I've had a question about bookend flashbacks and genre. Here is the question.
For a Bookend Flashback, is it as important to make these early scenes indicative of the whole story as it is in a Preview Flashback? I wish to use a Shocking Bookend Flashback (eg. Sunset Boulevard). Now, Sunset Boulevard is not really a film about death or murder during the body of the film, so why is it that people don't complain of a confused genre when the bookend flashback seems to set them up for a murder mystery of some sort, but the majority of the film is not really a mystery genre film at all?
Here's my response.
First of all, let's look at Sunset Boulevard. I'll then talk a bit about the differences between the two sorts of flashback mentioned, because there are differences, and, as usual, they depend on what you want your script's content to be. I'll then talk a bit about this genre approach to screenwriting that I keep coming across and which, from what I can see, is not useful.
As for Sunset Boulevard, to me, the ending absolutely fits with the story of the film. The film is about an unsuccessful scriptwriter who accidentally gets involved in a demanding and toxic relationship with a fading film star. So, the question that the film poses is ‘what’s going to happen to this man who’s suddenly found himself enmeshed in a situation with a crazy stranger, a deluded and demanding failed diva’? The answer is that she kills him. It’s a surprise because, having the writer in voice over at the start, when we witness a corpse, we don’t expect our writer to be the corpse. But it absolutely fits – in its deliberately shocking way. To me, and to you I suspect, it’s a very satisfying ending.
Now let's look at what the two sorts of flashbacks do and how they fit into the film as a whole, because they have different functions. They'll get you different effects. By the way, please do remember that these terms and definitions have been invented by me. They are not plucked from on high, they are simply one writer's view (always, always, always, challenge the 'expert').
A really easy way to understand the difference between what I call preview flashback and bookend flashback is that preview flashbacks are there to punch up tension and suspense, whereas bookends are there to give your film a surprise ending.Your story will tell you which you need.
Let's look more closely at them. Shocking bookend flashbacks (as my invented name for them reminds you) make the film end in a shocking surprise - a brilliant but darkly ironic twist that explains the film, thus provides very satisfying closure. In contrast, preview flashback is there to create a hook by tempting you with a dramatic and intriguing scene or sequence lifted from later in the film and stuck in at the start - like the trailer or movie preview, hence my name for it. When you reach that opening scene’s second appearance (usually at about three quarters of the way through the film, at about the second act turning point, no later but sometimes earlier ) you suddenly understand vital plot and character matters - everything falls into place.You suddenly understand the protagonist's problem and you urgently want to see it solved. The film then goes on for some time afterwards. Notice that a crucial part of the film happens AFTER the returns of the opening scene.
Bookend flashbacks, however, are usually brief, often very brief, and and the second ‘bookend’ comes right at the very end of the film, when the main action is concluded. Very little and often nothing happens after the dramatic twist of the closing bookend. Bookend flashbacks work cleverly to distract you. They give you an opening scene that you almost instantly forget but which, when it returns – apparently when the film is over - turns out to be utterly relevant to the film. It’s closure by clever surprise. The film is not about what you thought it was about at all, it's about something different.
Regarding your own film, look to the content of your story and to the effect you want. If you need a twist at the very end, when the action is apparently over, shocking bookends flashbacks will work. But the twist MUST fit. It must provide a surprising but fitting answer. It can't just be any old shock. Think: ‘a surprise ending that nevertheless fits brilliantly’.
Now let's look at your question about genre. You ask why audiences are not worried by the fact that the film does not fit into ‘a mystery genre genre film’ and is of a ‘confused genre’. I'd say you've answered your own question. Whether the film does or doesn’t fit into a ‘genre’ as defined by person or persons unknown is clearly irrelevant to audience enjoyment. The film came out in 1950 and nobody as far as I know has ever got in a tizz about its genre. Nobody gives a toss. And since that's the case, it's valid to ask why then, should you?
I think you need to question very seriously these rules of genre. If they have (as one must assume) been isolated by someone or other as essential guidelines to writing a good film, if we then find a good film that doesn't adhere to the rules, those rules are faulty. So what on earth is their point ? If we have to resort to notions like 'a confused genre', blaming the film for not fitting within our classification system rather than faulting our classification system itself, we are on very thin ice. Indeed, we've fallen through the ice. And, bottom line, do we really think that audiences chose to like or dislike films on the basis that they fit or don't fit into someone's definition? What audience is this?
I keep coming across this notion that everything boils down to genres, and that it’s terribly important to know the genre of a film and the ‘rules’ of genre. People exercise themselves greatly about it. Well, genre certainly has its uses as a simple tool of classification but let’s get down to brass tacks here. If we're going to get solemn and scholarly and invent complex and global systems regarding genre that will give writers the answer to writing brilliant films, let's apply some intellectual rigor.
If you’re going to prescribe and proscribe what writers should write on the basis of a rigid taxonomy, you’d better make very sure that your classification system properly encompasses whatever it is you’re trying to pigeonhole. And Sunset Boulevard reveals that in at least one case it doesn’t. As for 'the exception proves the rule, I’d share Bentham’s view: if there is an exception to the rule it’s a bad rule. Surely, the only thing that’s ‘confused’ here is the person or persons who have devised these ‘rules’.
Notice that I keep saying 'someone's definition of genre'. It's important to stress this since there is a widespread notion out there that there is a 'right' way to write a film and the 'experts' are simply transmitting it. The idea is that you go to film school or to courses as you would go to medical school or law school to learn a body of knowledge to which all successful writers adhere and which has been around since the dawn of time.
Well, it isn't like that. Someone has made up these rules, and scriptwriting is not static. It's not something that's remained unchanged for milennia. Why should story creation have remained upchanged for thousands of years when every other sphere of human endeavour has shifted and modified its rules? It's now fashionable to claim that all writers write according to rules laid down by Aristotle. Well, they don't (Shakespeare famously didn't) anymore than astronomers believe, as Aristotle did, that the earth is the centre of the universe, or medicos believe as Aristotle did (hilariously) that the male testes were merely weights attached to the larynx, their job being to weigh it down so that it got bigger and the boy's voice deepened into a man's. Dragging in Aristotle is simply a way to legitimate a rigid set of rules and pre-empt disagreement which might mean modifying the rules.
As I say, always, always, always challenge the 'experts'.
To my view any rigid screenwriting system is suspect. All art forms change and film and television drama are constantly changing. The point of rules or guidelines in any art form is that they provide the springboard for new ideas, for taking the art form forward, for originality. Any classification system or writing approach that you're being asked to learn and take seriously must a) work, and b) must welcome change. People don't go to music school to learn only how to write music as it was written hundreds of years ago. Architects learn about ancient architecture but nobody expects them to create a block of flats that looks like the Parthenon.
The other thing about 'writing to a genre' is that it can very easily turn into an exercise in cliche. My heart sinks when I hear that a film funding body is asking producers for genre films. So often people take this to mean 'hash up all the usual cliches and you'll get the dosh'.
In conclusion, I’d say about your film, forget this faulty taxonomy you're being offered. As you yourself have noticed, nobody dismisses a film purely because it doesn’t fit someone’s notion of a ‘genre’. Use only screenwriting systems that helps your work to be vividly original (whether it's in a traditional form or something more complex). Don't get tied up in rules and regulations for the sake of it. Be guided in matters of structure by your content. If a twist ending is what you're after, if it's what properly ends your film, go for it.
Good luck and I hope it's a wonderful success for you.