FLASHBACKS, Part 3: Making The Past Present
By Jacob Krueger
But this series is called 100 Rules and How To Break Them for a reason. So get ready to learn how to make flashbacks work for you by looking at three great movies that broke all the rules with flashbacks, and succeeded because of it!
FLASHBACKS PART 3: Making The Past Present
What do Blue Valentine, Memento, and Sophie’s Choice have in common? They’re all chock full of flashbacks. Yet not one of them suffers from the problems we’re supposed to be so worried about when using flashbacks. Somehow, the writers of these films have managed to keep their stories driving forward, despite having a vast amount of the plot take place in the past. And as a result they not only succeed in spite of flashbacks, they’re better movies because of them.
So how did these movies succeed when so many others failed?
Making The Past Present
Flashbacks get in the way of your storytelling when they start to drive the action of your story backward. That means if you’re going to succeed with flashbacks you’re going to have to find a way to make the past feel present. In their own ways, Blue Valentine, Memento, and Sophie’s Choice all manage to do the same thing: take the information contained in the past, and translate it into a form that feels like it’s happening in the present.
Flashback Your Character, Not Your Audience
The first key to making the past present is making sure your flashback is happening for your character, and not just for your audience. Flashbacks that exist only to give the audience information by their very nature undercut the structure of your movie, by taking both your and your audience’s eyes off the primary element of structure: your main character’s present day journey.
On the other hand, by forcing your character to a point where they have no choice to flash back at this moment, you cause your character to deal with the flashback in the present—driving the action of your present story forward even as you flash back to the past.
Past Becomes Present In Sophie’s Choice, Blue Valentine and Memento
Think about Sophie’s Choice. A long time ago, while a prisoner in a concentration camp, Sophie was forced to choose between her two children: which would live, and which would die. But it’s not until the action of the present day story forces Sophie to once again to make an impossible choice (this time between two men who love her)– that Sophie finds herself revisiting the memory she’s been running from. We flash back at the same moment Sophie does. And for this reason, the past feels present.
In Blue Valentine the same effect is achieved through echoed images and parallel moments, which force the main characters to remember the birth of their relationship, even as its falling apart. And in Memento it’s the journey of reconstructing his past that leads the character to remember those past events—right now, in the present day story.
Earn Your Flashbacks
One of the keys to making sure your flashbacks exist for your characters and not just for your audience is to ask yourself the following question: Could your character have flashed back to this memory a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later in the story?
If your character could have flashed back at any time other than this moment, there’s a good chance that you are that you’re yet earning your flashbacks. And most likely those unearned flashbacks are just sitting there like the unneeded information they are, interrupting the flow of your story. That doesn’t mean you have to kill your flashback. It just means you have to push your character harder—until they have no choice but confront the memory, whether they want to or not
Just The Beginning
Of course, there are many other ways you can make flashbacks work in your screenplay. As in Blue Valentine, you can build two linear stories, and use the tension between them to create a sense of drama. As in Memento, you can build your flashbacks as a mystery, and slowly reveal the information in a way that affects your character’s present day journey. And as many writers in my classes have learned, you can play around with flashbacks during the early stages of writing your screenplay, even if you don’t know if or how they’re going to fit into your final draft.
When a Flashback Comes To You, Write It
Even if it never makes it into the final draft of your screenplay, following your instincts with flashbacks can help you get in touch with your characters, understand their desires, flush out their secrets, and identify their weaknesses. Sometimes, you’ll find that following your instincts leads to a flashback that fits perfectly into your movie. And other times, you’ll have to work to make it feel present, either by earning the flashback, or translating its most exciting elements into the present day journey of your character.
As with all writing, when dealing with flashbacks the important thing to remember is not to play by the rules—not mine or anyone else’s—but to listen to your characters, follow your instincts, and take the gifts your writing gives you.