Flashbacks, Part 2: Dancing With The Devil
By Jacob Krueger
Flashbacks, Part 2: Dancing With The Devil
As I discussed in Part 1 of the flashbacks series, flashbacks can be extraordinarily powerful storytelling devices. But they’re also dangerous territory for young writers. For this reason, many screenwriting gurus insist on rigid rules that scare young writers away from using flashbacks at all.
While that will definitely keep you out of trouble, it probably won’t bring out your best writing either. So if flashbacks are calling you, there’s nothing wrong with dancing with the devil in your writing. Just make sure you understand him first. Here are the top three reasons why flashbacks can be dangerous for young writers:
Reason #1: Movies move! And a lot faster than you think.
Generally, when movies are working, they’re hurtling forward at a breakneck pace, propelling your character on the most powerful journey of his or her life in a mere 100 pages. Flashbacks can stop this forward motion and reverse the momentum of your story, driving your character’s journey backwards when you want it to be moving forwards. Imagine if you were driving your car at 100 miles per hour, and suddenly slammed it into reverse. That’s exactly the effect that a poorly executed flashback has on a screenplay—killing the transmission just when things were finally starting to get moving.
Reason #2: Exposition Is Boring
Nine times out of ten, flashbacks exist in a movie purely to explain stuff to the audience. We call this stuff exposition, and it absolutely kills drama. No matter how exciting the content of your flashback may seem, if it exists only to explain stuff to the audience, it’s probably not going to have the effect you intended.
Audiences come to movies to watch drama—a character pursuing something they desperately want in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles—not to find out information about stuff that happened a long time ago. Watching a movie filled with expository flashbacks is the equivalent of having an annoying friend whispering in your ear the whole time, explaining why things are happening, instead of just letting you experience the character’s journey.
Reason #3: If You’re Focused On The Audience, You’re Not Focused On The Character.
Even more dangerous than the problems flashbacks can pose for your audience is the confusion they can create for you as a writer. Whether you’re working on your first script or your hundredth, the biggest challenge of every screenplay is the same—creating the most powerful journey you can for your character. This means stepping into your character’s world, and seeing the story through your character’s eyes. Which is impossible to do if you’re spending all your time thinking about the audience.
Most likely, your character is well aware of his or her past. And if he or she spends all her time moping about it, the chances are they’re not going to go on much of a journey. Unless your character is a time traveller, his or her journey can only happen in the present—since it’s only in the present that your character can make choices that matter. In the words of Shakespeare, “what’s past is prologue.” The past is inherently undramatic, because there is nothing the character can do to change it.
By depending on flashbacks young writers often unwittingly rob themselves of the opportunity to dramatize the character’s journey in the present.
Because flashbacks by their very nature interrupt the flow of your story, they can trick you into thinking your character is changing, when they are actually treading water. It seems like so much dramatic action is happening—but actually what the audience is experiencing is a bunch of smoke and mirrors. The movie isn’t happening. It’s already happened. By abstaining from flashbacks, you force yourself to make the past present—to keep your eye on the journey of your main character, and to dramatize the action of his or her journey in the present day story, rather than relying on flashbacks to create the feeling of drama for you.
Flashbacks Are Dangerous. But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Fear Them.
It’s true that flashbacks can be hostile territory for young writers. But there’s no doubt that some of the greatest movies ever could never have been written without them. The best writers know they don’t have to fear flashbacks. They simply need to find ways to use them that enhance their character’s present day journeys.
Stay tuned for the final installment of the flashbacks series, in which I’ll be discussing three ways you can make your flashbacks work for you, and looking at the creative and effective use of flashbacks in Memento, Blue Valentine and Sophie’s Choice.