masterfully use flashbacks as a storytelling device.
And that’s the problem; when one writer’s tool becomes another’s crutch.
What’s the main reason most flashbacks fail?
Struggling to follow the ‘show, don’t tell’ edict, a screenwriter might use a flashback into their characters' past to ‘show’ us information they think we need to have for the story to make sense.
Typically, however, the scene becomes an ‘info dump’; the writer backs up a semi-truck full of exposition and dumps it on the audience.
For instance, say you have a scene where two men are on the run from the police. There’s tension built in, and the stakes are high. But you’re stuck on how to reveal what’s happening, so you show a flashback of the characters robbing a bank.
Does revealing this information move the story forward?
In this case, no. We could tell the men were on the run from the flashing lights or shouting over bullhorns, or even a car chase. We’re more invested in wanting to see what happens next than how they got in the situation.
As Alexander Mackendrick points out in his book, On Filmmaking, flashbacks are by their nature not dramatic. “Because a flashback is a description of past (and already resolved) tensions… it can all too easily become an interlude that interrupts the flow of the story.”
Another way of looking at it is that we already know how the flashback ends because we’re living the result in the present-day story.
Sometimes it’s a question of how you structure the story to get the information the viewer needs. In the bank robber story, why not show the scene of the robbery first, followed by the chase?
There’s a reason Guardians of the Galaxy took the time in the beginning to set up Peter Quill’s past rather than bringing the action to a screeching halt to explain how he got that cassette tape from his mother. The information is important in order to understand the character, but if the movie had inserted a flashback to explain it, the disruption to the story would have been jarring and broken the tension.
When do flashbacks work?
There are several ways that flashbacks can enrich a script. They can tell a separate but related story that gives the audience a deeper appreciation and insights into a character.
Used correctly, flashbacks can also provide greater understanding of why a character behaves the way they do, adding interesting layers to the story. Above all, writers have to use them consistently in a script, not just when they get stuck.
The television series Lost used flashbacks to give the audience insights into what and how events from the characters’ past influence how they act today. The question the audience eagerly waited to answer was if/how the event had changed the character for better or worse. The actual plot points had less to do with the episode’s story than how they shaped the character.
Aaron Sorkin and his brilliant staff of writers used flashbacks in the last two episodes of season five of The West Wing. Long story short, President Bartlet faces a tough decision about retaliating for an attack. In the episodes, the story flashes back to right before Bartlet was sworn in and he faced a similar situation.
In both cases, the flashbacks related to the main plot, but were there to give the viewer emotional insights to what made the characters tick rather than the exposition of the ongoing story. The viewer couldn’t be sure how the flashbacks ended, so tension continued to build.
Revealing backstory through flashback isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Again, in The Queen’s Gambit, (it sounds boring, a show about chess, but it’s well worth watching I promise) the writers let the audience peak behind the curtain of Beth’s past to understand her emotional issues, but they structured it in a way that didn’t interrupt the flow of the story.
But keep in mind the audience enjoys having to do some work to figure out the history of characters like The Mandalorian, rather than laying all the cards on the table in clunky flashbacks. It can make them more invested in your characters if you maintain a little mystery.
How can you tell if your flashbacks work or not?
- Does the script have only one flashback to plug a plot hole you got stuck on? Then just say ‘no’.
- Does the flashback enhance the audience’s understanding of what’s going on in a character’s head? Consider keeping it short and flash on!
- Is the flashback properly motivated? If it hinges on a character saying, “Hey, remember that time we went to the mall?” and cuts to said trip to the mall, move it to your “file of brilliant scenes I’ll use some day”
- Does it happen in the all-important first ten pages OR in the last ten? Seriously consider restructuring or finding another way to give the same information.
- Can the flashback be replaced by brief dialogue that keeps the story moving forward and could also lean into the tone? (Is the story funny? Dark and gritty?) To paraphrase the great storyteller, Captain Barbosa, think of ‘show don’t tell’ to be more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule.