1. One hero on a single linear chronological journey towards redemption
Am I mad? How can I possibly say there are six main families of structures, with 18 different sub categories and hybrids forming all the time? People are sometimes skeptical about this, indeed sometimes get a bit cross about it. Personally I’d say that what is really odd is the idea there is only one type of storytelling structure in screenwriting. Why should screenwriting be the only form of human endeavor that can be done in only one rigid way (although actually it demonstrably isn’t)? Just as a bit of fun, let’s look at a few other art forms, other forms of creative structure. Here, off the top of my head and in absolutely no order at all, is my layperson’s examples of main categories in these spheres (not even counting sub categories and hybrids), about which I think a person in the relevant profession would need to possess some awareness. Read these and then consider whether suggesting that there is only one form of structure for telling a story seems likely or sensible. Would you go to a music school that forced you to write only jazz? Or an architecture school that insisted there was only one design for a domestic dwelling? In short, in screenwriting as in all spheres of human activity there is more than one way to skin a cat. My thanks to Wikipedia (which will give you many more than I have listed here) and best wishes for your next trivia night. Apologies to all cats for any offense caused. I agree that it is a barbaric expression. No animals were hurt during the creation of this post...
I recently wrote the post below entitled Ten Ways the Conventional Hollywood three act one hero Chronological Structure will let you down. A filmmaker responded: ‘It worked for William Shakespeare’. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but I feel this is inaccurate, and since those of who write drama need to take old Bill very seriously indeed, I responded in detail, explaining that Shakespeare used multiple storylines, not just one and even flashback (in Henry V), his structure being similar to what we see in films like Nashville and Traffic and in many TV series and serials (which I suspect inherited their structure from the stage). I thought you might be interested. And by the way, always feel free to correct or challenge my ideas. Convince me and I'll change 'em. Here's the post
With respect I believe this to be inaccurate, but I'm happy to be corrected. Shakespeare's plays are all, famously, in five acts, but even if we leave that formality of structure aside, Shakespeare's plays to the best of my knowledge, all have multiple plotlines, not just one hero on a single journey, although each of those multiple storylines is usually, I think, a three act structure.
Shakespeare's plays utilise a very similar multiple storyline structure to the one used in films like 'Traffic' or 'Nashville' (a structure that I have I have termed 'tandem narrative' meaning 'stories running together') which is a structure involving a number of equally important stories on the same theme. In this, you have multiple storylines linked by: theme; often (but not always) geography; and characters that appear in several different storylines.
A lot of TV drama is structured like this, too, with multiple separate plotlines, hence the irritation of experienced TV writers when they're told linear one hero structure is the only way..
Shakespeare's comedies, like all Elizabethan/Jacobean comedies, famously have three plot lines, not just one, featuring three separate couples with stories on the same theme. Having three couples in a comedy was actually a convention of English comedy writing at the time, there being also a dance featuring all six together at the end of the play.
'Henry V' famously features what I've termed a bookend flashback structure (where a character in the present appears and talks about the past - or is reminded by it - and we flash back ('this wooden 0") . When we're in the past in Henry V, there are several storylines there. The tragedies have several plotlines on the same theme (eg King Lear has the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund storyline on the same theme as that of Lear, namely 'ungrateful/grateful child' but note that Lear himself appears in it only at the start ).
Also, while it is currently fashionable to assert that all great drama is based on the Aristotelian notion of unities of time and place and single plotline, Shakespeare was famous for not fitting this model. There was a huge debate about this in the eighteenth century, in which Racine I believe and the French neoclassicists rejected Shakespeare as a bad playwright) However, Dr Johnson wrote a famous piece arguing that Shakespeare transcended Aristotle's formulae. So the 'Aristotelian structure is the only one' argument was put to bed two centuries ago. And, of course, French neoclassic drama famously atrophied and died out because it was so rule bound). But that's a whole other issue.
Happy to be corrected if Shakespeare did write any plays that featured solely one hero in one chronological three storyline.
For more information on my theories go first to Practical Writing Advice on my website then read my book The 21st Century Screenplay. And there are also videos of me, some free, one, a two hour lecture, for purThis nonlinear multiple storyline stuff isn't easy, but it's doable. (and that witty pic of Shakespeare is from the very clever Slatebreakers site)
If you’ve ever wondered why so many experienced film and TV writers have serious doubts about scriptwriting theory it’s because it works on the assumption that all stories are about one dynamic proactive hero on a single chronological journey when they clearly aren’t -and professional writers have personal experience of this. As just one evening’s TV viewing will show you, many films and much TV drama involve multiple protagonists, time jumps, flashbacks, fracturing, multiple storylines and non-linearity. Here are ten types of film that the conventional model - useful as it is for certain types of story, doesn’t help you with.
(in conjuction with the National Film and TV School of Australia AFTRS )
Sydney: 22-23 February 2014.
Melbourne: 1-2 March 2014
Two-day seminar New Structures for Film and TV (including material originally created for BBC TV Writers' Festival on how to use nonlinear structures in short and long form TV series)
This seminar on how to construct a wide range of nonlinear and multiple storyline films that don't fit the conventional model is the only one of its kind in the world. It has proved extremely popular internationally particularly with experienced writers, but is suitable for writers of all experience levels, also screen editors, directors and script development executives.
PLease note: numbers are limited. Full details and bookings via AFTRS
November’s Advanced Screenwriting Newsletter
Hi everyone. This is an extract from my advanced screenwriting newsletter. You can read the whole article in the November issue , which you can access by going to the subscription form on this page and clicking 'Previous Campaigns'. If you'd like what you see you can then subscribe to the newsletter by completing the sign-up form. You'll then join our group of people who are interested in how to plan, write and edit film and TV scripts that don't fit the conventional one-hero-on-a-single three act journey. You'll also get special subscribers' access to discounts on my webinars, consultancies, videos etc. etc .
What is Double Narrative Flashback?
First of all, let's just confirm what double narrative flashback actually is. It’s the kind of flashback structure you see in films like The Great Gatsby, Blue Jasmine, The Usual Suspects, Citizen Kane or Slumdog Millionaire and many more. I gave it that name to describe its structure. That way, the name remains a constant reminder of what we have to do to create the structure.The name says exactly what the structure is (hence what you have to do): two narrative lines plus flashback.
You have two storylines, one in the past (a big one) and one in the present (usually much smaller, sometimes very small indeed) and the action of the film jumps between the two, with the two storylines joining again either three quarters of the way through the film or at its end.
It’s the most difficult kind of flashback, requiring a different kind of mindset and operating to all kinds of rules that just don’t apply in conventional linear narrative. Hence, it’s no surprise that it often causes trouble, even to the most experienced of writers.
The story in the present is what causes most problems
Over the years I’ve noticed that it’s the story in the present that causes writers the most problems.
The three main problems are:
1. The story material isn’t suited to double narrative flashback
2. There is insufficient or no mystery in the story in the present
3. The film is opening on the wrong scene in the present for the flashbacks to work
I think the reason writers have problems with the story in the present is that they aren’t really interested in it. I can really sympathize. When you’re writing a double narrative flashback story, what you’re in love with - your reason for writing - is the story in the past. So you don’t really care about the story in the present. It feels like a necessary evil. You want to rush through it in order to get back to the past.
However, if you want your story in the past to work properly, the evidence suggests that you must pay a great deal of attention to the story in the present, because if it’s not properly constructed it will drag the script down, even kill it. Unless your story idea has actually presented itself to you with a strong story in the present, you will need to make a conscious effort to create and fall in love with a story in the present (even if it’s very short indeed). You won’t regret it. You can do wonderful things with the story in the present and end up with two magnificent stories – look at Blue Jasmine
The story in the present is redundant (in other words, do you need flashback at all?)
I spend a lot of time suggesting to people with problem double narrative flashback films that their film doesn’t need double narrative flashback at all. Remember, if you use double narrative flashback you have to create a compelling unfolding MYSTERY in the present that you keep returning to, a story that really involves the audience, or they’ll get bored. You have to keep servicing that story, taking its protagonist forward, creating a plotline. It’s hard enough to create one good story, let alone two that you have to interweave. So think seriously whether you need it. If you don’t need it, the story in the present can become a millstone around your neck,
Possible Fix 1
Is Preview Flashback the answer?
Perhaps you do need a flashback, but it’s another sort of flashback, preview flashback, which I discussed in last month’s newsletter. Preview flashback is when the film opens on an event a long way into the story (usually the second act turning point) which provides a hook, then jumps back to the start of the story and continues uninterrupted through to its end, repeating the scene we saw at the opening. It’s really a simple loop, with a scene or segment from the body of film acting as a kind of tantalizing preview. It turns your film into a detective story of sorts because we want to know what that opening sequence is all about.
There are all kinds of good narrative reasons for using preview flashback. It can work wonders when properly used. So, if you feel you need flashback, maybe you are feeling a need for preview flashback, not double narrative flashback at all. The big advantage is that you don’t have to keep returning to the present to service a story that you don’t actually need.
Possible Fix 2
Is your film inherently a straightforward, linear chronological story?
I can explain this better by giving you an example of a film that I think has a redundant story in the present.The film is Paying it Forward. It opens with the story in the present. A young man is upset because his car has been stolen or broken down. A complete stranger gives him the use of his own car. The young man asks the stranger why he is being so generous. The stranger explains that he is repaying a good turn that was done to him by a complete stranger, and this is ‘paying it forward’. Our young man sets out to find the person who
(Continued in the November newsletter. You can read the rest of this article and preview the newsletter to see whether you'd like to sign up by going to the newsletter subscription form on this page. On it you'll see a 'Previous Campaigns' link. Click on that, then, if you think the newsletter is something you'd enjoy, you can subscribe. Just note that as an anti-spam protection for you, you'll be asked to confirm your subscription.)
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:
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..!
I'm delighted to say that for the first time, in response to many requests and in conjunction with Chris Jones of the London Screenwriters' Festival, the full two-hour film of my lecture at the London Screenwriters' Festival in 2011 is now available to purchase. And if you subscribe to my new Craft Skills Newsletter (which can do in the right hand column on this page) for a limited time you will be able to get a 20% discount. Below is the cover blurb.
In 2010, leading screenwriting guru Linda Aronson gave a talk at the London Screenwriters’ Festival that caused a sensation because it exploded the conventional Hollywood approach to screenwriting. The audience of scriptwriters was so anxious to hear more that they kept Linda talking for almost five hours after the lecture was finished.
What galvanized the writers were Linda Aronson’s step by step guidelines for planning and writing screenplays like 'Pulp Fiction' or 'The Usual Suspects' that use components like flashbacks, time jumps, multiple protagonists and nonlinear storylines – all elements frowned upon or actively banned by other screenwriting gurus.
In 2011 Linda Aronson came back to the London Screenwriters’ Festival and gave an expanded form of the lecture to hundreds of writers, explaining how to construct eighteen storytelling structures apart from the conventional linear, chronological one-hero model.
That historical, game-changing lecture was filmed by the London Screenwriters' Festival. For the first time it is now made publicly available by Linda Aronson in conjunction with the London Screenwriters' Festival in a special licence permitting you to view and keep on to download and own on three different digital devices. Watch a trailer.
I’m fascinated by that comment you often hear when people discuss non-linearity, to wit: ‘every film has a beginning middle and end – but not necessarily in that order’. And it’s always said dismissively, as if it ends the debate.
I find it interesting for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s totally inaccurate. Nonlinearity in all of the nonlinear structures is (as far as I can see) always arranged so that the end always occurs at the very end of the film, or else, if there are multiple stories, that the film ends on the end of one very powerful story, thereby getting its strong ending from that story’s ending, piggybacking, if you like, on that story’s pull to closure ( as happens in Pulp Fiction for example).
There is always a striking or thought-provoking resolution, indeed, nonlinear forms very often clearly show what I call a ‘Rosebud’ twist ( a term referencing Citizen Kane), where only in the final moments is the crucial answer given and this answer turns what seemed to be the message and point of the film on its head. In fact, it’s this pleasing tying-up of threads in an unexpected way that gives nonlinear films much of their pleasure.
But let’s move on. What practical help is this little dictum offering? Well, none. To the contrary, not only has it pointed you towards disaster by suggesting that you don’t have to have the end of the story at the end but it begs a dozen questions. Let’s look at it. ‘Every film has a beginning, middle and end but not in that order’. Surely one has to say: ‘ That sounds really useful, but can you please elaborate? Your comment implies that you have come to this conclusion after studying these forms in some detail (otherwise how could you make such a sweeping and apparently authoritative statement?), hence, can you please list these different orders, with examples? Please also explain by what rules, if any, one should choose to use any individual order? Is there any particular form of story content to which each is best suited? And please may I have some technical details here. How precisely am I to jump between the three components? Your argument is premised on there being three distinct parts to the story that one reorders. How do you define those parts? I need to know so that I know precisely where to start the reordering. How do we define the end of the beginning and the start of the middle and the end of the middle and the start of the end?
I’m not being smart here. These questions are the ones you really have to ask about the practical mechanics of non-linear. Where you jump stories is vital. Films crash and burn if you jump at the wrong places. Personally, I’ve spent years studying how and when and why nonlinear stories jump at the points that they do, and what effect each sort of jump creates for the audience and what sort of material suits what sort of structure. I had no choice about this because the jumps to and fro between stories make or break the nonlinear film and you need to choose the right structure to tell your story or it won't work. I’d say, for example, that many nonlinear forms open on the second act turning point of one of their stories then jump to its disturbance.
My only request is for precision and seriousness. Bottom line. Let’s have a proper debate about nonlinear.
Interestingly I’ve had two requests for advice from two very experienced writers about how to describe their complex parallel narrative film scripts (both of which involve multiple story lines and flashbacks) to potential producers, so, with their forbearance, I’ll address their queries at the same time. That way I can hopefully help the two writers as well as others with the same problem.
The first writer is getting good feedback on her script so wants to send it out to producers. She describes her complex script then asks: ‘How do you write a synopsis for non-linear material? Do you have any examples that you could share with me?’
Here’s my answer to writer number 1 .
Dear Writer Number 1
No, unfortunately I don’t have any examples to hand. Perhaps you could look online. But actually, unless I’m misunderstanding your terminology, I’m not sure that you’ve got a problem here. The three key problems in my view with flashback and other time jump/ nonlinear material are:
1. how to construct it so that it works and is understandable to the film audience;
2. how to write the script clearly enough for readers to vividly visualize what happens as they read;
3. (linked with both points 1) and 2) whether without knowing it, the writer and any readers are using the written direction as a crutch to understand where in time the flashbacks happen and to whom.
(By the latter I mean, double check when you've written your flashback script to see whether readers would know what date a flashback happened if there wasn't a date and the word ‘flashback’ written in the script in them. Also double check that a cinema audience - which doesn't have a script in front of them bearing the characters' names - would realise that the three year old toddler in a flashback is now 65 year old Fred and not his elderly friend Mike. Written information like this will not be available to your audience except by use of dateline captions or the like, which are not always appropriate. I've quite often read scripts where, for example, we visit characters in flashbacks across a lifetime and without the script it would be impossible to understand who the characters in the flashbacks actually are. In my response to Writer Number 2 I discuss visual ways to transmit this vital information)
Writer number 1, you seem to have achieved all of these things , since you're getting such good feedback about the script, so I'd say double check number 3 just in case, but if that's okay, the problem with the synopsis is essentially a pitching problem. That is, unless you and I have a different understanding of what a ‘synopsis’ is, which might be the case. Sometimes usage of these things can change.
In my experience, ‘synopses’ are very short – a paragraph. ‘Treatments’ or ‘outlines’ however can be about thirty pages long. Assuming you are talking about a one paragraph synopsis, the first problem (and it’s the perennial problem in any kind of pitch) is that you make sure you pitch to a producer who will be interested in the particular kind of script that you’re offering. So check that. Then, as far as the synopsis is concerned, I would describe the action just as you would for a general public audience, making it sound as interesting and intriguing as you can. Don’t go into the technical details. Just emphasise the story that you’re telling, suggesting what a powerful mystery it is, and how it’s unfolded bit by bit so as to reveal which character did what. There’s no need for anyone reading the script or watching the film to know what kind of structure you’re using or how you built it, any more than it’s important for the audience to know what kinds of lenses or audio equipment or editing software were used in shooting the film. If you start to talk technicalities you frighten people. The interesting thing about flashback and nonlinear films generally is that despite the panic that the mention of them often induces among people discussing screenwriting theory, unless the flashbacks in a film are very extensive or are being used in a very novel way, mostly people accept them without thought and people writing critiques mention them only briefly if at all. I just checked out a few sites for The Social Network. The flashback structure isn’t even mentioned. In The Life of Pi it's mentioned only in passing
If it turns out that you’re writing what I'd call a treatment or outline, I’d do the same. In all three I'd avoid technical terms like the ones I have invented and use in my book. I mean terms like: ‘fractured tandem’ ‘portmanteau’ etc. These are precise technical terms I created to remind writers of precisely what each structure actually is and what it has to do. They’re very useful to keep writers on track, but to other people they can sound very daunting. Producers who have been scared by weak flashback films might get scared off. Just tell the story powerfully. As I say, in most cases, people won’t even mention the flashbacks if they’re used successfully. I wouldn’t even use the term ‘flashbacks’ in the synopsis, personally (although you’ll need to use them in the script itself of course, as I’m sure you have)
In conclusion, I’d say, look at a few DVD covers of films that have resemblances to your film and read the blurb to get the idea of how the marketing people promote such films. That will give you the idea. The marketing people usually know their business. Next, write your synopsis to make your story sound as fascinating and thrilling as it can without including any technical terms or making a big deal about its nonlinearity.
I hope that's useful
WRITER NUMBER 2
Writer number two is using a very complex hybrid that contains dream sequences, flashbacks running backwards, a life changing incident flashback and possibly flashbacks out of chronological order. This writer says 'I just don't know how to make it an easy read for conventional readers wary of "FLASHBACK" I'm experimenting now with more precise naming: instead of "flashback" saying "an hour ago" "10 years ago" - but I don't know whether that's an acceptable way to write?? The extreme abundance of flashbacks now in use is making me desperate for a way to make them go-down-easy.'
Here is my response to Writer Number 2
Dear Writer Number 2 This sounds like a very interesting script but as you’re well aware, very complex thus prone to go off course. For you, as for Writer 1, an essential matter is to target the right producer. That's the first step. Now for my comments. I am a great believer in asking the hard questions about what might not be working, so if you don't mind I'll jump into these, boots and all rather than just dealing with the terminology issue you raise.
The primary issue here, as I’m sure you’ll be well aware (but it doesn’t hurt to mention it again) is whether you have actually succeeded in unfolding your story in a way that will be coherent on the screen, or whether you are just so familiar with the material that you are believing it to be coherent and powerful. That’s a big ‘if’, and you’ll need to test drive the piece on various people and grill them to see whether they get it. I'm sure you've either done that or are planning to.
My first thought after wondering the above was to wonder whether, as I've discussed above, you are unconsciously relying on the reader having the prop of stage directions to locate the flashback in time(‘one hour ago’, ‘two days ago’ - whatever). That written clue will not, of course, be accessible to a cinema audience, unless you set up a convention of putting the precise time of each flashback on screen in a caption when it appears, which might work or alternatively might be extremely irritating, or both of the above, depending on the audience). Whether you use this ‘dateline caption’ approach or not, I think you might consider making clear visible distinctions between your flashbacks. For example,if the flashback is to the 1970s, make the people have hair styles and clothes of that time. If you are flashing back to someone’s childhood, give both the child version and the adult version distinctive hair or glasses, so that we instantly recognize who we are looking at. You can also experiment with the use of black and white or sepia footage for a specific time frame (for example, say, the hour or two before the accident is always depicted in black and white). This black and white footage trick to depict one time frame is used in Memento. You might also think about using underexposed footage or footage adjusted to look reddish or greenish to indicate different moments in time. But you’ll need to be careful about not overdoing that.
The producer will need to be sure that the film will be comprehensible to the audience without written clues, so double-check.
My second thought was that since you have an incremental flashback ( a life-changing incident that is revealed bit by bit until it’s told in full in the third act) it would be wise double-check that you are using that to maximum effect (see my comments in The 21st Century Screenplay on Catch 22 and The End of the Affair) because it’s easy to construct that kind of flashback so that it’s a fizzer. It needs to be a mystery until its very last moment.
My third thought was that if you have flashbacks that are not, as is normal with flashbacks, telling their story chronologically (whether that’s happening forwards – say, starting at 1980 and proceeding forwards until the present, or travelling chronologically backwards, going from the present back to 1980) you may have problems maintaining tension because there may be insufficient rising suspense. That often happens with brief flashbacks that occur out of chronological order. I'd say just keep an eye on it.
My fourth thought was: ‘double check that the flashbacks and time jumps are genuinely setting up then gradually solving a mystery’. Don’t just use them to fill in backstory. Make sure there is a genuine and compelling mystery in the present that is being solved, bit by bit by each flashback.
Now having given you a whole bunch of advice that you didn't ask for, let's proceed.
Let's assume the structure is sound and doing everything you want it to in terms of transmitting your ideas, creating the relevant emotional engagement etcetera and the only issue is how to make the script an easy read. As I’ve already mentioned to my first correspondent who was anxious about how to write the synopsis of a film that contained flashbacks, it’s fascinating how many people writing about successful films that use flashbacks mention the flashbacks rarely, if at all.
You mention that you don't even know what name to give this hybrid structure you've created. I'd say by all means think of a name for your own purposes, but don’t even think about including that name in any discussion or description in the script or otherwise. That is our technical jargon. It’s secret writer-speak – very useful for us, at best irrelevant to others and at worst sounding scary and/or overly academic.
Regarding the way you describe the flashbacks in the actual script, you will need to use the term ‘flashback’ and I personally would give the specific time of each flashback. If it’s a dream I’d use the term ‘Dream Sequence’. But regardless of all of this, I would, as I suggested earlier, be very consciously trying to make each visually identifiable to the audience so that they had no doubt of what it was and when it happened and to whom. Or rather, that if they had a doubt, it was a pleasurable doubt that you later explained or else left pleasurably unexplained (as opposed to irritatingly unresolved and puzzling).
It might be worth getting hold of some films that have such contents. You’ve got dream sequences and flashbacks in ‘Wild Strawberries’. Perhaps you could find the script and see what terminology is used.
I hope this helps.
Kindest regards to both of you and good luck with the scripts.
The English Patient
Further to my discussion with Melisha, she ended up deciding to read my book. So here's my response to her comment on that in case it might be of interest to people in Melisha's situation. Note that when I say that flashback turns your film into a detective story, I'm not talking about the simple form of flashback, that is: 'where were you on Tuesday night?' 'Well, I was...' (go to flashback). That's not structural, it's just dramatised backstory. I'm talking about the more complex kinds.
It's important to realise that flashback isn't the same in all its forms. It's not just one thing. It's six main types. Some of the six require a complex structure of their own, quite different from the conventional three act linear structure, a massive scaffolding (these are the double narrative types, where you jump back and forth). Others, like 'where were you on Tuesday night' (a type I call 'flashback as illustration) are not structural, they're just, as I say, dramatised backstory that won't affect your linear three act structure. Your job there is just to be consistent.
My answer to Melisha
Oh thanks, Melisha. I hope it's useful for you. If you don't mind me suggesting this, be sure to read the material in the book on conventional narrative first, because you need to get your head around my take on the three act structure since the way good flashback structures work is that you jump on precise points in stories that are actually three act structures in themselves, A lot of people reading my books just jump straight to the flashback chapters and then get in a mess. Unfortunately, you need to hasten slowly with this stuff.
The reason is that there are many kinds of flashback and many odd things about it. It requires a different mindset from conventional narrative. For example, in certain complex forms of flashback, the ones where you have an ongoing story in the past and an ongoing story in the present, a character can be a protagonist in one time frame (that is, seen from the inside) but an antagonist in another time frame (that is, seen from the outside by another person who is the protagonist in that time frame). It's a bit of head spinner at first, but it's to do with the fact that good flashback structures turn your film into a detective story and that requires you to create characters who are mysterious because seen from the outside in one of the time frames. So don't think of flashback just as a way to stick in a slab of backstory. Think ' a detective story about human motives'. My motto for complex flashback is 'the story in the present is a mystery story and each flashback is another clue'. That energises it. Otherwise you're just doing windshield wipers, back and forth, back and forth.
I'm not sure whether people will be interested in this discussion on Linked In Screenwriting Discussion Group about flashback. I've just contributed to it. I think the writer might have a hybrid flashback form on her hands, actually.
Here's the situation. The writer, Melisha, is having problems with flashback. Check out the full discussion on Linked In. I joined the discussion quite late, so I'm just providing Melisha's comments to to others, and then my answer. People are urging caution and some are advising against flashback.
MELISHA ORIGINAL QUESTION: Ok so I'm a bit torn. I am working on an adaptation of my own book and the book has a critical flashback scene. Should I open with the flashback scene or leave it to tantalize the audience in Act 2? I know some movies start with the flashback as the opening scene but I think this may make my opening scene last longer than 15 minutes and furthermore the flashback is not the point of the script. What do you all think? This adaptation is killing me.
MELISHA RESPONSE 1 : I will approach the script with caution. It is indeed a difficult script to prepare but I'm learning a lot as I go. Do you remember the movie Premonition with Sandra Bullock? I thought this was a good movie that used tons of flashback to tell the story but I was confused the entire time. I don't want to confuse the audience too much but I do have to make these transitions to help the audience understand the antagonist's reason for "stalking" the protagonist. And yes you are right, it was a few centuries ago when they met but only the antagonist is aware of this because he's been living for many centuries.
MELISHA RESPONSE 2: Well this particular flashback is a big piece of the puzzle in the story but it is the subplot so I'm thinking I will add it around the end of Act 2.
MELISHA RESPONSE 3: Let me further break down my dilimma. I have two main characters who met in the past and its a sort of deja vu thing. The storyline is in the present but I have to flashback twice to introduce the audience to the historical characters. So I opened with the antagonist because his story is important but not as important as the one of the protagonist. His flashback is minimal - about 15 minutes and will have a narrator in the background. Her flashback is the subplot and critical to understanding what is going on in the present so I want to place her in Act 2. I don't know if I should open with his flashback or open in the present and somehow squeeze his debut in somehow like as a character is thinking about something then it changes scenes to the character's thoughts.
Unfortunately I haven't seen Premonition, so I can't comment on that. However, I might be able to help you in structuring your film. As a writer who could never find any answers about flashback I wrote first one then another book on how to structure a whole family of different types of flashback, also how to structure other types of nonlinear film (for example, Pulp Fiction). The latest book (which is more up to date) is called The 21st Century Screeenplay and it's published by Silman James. It's required reading at NYU and Berkeley and lots of other film schools around the world, as well as being used by professionals, so a lot of people are finding it useful so maybe you will too.
The good news is that successful flashback films work to clear patterns, based on jumping between past and present in very specific ways at very specific points in the three act structure. In a nutshell, they jump on cliffhangers, but very specific cliffhangers and you must get these right or you'll send the audience in completely the wrong direction. The patterns are so clear that you can use them as templates.
There are actually quite a few different types of flashback, each structured differently, so you need to work out which suits your purpose. The rule is content dictates structure. For example, Slumdog Millionaire jumps back and forth between past and present with a storyline in each, whereas Goodfellas starts in the middle of the film with a crucial scene, then jumps back to the start and continues straight through from beginning to end with no more flashbacks. And there's another kind of flashback that I call a 'Life Changing Incident ' flashback, which is an incremental flashback - that is, one crucial event revealed bit by bit- as in Twelve Monkeys or Catch 22. And so on. As I say, each of these types is structured in a different way, with the jumps occurring at different times in each.
Yes, you could indeed simply tell the past through exposition, but think of Slumdog Millionaire without the flashbacks, all told through dialogue in the present. It wouldn't be half as vivid.
It's hard to comment on how precisely you should structure your film. It could feel very jerky if you open on one character, follow it for fifteen minutes, then switch to another. It may well feel as if we're in another film. My feeling is that your most likely bet is to start in the present at the second act turning point - then jump back to the disturbance of the story in the past. That's how many of these films start. That way, you should avoid the start-stop effect. But I could be wrong here. You may need to start elsewhere. You might need a different structure to suit your purpose. I stress this stuff isn't easy. . I've got some advice on my website www.lindaaronson.com but try to get hold of a copy of one of my books (they're in lots of libraries) because there are all kinds of ways to get in a mess with flashback. Good luck
Linda is a screenwriter, novelist and playwright. As well as teaching and mentoring writers around the world, she regularly consults on screenplays at the highest level in the US, UK and Australia.