In watching modern films, editing fiction manuscripts and doctoring screenplays, I’ve noticed a prevalence of the use of “flashbacks” in order to define and explain a character or plot. The danger is when flashbacks become “defeating darlings” that the authors cannot bring themselves to slay, even when it’s for their own good. My work is helping authors of fiction & screenplays create marketable products they can submit anywhere with confidence, so I get an anticipatory stomach twinge when I come across FLASHBACK or a new paragraph with fonts italicized. The reasons are…


FLASHBACKS:

                • Have become formulaic and tired.
                • Are too easily used when a more clever or interesting way of telling your story, or exposing your character’s motives and temperament, is possible. This is especially true with novels, which do not have the strictly-visual-storytelling limitation of film.
                • Too often, flashbacks aren’t used with discretion. Or they’re placed at the wrong location within the story to complement existing “beats,” and so defeat or deflate the story’s tension and pacing.

If a storyteller seeks to lull their readers and viewers deep – and compete with other ink-and-crew-worthy projects vying for money and production – they would be wise to ask themselves a few questions before cavalierly using flashbacks in order to unfold their stories.

Questions to Ask when using Flashbacks to explain Character Back-Story/Motivation:

  • Do you need to explain the character this much, or will the audience/reader “get” what they’re about without the literal explanation of a flashback?
  • Might it be more interesting and engaging if this character surprised the audience/reader with behavior a bit off (or even way off) from what they might assume and expect of the character?
  • Does it serve your story to actively play with your audience/reader’s assumptions about this character by withholding the flashback information? (We are curious about those who puzzle us).

For Screenwriters:

  • Is the flashback there because you’re uncertain what an actor can successfully convey about your character without words or explanations? (Note: It shouldn’t be. Take an acting class. Find local actors willing to table-read all or part of your SP).
  • Can you deliver the same information in a montage with supporting music, or by using other visual allegories and metaphors?
  • Can the character react to something in their environment in such a way that the audience/reader gets a glimpse of the character’s wound or desire without all the “what/where/when & how” of a flashback?

Questions to Ask when using Flashbacks to explain Plot:

  • Will your story work without the flashback? (The first question, this determines whether you might want to look at alternatives for delivering that information, or if you could simply leave it out).
  • Does the flashback contain more back-story than you need in order to maintain audience/reader understanding? (Often, less is more; trust your audience/readers).
  • Is there any other way you can fill the audience/reader in on whatever critical “fact/s” you want them to glean from the flashback, such as: an old file or relic found, a family photo album, a newspaper clipping or old news footage, a hidden government document or a corporate memo floating in the trash at the city dump?

Every way we have of sharing information can be shown in film, so the possibilities are naturally endless for creating feasible plot lines without the heavy use of flashbacks to explain them.

In literature, any information the reader needs to know can be conveyed by the “narrative voice,” so fiction novelists have no excuse for using flashbacks other than stylistic. Overall, I believe flashbacks loan themselves more authentically to literature than to film. Although, as one friend pointed out, some films have used flashbacks exquisitely.

What to consider for Placement of Flashbacks in a Screenplay

If you feel the flashback’s content is essential, and you can think of no other way to reveal that vital information (outside of exposition in your dialogue, which we have faith that you refuse to do), make sure you place the flashback at a point in your story that is already in a downbeat. Flashbacks can deflate present-tension, and when over-used or used carelessly, will serve to disengage your audience. All fiction has a heartbeat; a pulse and rhythm (more on that in an article to come). So if you must use flashbacks, please place them carefully, intentionally, and only after you’ve considered all your options.

Another suggestion would be to find a clever way to use the flashback structurally. Examples might be the movie “Stand by Me,” directed by Rob Reiner; the entire movie is a flashback, as was “Amadeus, (both brilliant works of storytelling and film).

Refusing to dip into the most mundanely used “tricks” of storytelling will help improve your craft, force you to think about your story in ways that you had not, and perhaps give your work the unique edge it needs to succeed. A little flash goes a long way; use it wisely.

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