Your Questions Answered: Flashbacks, Foreshadowing and the Fourth Wall
Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein answers your questions about flashbacks, narrative voice, the fourth wall, foreshadowing, and confrontation vs. resolution.
Welcome to the first edition of our brand new Screenwriting Advice Column!
You may recall that a few months ago, we invited you to send us your questions about screenwriting. These could be about any aspect of screenwriting at all, from writing techniques to formatting scripts, from how to get started to how to find representation.
And send them in you did!
So a big thanks to everyone who submitted questions. We have not been able to answer them all this issue, but if you don’t see your question here, don’t worry, as we’ll try and answer as many as possible over the coming months.
In this edition, we answer questions on on flashbacks, narrative voice, the fourth wall, foreshadowing, and confrontation vs. resolution. I hope that it will prove useful, and if you have a question of your own that you would like answered, check out the details at the end of the article on how to submit it to our experts.
[Note that questions may be edited for clarity and brevity.]
Flashbacks and Multiple Timelines
I’m writing a story with two timelines: one set in the present, and one that shows significant scenes in my protagonist’s past. The second timeline eventually catches up with the present and fills in the missing chunks to give a new spin on events. Is the use of flashback warranted in this case? I worry that a reader will see the word ‘flashback’ and immediately shudder in fear.
The flashback has been very much in vogue in the last few years. Just look at the examples from television: Orange is the New Black, This is Us, Making History, Man in the High Castle. The list goes on.
And as literary manager and producer Marilyn Atlas says, “Each of these pilots had to be approved by executives, who were obviously willing to sign off on spending money on flashback-intensive episodes”
Flashbacks are also trending in feature films, especially thriller and action films, where it is used to add intrigue and depth to backstory. Recent examples include The Fate of the Furious, Split, Ghost in a Shell, Arrival, and Kingsman.
So don’t worry, a savvy reader or studio exec knows that flashbacks, used efficiently, can contribute to the progression of action and character.
However, having said all that, too often flashbacks are used as a crutch, or easy option, when the writer cannot find an original, creative alternative that better suits the story being told. Basically, it seems as if the writer decided to take the easy way out.
So always write your flashbacks out of dramatic need as opposed to an excuse to get across exposition. Use them wisely and sparingly, as they can be jarring to a reader and pose a tracking problem.
And before settling on the device of a flashback, explore alternative solutions to revealing backstory and exposition. For example, have someone find something that contains the same information: a journal, a note, a photograph, a receipt, a recorded message, even an old home movie. Something in the present that puts us into the mind of your protagonist and reveals the past.
And try to provide the information in a way that not just moves the plot forward, but also serves another purpose. Add tension if it is a thriller, shock if it is horror, laughter if it is comedy, or insight if it is drama.
But always do it in a way that is original and fresh. That is the challenge.
As a final word on the subject, I’ve noticed that writers are often uncertain of how to present a flashback in the script. So here is one good way to show it:
INT. MADISON COUNTY JAIL – JOHNNY RAY’S CELL (1962) – DAY
Jonny Ray takes a razor to the face of the Guard. The Guard feels the blood streaming down his face, grunts and pushes Johnny Ray into the bars, breaking his nose. Breathing hard, the Guard watches as the prisoner’s body crumples to the floor.
How do you decide narrative voice?
Wow, your question speaks volumes about the potential for creative expression!
“Narrative voice” can refer to either the way a writer puts the words on the page, or your choice to write in Master Scene Format versus Camera Angle Production Format.
Let’s take the second issue first. Camera Angle Production Format uses overtly cinematographic devices, such as elements relating to camera, sound, editing, etc. Master Scene Format, on the other hand, uses little or no camera angles.
On the whole, Master Scene Format is preferred, as it allows your reader to get more inside the story you want to tell. So that, as writer and director Alexander Mackendrick said to me when I was starting out as a young screenwriter, it unfolds “like a dream on stage.”
Putting camera angles in, if you are not the director, may limit a reader’s imagination. Spike Lee’s classic screenplay Do The Right Thing utilized camera direction, but as the writer/producer/director, he called the shots. Had he not been attached to direct the movie (it was his film), then he might have left it more up to the reader’s imagination without distinct filmic focalization.
Both approaches are accepted as industry standard. So you’ll need to find what works best for you, your project and your potential buyers. Experiment with both, but get guidance from your agent, manager or producing partners.
As for the first issue, I can do no better than to direct you to this excellent article on various kinds of narrative voice, as used in script description:
The Fourth Wall
What is the best way to approach a character breaking the fourth wall?
Breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging or addressing your audience directly, is a device best used when you need to have the audience join in consciously in a scene.
By making the audience aware that they are in fact watching a film, you are taking them out of the moment, and thus not allowing them to get overly invested in the character and the stories.
A great example of this is in the recent film Deadpool, whose success is largely due to the comic asides said directly to the audience. An older film which successfully breaks the fourth wall is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Whether this works or falls flat has a lot to do with tone. Ask yourself if the benefit of establishing a moment of direct, intimate contact, is worth the cost of taking your audience out of the moment.
This direct address to the audience can intensify the intimacy between audience and creator, but at the cost of the reality of the scene. As a screenwriter, it’s about listening to your instincts. And not overdoing it.
As to the practicalities, it is usually very obvious when a character is breaking the fourth wall. Simply meeting the ‘eye’ of the camera is often sufficient to indicate that it is occuring. Subtle is best here: there is rarely a need to use an equivalent of “Dear Reader” in the script.
A harder trick to pull of is returning to the internal moment of the scene, which could be why many fourth-wall breaking moments occur at the end of a scene.
I also have a question about foreshadowing: how much of it is too much, too soon?
There are two kind of foreshadowing, though both are related. The first is ‘within the reality’ of the film, where you give the audience a piece of information that will become relevant later, be it a fact, or a character trait. The second is where you give a hint of what will occur through the use of a metophor, or even the film title itself.
Both, in effect, give the audience knowledge that the protagonist does not yet possess. And a rule of filmmaking thumb is that you usually want your audience a beat ahead of your protagonist.
Furthermore, something that is foreshadowed in the second sense of the technique should ideally be something the audience do not see coming, but, when it arrives, is suddenly seen to make sense or even inevitable as a result of that foreshadowing.
So you don’t want to get so far ahead in your foreshadowing that either the audience forgets what they have been told (“too soon”), or you have to repeat your message so often that it becomes a blunt instrument rather than a subtle tool (“too much”).
Confrontation vs. Resolution
What is the difference between the confrontation scene and resolution scene…are they different or same scene?
Drama is conflict, and that means along any narrative path there will be a number of confrontational scenes. However, there is usually one big climatic show-down, which is usually referred to as “The Confrontation Scene”. This is where the two opposing forces in your script finally get their day in court, their moment in the ring, or their final battle.
It is something I struggled with just starting out. This main event happens deep into your third act, and is preceded often by the dark moment. In the Hero’s Journey, it is known as “the supreme ordeal,” a scene where the inherent, unspoken tensions come to a head and boil over. The final confrontation scene, or climax scene, is where the progression of the story has reached a kind of emotional critical mass.
This final last stand is about the character dealing with the very thing they have been avoiding up to that point (their flaw). This could be fear of snakes for the character of Indiana Jones, fear of the “silence of the lambs” for Clarice Starling, or, in Hidden Figures, the speech Katherine Johnson gives about her anger at having to go a half-mile to pee because of segregation.
In each of these examples, this confrontation is then itself a preamble to the final solution and the ultimate resolution of the bigger problem within the script’s story.
The resolution is the moment where some horrible misunderstanding is overcome, and then everyone can kiss and make up. Seriously, in old-fashioned love stories…it ends in a kiss. Or in a procedural drama, it could be that the town which was being bought out by a big company is now saved, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
So: Confrontation is the conflict being finally expressed. And Resolution is the following scene, where the issues expressed in the confrontation are shown being resolved to a logical conclusion.
That just about wraps up our first issue. Thanks again to everyone who sent in questions. And if yours has not yet been answered, then don’t give up, as we’ll try and address it in a future edition.
Good luck growing your writing everyone!