Ever read a book or watch a movie where suddenly the story stops and we flashback back pointlessly to the main character’s past? Suddenly we’re mucking about in the character’s childhood kitchen while their mother calls them “worthless?” Or we see them walking through a decrepit yard filled with garbage so we understand they grew up “poor?” Even though we’re getting information that’s important, the primary story comes to a screeching halt, held static by the writer who is “telling” us what we need to know.
Flashbacks are a structural device. They are not inherently evil, but can be if they stop your story from moving in the right direction.
If you’re thinking about incorporating flashbacks into your book or movie, here are some tips on using them effectively.
1. Don’t use flashbacks to simply reveal backstory or exposition. Find ways to reveal this information through action or dialogue in the present.
2. Always make sure that there’s a trigger in the present day story that motivates us to flashback. For example (and this is a cheesy example), an object we see in the present that allows us to make a visual cut to the object in the past.
3. If you have to use a flashback, make sure whatever happens in the flashback moves the present story forward. What does the character remember or learn in the flashback that urges them to action in the here and now?
4. Don’t use flashbacks to create sympathy for your character. This is bush league. Find a better way, in the present, to create connection between the character and the reader/audience.
5. Make the flashback as short as possible.
Flashbacks get a bad rap because they are often used clumsily, but they can also be employed in really creative and helpful ways.
In both the novel GONE GIRL, and the movie based upon the book, flashbacks are used to reveal backstory, but as they do this they also move the present plot forward. In addition, they serve to manipulate the reader/viewer’s interpretation of the events. Tricky and brilliant.
In the terrific film BEGINNERS, with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, parallel story lines (one in the past, and one in the present) are intercut, run in tandem, and build to a climax together. The present day story about McGregor’s character trying to commit to a relationship, is threaded with the past story of his gay father’s cancer diagnosis and impending death. The flashbacks feed the present day storyline and slowly help us unravel the mystery of why it is so difficult for McGregor’s character to sustain a loving relationship. The flashbacks move the story forward because they allow McGregor to face the truth about his parent’s destructive marriage and have faith that his own relationship can flourish.
MEMENTO is another great film that manipulates flashbacks successfully. The movie starts at the end, and moves backward (flash backing) to the beginning. Every cut to the past, leads us closer to answering the dramatic question of the movie, which is “What the hell happened to Guy Pearce’s character?”
Take Action! Do you have flashbacks in your narrative? Are you using them simply to reveal backstory? If so, cut them out and reveal that information in the present day through action or dialogue. OR, rewrite these flashbacks so they somehow move the main story forward. Make sure they are triggered organically in the present day story line and that they don’t stop the narrative. Remember, flashbacks can be used in super creative ways, but don’t fall into their traps.
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