Screenwriting

Night of the Naked Dead!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

On Flashbacks

"Do not take us to the past until we care about what's happening in the future" - David Trottier's The Screenwriter's Bible

Flashbacks are prone to overexposure. Instead of dragging out secrets, some screenwriters rely on flashbacks to serve up truths without holding back any material. Screenwriters may use flashbacks early, maybe too early, to explain missing pieces of their story. However, we know little about these characters to invest our emotions into their journey. Exposition is key, but give the audience time to find an emotional connection. 

The fear of using the flashback approach is that we can lose the audience early on. As excitement builds in knowing everything, showing too much of everything and exposing everything in flashbacks, this technique of serving appetizers, drinks, dinner and dessert all at once may disconnect us from the main storyline. We need time to digest information, so going back and forth between flashbacks without at least building character development will cheat your story. 

As moviegoers, we are invested in the storyline. How do the protagonist and antagonist make us care? Of course, we final an emotional connection with the antagonist. Unless it is unsettling evil actions that disconnect us from the antagonist, then we want to know why they behave in this way.

Showing flashbacks can work, but executing them right can make a difference between writing a good script or over saturating this technique in a bad script. In the opening scene, we introduce the audience to conflict, such as an introduction to a research paper, and then put obstacles in front of the ultimate goal to block the protagonist. We want the protagonist to earn their stripes.

Going back to the past can reveal character strengths and/or weaknesses. Is this character up for the challenge? Do they possess the courage to confront the antagonist? Chase the dream? Defeat the empire? Get the girl? Win the game? Pass the test? Use a flashback sequence where this technique is appropriate to inform the audience. It can represent an effective device to move your story forward. 

Flashbacks are employed in horror movies to fill-in gaps. The first Saw movie executes this technique in the midpoint, as well as toward the film ending. We watch John (Jigsaw) struggle with cancer. If we understand the impact of cancer, we emphasize with his character. We also discover his hardship, his unwillingness to accept the selfishness of people refusing to appreciate their lives.

The screenwriter, Leigh Whannell, revealed this important information to prepare us. These flashbacks convey what decisions are necessary to survive life. It is in these experiences that we are drawn to the game of life, where the protagonists must make critical decisions to save or end a life, including their own. 

Given this plot technique, flashbacks are also executed to twist the plot--plot twists. A tightly concealed twist relies on revealing enough information to make all scenes go against the perceived storyline. What we assumed was happening is a whole different story. Dead Silence builds on this plot device, shifting the ending into flashback overdrive. We assume Mary Shaw is thus defeated; however, Leigh tricks us with another twist ending. Watch this horror movie to see how flashbacks explain the twist ending.

Want to use flashbacks in your screenplay? Go ahead and flash your flashbacks, but do this after you build character development. Why should we care about the protagonist? Humanize characters before diving into the flashback pool. Don't abuse flashbacks because your audience will lose connection with the present time. Once the conflict is revealed and protagonist is introduced, make those flashbacks count.

Happy Screenwriting!




   

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