To Flashback or Not to Flashback, That is the Question
David Trottier on The Use of Flashbacks.
By Carla Iacovetti.
“About 95% of the flashbacks in unsold scripts don’t work. In first-time scripts, usually a flashback is used as a crutch; a cheap way to introduce exposition.” – David Trottier.
David Trottier has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced). As an award-winning teacher and in-demand script consultant, David has helped hundreds of writers sell their work and break into the biz. His book, The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script is considered one of the most exhaustive screenwriting resource guides available, whether you’re a novice screenwriter or seasoned professional. We talked to him about the increasing use of flashbacks in films.
While the use of the flashback is not anything new to screenwriters, it seems they are being used more and more today. However, they should be handled with care, and especially when used in a spec screenplay. David Trottier says, “There has developed over the years, a bias among professional readers against flashbacks used in spec scripts.” This predisposition wasn’t always there, but it’s there now and with good reason. “In most cases, the flashbacks amount to obvious exposition; they’re improperly used, and they’re not very creative. However, let me be clear…there is nothing wrong with using a flashback, but it’s how they’re used,” says Trottier.
Part of the current problem so frequently seen in spec scripts is the inexperienced screenwriter adding a flashback because he or she is stuck, and/or wants to show something about the protagonist or story that could be revealed through the action or in dialogue. When a flashback is used in this way, it stands out like a sore thumb and actually works against the movement of the story.
Screenwriting is storytelling, and storytelling is an art – a form that has been around through the ages. However, while it has its roots in Aristotle’s chronological three-act structure, a screenplay is written for a visual medium, and there is no other form of writing that deals with time and space like a screenplay. Non-linear structural forms can work well if done correctly. Structural forms like flashbacks and backwards and forwards, non-linear narratives and multiple shots all move away from the chronological three-act structure while dealing with time and space.
The flashback is a tool that reveals information that cannot be given any other way. But make no mistake about it – a flashback must move the story forward. “Some stories lend themselves to flashbacks, and others don’t need them. You don’t just write in a flashback just for the sake of having one. A flashback has to move the story forward as a part of the story, and when this occurs – it’s just great writing,” says Trottier.
In the 1942 classic film noir Casablanca, the flashback to Paris is significant to the story. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), the disillusioned and cynical protagonist won’t drink with the customers until Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks in. Rick is receptive, and the conversation between these two gives the audience the sense of familiarity between them. They have history, and the flashback scenes that reveal how this couple met and fell in love in Paris do not disrupt the narrative flow of the storyline, but push forward the action of the story, while revealing some key elements about Rick and Ilsa’s relationship.
“Generally, we should not tell the reader about the past until that reader cares about the present,” says Trottier. Screenwriters should ask the question, “Am I just force-feeding the audience to get across some exposition?” The audience doesn’t know why Rick is unfriendly, jaded and cold until the flashback in Paris happens. It is important for the audience to understand the reasons behind his callousness. Since the flashback to Paris happens early on, the audience sees a very different Rick. He was a hopeful romantic in love who suffered heartbreak. The flashback reveals Rick’s present state of mind, and helps to make his heroic transition all the more powerful.
“Sometimes writers throw in flashbacks because it seems like a cool thing to do. If I see a flashback in the first ten pages, I become despairing because it will probably stop the movie to provide information and then start the movie again after the flashback. Flashbacks need to be part of the story,” says Trottier.
In fiction, the main purpose of expositional writing is to establish the present situation of the story and its characters, so in a screenplay writing exposition can be risky because it can have a tendency to “tell” rather than “show” the audience or reader something. It should only been divvied out on a need-to-know basis, and only for the purpose of giving understanding. One of the reasons the flashback works so well in Casablanca is because the audience has been left in a state of anticipation about Rick’s relationship with Ilsa. Anticipation is a great hook. No one is going to stand up and run out for popcorn when they are eager to know more. The writer needs to keep his or her audience hungry.
So, if exposition is an element common to fiction writers, how does a screenwriter effectively reveal important details in the story or with the character?
In Alex Coppel’s classic screenplay Vertigo, the author not only uses a flashback to reveal information, but it gives the audience transforming clues that help solve the mystery of the plot.
In the first scene (which is technically not a flashback because we’re not flashing back from anywhere) the audience is left hanging in suspense as detective John “Scottie” Ferguson watches a police officer plummet to his death after trying to reach his hand out to help him. They have been chasing a criminal from roof-top to roof-top and Scottie has acrophobia. The author builds audience/reader curiosity by beginning the story with an incident like this. Who were they after? The criminal gets away…should the audience/reader be alarmed?
Not only does the criminal get away, the audience/reader discovers that the opening scene has already transpired. It was a flashback of something that transpired month’s prior. Scotty had to quit his job. His fear of heights and the haunting memory of the police officer’s death destroyed his dreams of becoming the chief of police. Note the following excerpt as he has a conversation with Marjorie Wood (Midge), a painter and underwear designer:
I had to quit, Midge.
I wake up at night seeing him fall from the roof… and try to reach out for him.
It wasn’t your fault.
I know. Everybody tells me. I know. I have Acrophobia. And what a moment to find out I had it.
Of course, the “moment” that Scottie refers to is the moment that he could not reach out to save the police officer. It is a moment that alters his life forever. Once he realizes that he will be stuck behind a desk for the rest of his law enforcement career, he walks away.
Coppel’s ability to weave suspense in this story is brilliant (I might add that Alfred Hitchcock’s direction of this film really brings the script to life. It is no wonder that it is still considered a masterpiece today.) The flashback portrays a truthful representation of what actually happened, and ultimately solves the mystery of the plot.
Anthony Minghella’s screenplay The English Patient is another screenplay that successfully uses flashback sequences, in fact, they are used throughout the film, which helps to keep the audience bound to curiosity, and eager to see how the events in the story play out. While the flashback sequences sometimes seem drawn out in The English Patient, the powerful way these scenes are used to flush out the story is praiseworthy.
It is easy to see why non-linear structural forms work so well in screenplays. The use of flashbacks, non-linear narratives, multiple shots, backwards and forwards, etc. all break away from the chronological three-act structure. Plays (screenplays) with disrupted time, where events happen in a non-chronological order all utilize effects like flashbacks and backwards and forwards.
It’s difficult to discuss the subject of flashbacks without mentioning Eric Roth’s award-winning screenplay, Forrest Gump. The novelist uses exposition as a writing tool to help build the plot and invade the reader’s imagination. Unlike the novelist, a screenwriter cannot use the power of suggestion to give the reader a deeper look at the character. Roth uses flashbacks as a way to reveal pertinent information about Forrest Gump’s past with the intent of showing the present, while moving the story forward.
It is 1981, and the protagonist Forrest Gump sits on a bus bench conversing with a woman. A moment later the author gives us a clue that this character somewhat lives in the past. “I’ve worn a lot of shoes. I bet if I think about it real hard I could remember my first pair of shoes.” In a Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz moment, Forrest closes his eyes tightly and says, “Momma said they’d take me anywhere.” This line is the lead-in to the first flashback in the story. Suddenly, it is 1951, and Forrest closes his eyes “tightly” as he sits in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. Little Forrest has just been fitted with “orthopedic shoes and metal leg braces.” He is disabled. Forrest continues to explain the scene in a voiceover. The scene continues fro the doctor’s office to “Rural Alabama,” where Forrest in a voiceover continues to describe living in the south amid the Ku Klux Klan—a group that he remembers, “Dressed up in their robes and their bed sheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks.”
With such excessive use of flashbacks in this screenplay, one would think it get old and slow down the movement of the story; however, it only adds to the richness of Forrest Gump’s unique character. All of the flashbacks play an important part in the transition of the story and the development of Forrest’s character.
While films like Forrest Gump and The English Patient are flashback-driven, Trottier believes that the shorter the flashback, the less the risk. “A quick flashback gives us a sense of something. Robert Redford did this in Ordinary People. Long flashbacks and dream sequences are high-risk and should be avoided – you want to find a more creative way convey exposition.”
A flashback should be your last option, because if it’s not done correctly, it will detour from the story, and appear clumsy and contrived.
Telling something that the audience already knows is an issue, and not just a flashback issue. It can be present in the dialogue as well. “Not only can flashbacks represent obvious exposition, but dialogue can as well.” Here is an example from Trottier.
Honey, how long have we been married now?
Going on 12 years now. Remember the honeymoon?
Right, right. We had quite a time in Hawaii, didn’t we?
“A husband and wife would probably not tell each other things they already know in real life. This conversation is really aimed at the audience. It’s obvious exposition, and it’s dull,” says Trottier.
As screenwriters, we have the amazing capability of creating visual masterpieces at our hands, and the use of the flashback is a wonderful story-telling device if used in the right framework. The issue is not the use of the flashback, but how they are used. It really is a judgment call, but one that should be carefully examined before walking down that trail. It’s important to remember that a flashback should give us the sense of something. “We have all these tools in our toolbox. Flashbacks, dialogue, narration, etc., and they all need to be used, but it’s learning how to use them judiciously,” says Trottier. It’s not about setting ironclad rules, but it is about understanding how to use your tools in a skillful and creative way.
David Trottier’s website can be found at: www.keepwriting.com.
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