Breaking In: It’s High Noon for Flashbacks

Courtesy: Lionsgate

You’ve heard it before: “Avoid using flashbacks in your screenplays.” Flashbacks, screenwriting gurus tell you, are about as good for a screenplay as a crying jag is for the rust-prone Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

But those gurus’ advice doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? After all, think of all the successful movies that use flashbacks. Not just old classics (among them, a lot of detective movies and courtroom thrillers), but also more recent films, like Memento.

Well, all those screenwriting experts are right. In most instances, flashbacks are bad for your script. The problem is, the experts have never explained to you why. So, here’s why:

Flashbacks, used correctly, are a structural device. They’re best used when they are integral to the mechanics of the story, as they were in Memento. Flashbacks are not, however, intended as a crutch to make up for a writer’s lack of skill in conveying backstory.

Used properly, flashbacks can be a great asset to a screenplay. So, why am I suggesting that you avoid including them in your script? Because, if you’re like the vast majority of aspiring screenwriters, you don’t use them correctly. Here are two common examples of the wrong way to use flashbacks:

  1. For exposition, as in: “Oops! I forgot to tell you this important information about the story or my character’s background, so I think I’ll pick up some of this stuff along the way, using flashbacks.” Quite simply, this results from lack of adequate planning before writing the script.
  2. To create audience sympathy for your main character, especially in a drama. For example, showing us in flashback that he was beaten up by the school bullies back when he was a kid. We don’t need to see this.

Remember, it’s always best to start your story as “late” as possible in the trajectory of your main character’s life — right before he undergoes a major dramatic change and he’s confronted with a crisis that is the central dilemma of the story. Start in the present, and stay there.

Recently, I saw the classic 1952 Western High Noon (by Carl Foreman, based on a short story, “The Tin Star,” and directed by Fred Zinnemann) for about the fourth time. If you went to film school, this movie and its screenplay are considered Screenwriting 101.

High Noon is about a middle-aged marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who is getting married — and turns in his badge, mainly to please his beautiful young bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), who is a Quaker (ergo, a pacifist) and wants him to retire to run a store. But just after the newlyweds take their vows, news comes that the bad guy whom the hero sent away to prison, Frank Miller, has been pardoned and is coming back to town on the noon train to “get him.”

After leaving town as planned to start a new life with his bride, Kane’s conscience gets the better of him (especially since the new marshal hasn’t arrived yet), and he returns to confront the danger and protect the community, putting his badge back on. Kane’s new wife makes him choose between her and his duty. Naturally, since he’s played by Gary Cooper, Will Kane chooses duty. Not only does Amy desert him just when he needs her most, but also every friend he ever had does the same thing. When high noon arrives, he has to face the villain and his henchmen — alone. See the movie if you want to know how it all turns out.

What can you learn from watching/reading High Noon? How to write a story that unfolds in “real time,” for one thing. The running time of the movie roughly corresponds to the elapsed time in the story, as the clock ticks down to the villains’ arrival on the noon train, and the hero sweats nobly, desperately seeking deputies. The movie is set in the Old West, but it’s really a metaphor for the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s, when industry pros accused of being communists found out very quickly who their real friends were. (Screenwriter Foreman was blacklisted shortly after writing High Noon.) The movie is also notable for its acting — Cooper won an Oscar® for his starring role — and Zinnemann’s work, and for the haunting ballad on the soundtrack, “Do Not Forsake Me,” sung by Tex Ritter (father of the late comedic actor, John).

Not only is High Noon tightly constructed with watch-like precision, it’s also a master class in writing backstory.

In fact, the entire movie hinges on the backstory. Will Kane and his past relationships are key to understanding this story. Every character in the movie has a different reason for refusing to help Marshal Will Kane in his hour of need.  Those reasons are complex, unique to each individual, and rooted in the past. They range from sexual jealousy to simple cowardice, and everything in-between. And, of course, the reason the villain is pursuing Kane is also connected to the backstory: Kane was the one who arrested him for murder, after which the bad guy was sent to jail. Our understanding of the characters’ motives in the present depends on our knowing the backstory.

So, with all this backstory to cover, how many flashbacks are there in High Noon?

None. Not one.

Sure, the writer comes close to doing a flashback — once. The town judge reminds the marshal of the moment in the courtroom when the convicted murderer, Miller, swore that he’d never hang and would kill Kane someday. In the present, the camera dramatically zooms in on an empty chair in Kane’s office — as if it’s the witness stand — and the judge quotes the villain’s threat to Kane in the courtroom on that long-ago day. But is there a flashback to the courtroom? No.

At one point in the story, Kane asks a desk clerk at the local hotel if a woman he’s looking for (Helen, played by Katy Jurado) is in. The nasty clerk tells him she is, and then adds pointedly, leeringly, “Think you can find it all right?” In just that one sentence, we know the whole backstory. This woman is Kane’s ex-lover.

High Noon could have shown us Kane’s past affair. Or the courtroom trial. It might have given us flashbacks to Kane’s courtship with Amy, instead of starting the movie with their wedding day and his retirement. It didn’t. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have.

So, the next time you’re sure you need flashbacks in your script, resist the temptation. Unless flashbacks are absolutely necessary to your structure (as in Memento or Rashomon), consider whether skillful writing set only in the present — giving us the backstory through clever dialogue with subtext, or revealing behavior — might be a better alternative. It almost always is. If you don’t believe me, see High Noon.

Keep pitching. See you next month.

9 thoughts on “Breaking In: It’s High Noon for Flashbacks

  1. Linda Aronson

    Hi Staton
    THanks for an interesting article. I have a different approach to flashbacks, fime jumps, non-linearity and ensemble scripts (parallel narrative). Unfortunately, difficult as these forms are, as professional scriptwriters we have no choice but to learn how to use them because our audiences are encountering them every night of the week on TV. They are now a normal part of the viewing experience and audiences expect them, hence producers want them and I suspect that any writer who doesn’t get their head around the mechanics of these forms will be hard pressed to get a job in five years time. Luckily – and fascinatingly – all of these forms work to patterns, splitting, doubling and reassembling the linear three act model in predictable ways, thus can be planned Even films like 21 Grams, Babel, Pulp Fiction, Run Lola Run etc work to patterns. Anyway,I have written two books on these forms (‘Screenwriting Updated’, and ‘The 21st Century Screenplay’) isolating six main categories and many subcategories of these complex forms, and explaining in detail what material suits them and how their practical mechanics work – because there are places and ways to jump stories successfully and (as you point out) places and ways to jump stories that land you flat on your face. There are quick summaries of my approach at http://www.lindaaronson.com (including a vodcast done after the London Screenwriters’ Festival), and material on my blog http://blog.lindaaronson.info but this stuff is complex, so it has to be studied in depth. I can say for sure that a lot of professionals are upskilling in this because I work with them and a lot of film school students are learning the techniques of parallel narrative because my books are on reading lists at all kinds of places around the world including NYU etc. So I’d urge people to upskill because otherwise the industry will leave them behind. There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with the conventional linear one hero model – it’s actually the basis of complex parallel narrative and it’s brilliant for some material, but some stories require these complex forms, moreover our audiences want them, so we need to get our heads around this stuff, difficult as it is.

  2. Maria Lennon

    Hello Statin Rabin,
    I’m always looking for your article in the Final Draft and Script weekly. Reding them inspires me to ponder if I can better my own screenplays. Thank you for your time and inspiration.

  3. Donna Doty

    I prefer the “perverbial” dream (on a rare occassion) for showing character secret concerns since God dropped surprises can be a real turn off. I find flash backs disruptive more often then helpful, I just didn’t realize why. Loved your article Stanton.

  4. J Crawford

    I had a director add flashbacks into a script that I wrote because he thought it’d be a better way to convey something. It didn’t. He should have read your article first and left my script alone. C’est la vie du industrie.

  5. Ed Underhill

    What a terrific explanation of a complicated subject. Thanks for that.

    I might also suggest that — as a movie goer — I think a flashback works best if it shows how the protgonist has changed or how her relationship with other characters has changed over time rather than just provide exposition. It is sometimes fun in a flashback to see to a protagonist before he became the character depicted in the contemporary time of the movie.

    For example, the flashback scenes in Casablanca which show Rick and Ilsa together. A lot of what is shown could have been conveyed by a discussion among the principals in the present, but what the flashback really shows is how the meeting of these three characters in Paris (Rick, Ilsa, and Sam)and Rick’s and Ilsa’s separation changed all of their personas. But, of course, that flashback is careful not to show the reason Ilsa left Rick waiting at the train station.

    The flashback that appears at the end of The Godfather Part II (where the four sons and Carla, among others, are sitting at a dinner table on December 7th, 1941 waiting to present a surpise birthday cake to their father, Don Corleone) is likewise an emotional scene, even though for exposition purposes it doesn’t add any new story points. On the contrary, the scene shows us how an event that we all knew had happened from watching the first 10 minutes of the first movie (Michael’s enlistment in the Marines) would define the siblings’ relationship over the course of 20 plus years. It’s just a fun and satisfying flashback because we already know how it all turns out.

    In both of the movies I mentioned, you could have had a fine movie without the flashback; neither is necessary to understanding the story or the plot. But I am guessing the writer or the director was using the device to reveal character more than to drrive the the story.

  6. Cara Mumford

    You’ve mentioned a great film that uses flashbacks that are integral to the story and discussed a great film that manages to avoid the use of any flashbacks, but I was curious if you had any examples of average movies that use flashbacks that might have been better movies if they had found a way to avoid flashbacks. Sometimes I find it easier to learn from the bad or average movies, because the great ones can be a little intimidating.

  7. Seth McFarley

    Hi Staton, I really loved your article on Secretariat(Learning from bad movies). It was a great advice on how to note plot points and paint by numbers.

    Would appreciate if you could write something similar again giving more details.

    Thank you,
    Seth M.

  8. Pingback: On Flashbacks | writewhatyoudontknow

  9. Rick Sawyer

    Great advice –
    I’m currently adapting a 330 page novel and the screenplay is at 180 pages long, with about 40 pages of the book left to adapt: yikes…. I’ve found that some critical actions the main character has done (like making a phone call to another main character and gaining key information) that the storyline seems to hinge on, well – I’ve had to put into a few short flashbacks to let the audience know that the character has in fact made a certain connection of information. However, I think when I am through with the first draft, I will go back to see if I can fit these short scene connections into the real plot time. As we may all know, a novel is hard to put into a 120 page screenplay without eliminating some or major parts of the story that seems to be of consequence or character development. There are interesting events in most novels – enough to be compelled to include more scenes than necessary- thus making the screenplay longer than standard film form. Is there a book or website on Adaption Tricks or helpful ideas or do I let a seasoned screenplay analyst give me some advice on it?

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