This is part of the October issue of my new newsletter, which I've entitled Linda Aronson's Craft Skills Newsletter and to which you can subscribe (in the column on the right). So why the newsletter? Whereas the blog focuses on all types of script, the newsletter puts a strong focus on how to write and fix scripts that don't fit the conventional one hero, three act, linear chronological structure. These types of scripts - scripts that use flashback, multiple protagonists etc - are everywhere out there (The Great Gatsby and Blue Jasmine for example) but people rarely talk about them, I don't think any writer, new or experienced, can afford not to examine these forms. We all need to get our heads around them. In this issue I focused particularly on one kind of flashback structure, one that I've given the name of 'Preview Flashback'. If you'd like to see the full newsletter and subscribe to future newsletters (which means you'll get more articles along with discounts, the chance to be involved in webinars etc, just join in the form on this page to your right).
Flashbacks are not all the same ...
One of the major problems that people have in creating flashbacks is that flashbacks are generally regarded as being all the same. They're not. Some are actually structures in themselves, some aren't. Flashback is complicated, but doable. I’ve isolated seven kinds of flashback, all of which have a different effect, and luckily they all work to patterns (if you need an introduction to these seven kinds or a reminder, check out a quick summary of flashbacks that I've written for you here on my website. There's a great deal more in my book The 21st Century Screenplay and elsewhere in the blog)
This month I'm talking about the type of flashback structure that I've named 'Preview Flashback'. Preview flashback is a pretty simple kind of flashback, and the name is there to remind you of the mechanics of the form, since, as we writers all know, in the enthusiasm of the story it's easy to get distracted from the technical task at hand. Preview flashback presents the audience with a preview of a scene or sequence from later in the film as a hook. It then flashes back to the start of the story, telling it uninterrupted from start to finish, repeating the preview scene on the way. Goodfellas, for example, uses preview flashback.
You can see that preview flashback is fundamentally different from the kind of complex flashback structure in films like The Usual Suspects or Slumdog Millionaire or Citizen Kane. These films have many flashbacks and two storylines, one in the past and other in the present with the action jumping between the two. In contrast, preview flashback has only one storyline and one flashback. While preview flashback is of itself a simple structure, wrongly done it can be very damaging to your film. This is what the following article is all about.
Preview Flashbacks must pay off
After I'd given a talk on nonlinear script structure at the BBC TV Drama Writers' Festival, I got into correspondence with UK film and TV writer Phill Barron about what I'd call Preview Flashback. Phill is a very experienced writer indeed. In his letter, after discussing flashback very thoughtfully, he added a comment which, while it's interesting, I need to challenge. I need to challenge it because Phil is clearly picking an effect that a certain kind of flashback can provide in certain situations - and he's right in that - but I think he's wrongly attributing the cause of the effect, what it fixes and how you can get it. Since he is a man who knows his structural onions, I feel I need to flag a warning. Where I disagree with Phill is that he claims that films which open with what I'd call a preview flashback, do so simply to establish the genre, the only proviso being that the genre scene has to be very different from the initial scene.
Personally I think serious attention has to be given to any flashback or flashforward that opens the film, particularly in terms of its content. The wrong content can wreck your film. I think, in short, that flashbacks/flashforwards must pay off, so I'm using Phill's comments as the starting place for a wider discussion on preview flashback
Phill's Comments on Preview flashback and genre
Phill says this about preview flashback:
It seems to me a lot of films adopt that structure [preview flashback] primarily because they otherwise wouldn’t open with a genre scene. Comedies start with a joke, musicals start with a song, action films start with action ... but sometimes the stories need to start in a different place. If it’s an action film, for example, then the easiest way to get round this is to pinch 3/4 of an action sequence from later on and stick at the beginning.
To my mind, that buys you about 20 – 30 mins of scenes which aren’t action (or whatever the genre is) because you’ve shown the audience it’s coming and hopefully whetted their appetite enough to sit through the essential, often non-genre, character scenes. Although I only think this works if the scene you flashback to is completely opposite from the initial scene and you can’t see how the protagonist goes from A to B. If it’s too similar or you can easily imagine the journey, then it doesn’t work.
Opening with a genre scene and flashing back is frequently done because otherwise the first act of the script is non genre and therefore not what the audience has paid to see.If the following scene is too similar in tone or it’s too obvious how the character will get from there to the opening scene, then it just feels like a gimmick instead of a natural story structure.
I agree that some stories need to start in a different place. I also agree that you pinch ¾ of a scene from later on (although I don't think it always has to be only 3/4). I think, too, that preview flashback does indeed establish genre and indeed, that's something I hadn't thought of, so, many thanks to Phill for pointing it out to me. But, with respect, in suggesting that preview flashback is all about establishing genre, I think Phill is picking a side effect rather than the cause. My view is that successful preview flashback turns your film into a detective story - and because of that, the opening preview always has to be a vital plot clue that will later pay off. In short, in preview flashback plot content is king.
I should say that I strongly suspect that Phill, out of his extensive experience, would intuitively pick a vital scene as the preview flashback. It's the sort of thing that seems blindingly obvious to experienced writers, who tend to forget it's taken them many years and many scripts to get that degree of mastery in storytelling. However, intuition can fail even the very best of us at times, so let's see if we can establish some sort of guidelines in this area for new writers, experienced writers and everyone in between.
To summarise, we have two questions:
1. can we use an opening flashback that's interesting but not really relevant to the story?
2. Isn't the preview just a genre scene inserted to give energy to a film in which 20-30 minutes at the start is not in genre?
What I intend to show here is my view that if the character or action depicted in a preview flashback doesn't give us a vital plot clue, the preview flashback can damage your film in a variety of ways.
However, before I do that, I want to discuss this suggestion that preview flashback can take the curse off 20-30 minutes of unfunny comedy or off action films without action.The reason I'm going into it is because it's working on a false but very common assumption about flashbacks, one that is perhaps the greatest trap. This is, that flashback is a quick and easy fix for parts of your film that lack suspense. Flashback does indeed insert suspense. It can indeed be a great fix. But it's not easy and it can work only in certain situations and under specific conditions.
Flashback is not a cure-all
You can't just insert an exciting or interesting flashback into a film that's flagging or boring and hey presto it's fixed. Yes, you will get instant energy, but when the flashback is over you have to return to the boring bit and things will be worse - because the audience will then realise just how boring the boring bit is. You will factor in a whacking great anticlimax. If you insert a number of these into a boring or meandering story the audience may actually forget where they are in the present. Alternatively, your flashback may rivet your audience's attention but send them into completely the wrong direction, believing your story to be about something it's not.
So let me be pedantic here. Are there actually successful linear comedies out there are that are not funny for 20-30 minutes, for their entire first act, but work well because they have a funny preview flashback inserted at the start? Ditto action films with action preview flashbacks, ditto musicals with preview flashbacks of great songs? Wouldn't that dead 20-30 minutes kill the films? Wouldn't that material be cut?
And what is happening on screen in these 'character scenes' if they are 'non-genre'? How can a scene not be in genre? Are we positing some kind of all-purpose 'character scene'? Genre is a matter of plot, style and theme. Surely, character interaction in a comedy is always dealt with in a comedic and/or whimsical way while character interaction in an action film is always dealt with in a way appropriate to the action genre. As for 'character scenes' in a musical being separate from genre, these scenes are often exactly where the characters have their torch songs.
I think the word 'genre' is not accurate in this instance and is actively distracting. I'll be very precise here and say that what I think Phill is picking here is not to do with genre. What he's describing (and he's quite right) is that films which necessarily have a slow setup to their plot - a set up that is apparently irrelevant or wandering - can indeed be invigorated with a flashback. But I'd say it must be a flashback with right plot content.
A successful preview flashback
Goodfellas features a brilliantly successful preview flashback. The film is about a decent young man who gradually becomes a depraved and amoral gangster. Chronologically told, the story shows how the decent young boy gets involved with the gansters and, for a long time, how his life as a gangster is all great fun. However, at the midpoint there is a horrific scene in which the protagonist and other gangsters calmly and cold-bloodedly execute and bury a man. That scene marks the young man's descent into evil. The film is no longer a good fun gangster romp. It shows his terrible decline, from which there is no return.
Having opened with this crucial execution scene, the film then flashes back to the start of the man's story when he joins the gangsters, with a line of dialogue that is or close to : 'I always wanted to be a gangster'. The effect is chilling. It's quite brilliant. Without that preview flashback the film would have come over as a gangster romp that suddenly changed its mind and became a moral tale. As it is, we know the nice young boy is on his way to moral destruction.
Goodfellas illustrates what a good preview flashback should do. It enhances the film by giving a vital and very specific plot clue that will pay off later. Let's look further into this.
Flashbacks are clues that need to pay off Whether you like it or not, a flashback at the start of a film instantly turns your film into a detective story. The audience views a flashback at the start of a film as a plot clue that has to pay off later in the film. If you draw an audience’s attention to something at the start of the story they have a right to expect it to pay off, and their expectations are increased because many films do exactly that. In fact, we could say that in many films, the opening flashback actually gives us the topic of the film, what the film is 'about'.
You can’t just insert any old scene that you feel is interesting or indicates genre. If you do you risk either a) factoring in an anti-climax (and the irritated response: ‘what was all that about?') or else b) sending your audience, which automatically believes your opening flashback to be a clue, wildly off course as they wait in vain for its characters and events to pay off.
It’s like me saying: ‘Listen to what happened to me this morning…!’ then making a point of showing you a piece of jewellery. You of course focus on the jewellery, assuming it to be relevant to the story. But then I go on to tell a story that has nothing to do with the piece of jewellery at all. At which point you are liable to feel very frustrated, to feel that I have wasted your time and emotional engagement.
If you say to your audience: ‘Look at this!’ they will naturally assume it’s of itself important. And they will be particularly irritated if you mislead them at the start of your film because audiences assume that every moment at a film's beginning is a clue. You have maximum audience attention and goodwill. You mess with that at your peril.
Trap a) ‘What was that all about?’ You can see this problem very clearly in The Well. I've written about this film before (The 21st Century Screenplay p.262). It opens with an accident on a country road. Two women accidentally run down a man in their car, killing him. The core of the story is the fascinating idea that the women hide the body in a disused well and drop down stones to cover it only to suspect, to their horror, that the man is not dead and that he has escaped and is coming back to kill them.
However, the way the film is structured, it opens with a flashforward to the accident (which is indeed striking) but then goes into flashback to explain how the two women got together. This has nothing at all to do with the well story which is 'the hea't of the film (that is, what defines it and makes it original). Predictably, when we finally see the accident again, returning to the body-down-the-well story, there is a classic ‘what was all that about?’ moment as the audience ponders the irrelevance of the flashback. That flashback has done nothing but force the film to start again. Compare this with the recent telemovie An Accidental Soldier, which successfully uses a preview flashback based on a 1st act turning point (see the structural review later in this newsletter).
My guess is that the accident scene was inserted at the start precisely to do what Phill suggests - to indicate the genre because the opening part of the story (how the two women met) is slow. The accident does indeed insert excitement and tension and suggest a thrilling film. But surely the answer here is to junk the boring irrelevant 'how they met' section, not to try to pump it up with a flashback. You can't do that. A redundant bit of back story is a redundant bit of back story - made all the more dreary because it stands in stark contrast to the exciting road accident.
As I've said, the flashback needs to provide a clue to the outcome of the story. If all it does is provide a bit of dreary irrelevant backstory, or mask a dreary bit of characterisation, forget it.The issue here, actually, is understanding what story you are trying to tell. Significantly, the film was an adaptation of a story. Fiction can get away with a very slow meandering set up. Film very often can't.
The film Beat, about the Beat Poets, is another example of this. It opens in a riveting way - a man has a gun to another's head! Exciting? Yes. Setting up genre? Yes. But that scene goes nowhere. It just depicts a moment of random risk-taking among the beat poets. As in The Well, once it's over the film has to start all over again.
Trap b) Sending the audience in the wrong direction This is the second way your preview flashback section can damage your film. The Jammed, a very fine film about human traffickers, provides us with a powerful flashforward 'genre scene' to overcome a slow start. Again, the flashback doesn't pay off, but in this instance it sends the audience in the wrong direction, away from the central characters and the main plot. It sets up emotional engagement with the wrong character. Like my jewellery story, the film starts out telling us one story then switches to another.
The film opens with a blonde Caucasian girl desperately running to a phone box and making a call for help. We naturally assume that this girl is the central character and that this scene is crucial to the film. We emotionally connect with her in her terrible distress and panic. However, we then cut to a different story, with a slow set-up. An Australian woman is at an airport and meets a woman from China who has come to Australia to hunt for her missing daughter.
The Australian starts to help the Chinese mother, and we gradually discover that the missing daughter is with the traffickers. The film's story is all about the Chinese girl and how the Australian woman and the mother hunt for her. The blonde girl, far from being the person we assumed the film was all about, is merely another girl who has been trafficked.
Personally (and perhaps others didn’t feel this, but one can only speak for oneself), I found myself waiting for the blonde girl to return. I wasn't really focussing on the mother, her new friend and the Chinese girl. I was waiting to see how the blonde girl - with whom I’d emotionally engaged - was going to fit into the picture and become the heart of the story. But she didn’t. Hence, instead of emotionally engaging with the desperate mother and her daughter, I finally engaged only intellectually, doing so only after the anticlimax of finally realizing who the film was about. That visceral panic in me that the escaping blonde had created evaporated. It was wasted.
I'd argue that the preview flashback adversely affected a fine film. However, note that, just like the flashback in The Well, this flashback ticked all of the boxes for our two writers. The opening flashback in The Jammed certainly inserted energy into the film. It was certainly interesting. It certainly told us what genre the film was in.
How you could get a powerful opening here
The opening would have been much more useful to the film if the girl in the flashback had been the Chinese girl. In that instance we would have had one of the oldest and most powerful tricks in the dramatist's book: dramatic irony, the ticking clock.
Dramatic irony is when we, the audience, know something very important that the characters don’t and we are desperate for the characters to find it out. It’s the classic ‘Look out behind you!’ trick. If the girl rushing for the phone had been the Chinese girl we would identify instantly not only with the girl but, when her mother appeared, with her anxiety and with the hunt. We’d know that the story of the film was a girl taken for trafficking and her mother’s search. We’d be worrying about the right girl – the one who grabbed us emotionally through her desperate phone call – and we would be willing her mother to find her.
As it is, we don’t know until later what story we’re in and we don’t properly emotionally engage. Leastways, I didn’t, much as I admired the film.
Flashback, come to think of it, is often all about dramatic irony (that's interesting actually. Anybody got any ideas on that? Tell me and I'll put it in next month's issue )
Three Dollars is another film that ticks our two writers' boxes but sends us in the wrong direction because its opening flashback has content that doesn't pay off, sending the audience in the wrong direction. An opening flashback tells us the protagonist's life was regularly changed by a girl called Amanda. We wait for Amanda. She turns up only at the end (see The 21st Century Screenplay, p.260).
Bottom line: flashbacks aren't a momentary decoration or effect Only the simplest of flashback types can be used as a momentary decoration or effect that you can slip into a three act structure depending if you fancy it or if you want to establish genre. For example, the kind of flashbacks that I’ve named ‘flashback as illustration’ do this. Flashback as illustration is when, say, a detective in a crime movie asks suspects where they were on the night of the crime and each time we flash back to see that. There, the flashbacks are really just bits of dramatized backstory and yes, they are optional and essentially merely a matter of style, since, if you liked, you could transmit that backstory information simply by dialogue.
But most types of flashback have a major impact on structure. Indeed, some of the more complex forms (as in Slumdog Millionaire and The Usual Suspects etc.) are actually structures in themselves, in which we are in effect cutting between two chronologically-progressing films. Each of these is in a different time frame, and each is carefully structured in three acts, with particular attention to where the jumps between time frames occur.
To summarise, if you intend:
• to jump back and forth between past and present as in, say, The Usual Suspects or Slumdog Millionaire,
• to insert a big lump of crucial backstory at the start (as in Babette’s Feast – using what I’ve termed ‘Babette’s Flashback’),
• to use what I’ve named 'Bookend Flashbacks' (when you split one scene or sequence from the present to bookend a story in the past),
• to use a preview flashback,
you are turning your film into a detective story, a mystery. It needs to be solved.
Which scene to choose as the first flashback I started this discussion by talking about Goodfellas. Goodfellas starts at its midpoint because that it is the moment at which the protagonist crosses the line morally. If you were writing a film that had the same kind of moral message as Goodfellas, the midpoint would be a good place to start.
However, in my experience, most flashbacks that occur at the start of a film commence at the first or second part of the second act turning point (the first part being the protagonist’s worst possible moment and the second part being the decision to fight back) and then jump back to the disturbance, to where it all started. In some types of flashback they start on climax then jump back to the disturbance. I have written extensively on this in The 21st Century Screenplay.
Goodfellas was an exception. Another exception is the recent and fine telemovie An Accidental Soldier. This opens on its first act turning point (the protagonist, a World War I deserter, running desperately through a village in France and finding a woman who takes him in). It then flashes back to the start of the story, showing why and how he decided to desert. When the film returns to its opening moment (the man running away, deserting) we start pursuing the main story, the man’s relationship with the woman.
So why does a preview flashback from first act turning point work in An Accidental Soldier but not in The Well? In An Accidental Soldier, both the opening sequence (the preview) and the material to which we jump back are crucial to the plot.
Preview Flashbacks that pay off in unusual ways
There are three interesting instances in which successful films seem to do exactly what I recommend at the start of this article you avoid. In fact, they are all following the basic rule whereby the content of flashbacks or flashforwards is crucial plot material. The first is when the preview flashback is a kind of red herring, playing with your expectations so it actually uses anti-climax, but in a very successful way. The second is when a necessarily slow, exposition-heavy story is fixed by judicial use of the right flashback or flashforward. The third is when character who is not the protagonist can successfully appear in an opening flashback.
a) playing with your expectations You find this often in the form I’ve termed ‘fractured tandem’, that is, the form in which we use equally important stories running in tandem but chopped up (21 Grams, Babel, The Hours etc.). A good example of the red herring effect appears in The Hours. Here, the film opens with a scene of a suicide. We assume this is a preview flashback, giving us a suicide that will happen later in the film. We expect a suicide and yes, we get it - but the person who commits suicide is not the one we expect. Thus the opening suicide scene is a red herring.
Fractured tandem often works on dread of death, and can make us feel a relief when the death we've been dreading doesn't happen. Paradoxically, the climax is an anticlimax.
b) Flashback and flashforward as a fix for a slow setup and problem films
Fractured tandem is also a great way to insert suspense into:
- didactic hence predictable films
- films that change genre
- film that have necessarily long set ups.
c) Mentor Antagonists I argued earlier that a preview flashback which features a character who is not the key character, particularly the protagonist, is dangerous. An apparent exception might be when a Mentor Antagonist character appears in the preview flashback, 'apparent' because the mentor antagonist is actually central to the plot and is usually the reason for the story. The story is all about this person.
So what is a mentor antagonist? A mentor antagonist is a special kind of antagonist that I've noticed appears in films with very specific story material. They are films with stories in which a passive reactive protagonist is taken on an adventure of the soul by an enigmatic charismatic and proactive outsider with a wisdom born of pain. The enigmatic outsider does not change, or changes very little, indeed, what marks them is their fixity of purpose. The person who changes is the protagonist. I've named this enigmatic outsider the mentor antagonist.
And yes, I know the idea of a reactive passive protagonist is deemed heresy and some would have your right hand chopped off for even thinking it, but it’s another instance where conventional narrative theory is too rigid.
Typical mentor antagonists are Raymond in Rain Man, Merrick in The Elephant Man and Andy (the Tim Robbins character) in The Shawshank Redemption. These characters are more interesting than the protagonist and need, for the sake of the story, to be seen from the outside, as antagonists, from the point of view of the much more normal protagonist whom they teach. Why? Because it's important for the story that we are not inside them, understanding what they're thinking. They must remain unpredictable. On the most basic level, if you could see what Andy in The Shawshank Redemption does in his cell you wouldn't have a film. It's also because the essence of the Shawshank Redemptiom story is that it's Red's story. It's about Red, Red, a normal person, the protagonist, is changed because of Andy. Changing the protagonist is what mentor antagonists do. I've written a lot about mentor antagonist films in The 21st Century Screenplay.
The thing to note here is that the mentor antagonist is crucial to the protagonist's story. Indeed, they are the protagonist's story.
My recollection is that The Shawshank Redemption does actually open with a flashback to the murders for which that Andy was wrongly jailed, and to his trial (yes? I don't have a copy of the movie with me). But you could also imagine a film which opened with a scene in which the mentor antagonist was shown behaving in a typical way - but then that scene didn't appear again in the film. It could be a stand-alone scene, a kind of teaser prologue.
By the way, since people often get confused about mentor antagonists, just remember that mentor antagonists do not appear in every story. They only appear in stories in which a normal person, often a child or young person, is changed by an enigmatic outsider with a wisdom born of pain. In these films the mentor antagonist is more interesting that the protagonist (this is more heresy on my part, but again, it's true). You can often pick mentor antagonist film because their titles refer to the mentor antagonist. Frequently, the title is actually the mentor antagonist's name or nickname. For example, some more mentor antagonist films are King Kong, Sophie's Choice, Jean de Florette, Julia - you get the idea .
Thanks for reading. See you next time! Well, if anyone is still reading and isn't off in a corner in a foetal position having brain fever, many thanks for reading on. Feel free to challenge this. That's how we progress. And don't forget to send me your ideas for webinars. If you want to subscribe to the newsletter, just do so in the column on the right.
With very best wishes to you all.
Coming up in the November 2013 Issue …
We'll be talking about flashback again, this time focusing on what can go wrong in Double Narrative flashback (the films that jump between a story in the present and a story in the past like Blue Jasmine, The Usual Suspects, Citizen Kane, Slumdog Millionaire, etc) Some of the things you’ll find in the November issue are:
'Double Narrative Flashback*: Where (and Why) Writers Crash and Burn ·
The structure of Broken: Is it unique? ·
Blue Jasmine and flashbacks
Keep those questions coming and thanks for all the nice comments you're sending. Remember, if you'd like to suggest a topic or ask a question, fire away.
Phill Barron's Blog
This blog The Jobbing Scriptwriter: One Man's Crusade not to Give Useful Advice is very funny. Read it..!