This is the thing about flashbacks …
Most flashbacks in the spec screenplay pile are DULL at best; DISJOINTED at worst. In fact, it’s incredibly unusual to find a non linear script in the pile that makes sense. Supersadface.
Similarly, though time can obviously be more malleable in a novel, unpublished novelists can still end up tying themselves – and the reader! – up in knots over where we ‘are’ in the timeline.
But why is this?
Well, it’s actually very simple:
Flashbacks are primarily a PLOT device. This means they should relate primarily to how the story works, from Set Up to Resolution. Guess how the average spec screenwriter uses them? Oh yeah, you guessed it – as a form of CHARACTERISATION (usually character motivation).
In other words:
Something happens to a character (usually a protagonist) — we FLASH BACK to something that ‘breaks open’ said character and tells us something about them.
Usually the above will refer to some kind of previous experience the protagonist has had that means s/he can handle what is going on in the present. Obviously this can work in *some* stories, but can be notoriously hard to pull off and I will explain why, next.
Character Versus Plot
So, the above is not ‘incorrect’, though I call them ‘intercuts’ or even ‘characterisation inserts’, rather than flashbacks. In screenwriting, we probably see these most often in television, which makes sense as we spend many more hours with these characters than in movies, usually (novels are by their very nature more psychological, so this technique may not even apply in a book).
A great example would be Captain Holt in Brooklyn 99. Throughout the various series, we sometimes see characterisation inserts of his struggles as a black, gay detective in the NYPD in the 1980s. The use of these characterisation inserts remind us what a warrior he has been throughout his career, as he’s fought against that double-whammy of prejudice.
But do notice these are ADDITIONS to the storyline being played out in the ‘present’. We can tell they are additions because if they were cut out for any reason, we would not necessarily know, because it’s the ‘now’ storyline we are invested in, plot-wise.
How Non Linearity Works
When it comes to flashbacks over intercut/insert, because flashbacks are plot devices, they are supposed to tell us something about the PAST to do with the STORY (not the character). This is because there are usually 2 time ‘strands’ to movies and television, which are:
- ‘Now’ (whatever that means)
- ‘Then’ (whatever that means)
Obviously much will depend on the story being told, plus the medium it’s being told in. NOW always takes precedent; it is the most important and will probably occupy something like 70-90% of the story ‘space’. This means anything ‘then’ will be the remainder of the story ‘space’.
To qualify as being non linear, the ‘then’ thread has to INFORM the ‘now’ thread in some way – and usually runs concurrently with it. So, if we spend too long looking backwards to ‘then’, the ‘now’ becomes turgid, dull or even disjointed. This is when readers – and audiences – check out, bored.
BTW – Novelists, this applies to us too
Using screenplay structure – especially when it comes to non-linearity – helps novelists too. I know this for a fact because everything I know about structure in novels? I learned from SCREENPLAYS. So before you think, ‘Ah, this doesn’t apply to me’ – STICK WITH IT. Don’t you dare tune out! Moving on …
Anchors & Throughlines
So, if we want to tell a non linear story (in our scripts OR novels!!), there has to be some kind of ‘anchor’ or ‘throughline’ so we can follow the story and know ‘where’ we are.
This is especially useful when we’re audience members and don’t have the script in front of us. However, the notion of a through-line also anchors the novel reader too, which movies can demonstrate. Obvious examples of these would be:
- In Groundhog Day, Phil wakes every day to the sound of the alarm and the same DJ (though this purely for illustration. I don’t recommend this method these days, it is VERY old hat now).
- In Slumdog Millionnaire, the game performs this function. Vikras is asked a question, then answers. His knowledge is based on his prior experiences.
- In Memento, even when the desire is to destabilise us and make it SEEM disjointed, there is still a very obvious throughline: Leonard Shelby’s narrative goes backwards, whereas the subplot ‘Remember Sammy Jankis’ (signified in the tattoo) goes forwards.
THE SHORT VERSION, THEN: If writers have to rely MORE on that past stuff to tell the reader (and potential audience) WHAT is happening ‘now’ in the story (whatever that means), there is a problem. We need to figure this stuff outing advance so we can ensure others can follow.
Non Linear Cool
Look, I get it. Non linearity is cool. It is also hard to do, so you can show off your writing chops if you’re able to master stuff like flashbacks, framing stories and so on.
BUT GUESS WHAT!
You have to actually know structure to mess about with structure — otherwise, it just becomes a big fat mess of a plot and no one knows WTF is going on. Le duh. But how do you do this??
Learn, Learn, Learn
First up, learn about structure, whatever that means to you, whatever you write in terms of genre pr medium. B2W always talks about structure being ‘BEGINNING – MIDDLE – END (and not necessarily in that order)’. This means I’ve created my own model of structure, based on all the various things I’ve read, watched, script-edited, written, drawn and mulled over:
As you can see, I’ve basically taken all the bits I liked about what others have described. There’s a chunk of Aristotle’s 3 Acts, Syd Field’s paradigm, hero’s journey, even a bit of Save The Cat. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, just finding what works for us.
How much is ‘enough’?
So, you might think you know about structure, but unless you have spent many hundreds of hours on this, I guarantee you don’t know enough. But how much is ‘enough’? Well, consider this:
i) Read more than 10 articles about structure
ii) Read more than 1 book about structure
iii) Check out more than 1 method/approach
iv) Make notes, draw pictograms, do worksheets
v) Discuss with your peers and how THEY see it
vi) Keep learning, all the time about this by watching and dissecting novels, TV shows and movies, plus their screenplays with structure in mind
In other words, IMMERSE YOURSELF. You need to develop a vocabulary for how YOU see structure working, so you can apply it to your OWN writing. It doesn’t matter how you do this by the way – no one cares – but you DO need to stop shying away from this and put the foundation work in.
Restructure Your Structure
So, once you’ve learned about structure going the ‘right’ way, you need to figure out IN ADVANCE:
- WHAT is the story in the ‘now’? (How much story ‘space’ does it need?)
- WHAT is the story in the ‘then’? (How much story ‘space’ does it need?)
- WHY are you doing it this way? (Always ensure the ‘then’ informs the ‘now’ somehow! Never write a non linear story simply for the ‘cool’ factor, there needs to be a STORY REASON)
- HOW are you going to ensure people can follow? (What is your ‘anchor’ or ‘throughline’ – see all the classic non-linear stories for how they do this)
Otherwise, you will be wasting many hundreds of hours on drafting. So you might as well learn about structure first, it’s more productive and less aggravating.
These articles are great, but the film loops are really annoying. PLEASE STOP DOING THIS!
They’re called gifs, grandad! 😉
I am watching Naruto for the first time since I was a kid and I had to look up an article like this because flashbacks suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Great article by the way.
Excellent as ever Lucy