I just finished reading a spec script that began with a flashback. Literally — the first words in the script were:
Aside from the fact that this opening makes it clear the author of this particular script doesn’t understand that to in order to flashback, you must first have something to flash back from, it serves as a good example of a really irritating (to me, anyway) trend that I’ve seen develop in spec scripts in recent years — the overuse and misuse of the flashback device. I would estimate that 75% of the specs that I read these days contain at least one flashback and at least 40% are riddled with the things. I’m not really sure how to account for this, but I suspect it has to do with the heavy use of the device in popular films such as the Tarantino oeuvre and Memento and of television series such as the various CSIs, Family Guy, Scrubs, and Lost. No matter what the reason, however, the use of the flashback has become epidemic in recent years and that’s something I take issue with for a number of reasons:
1. It’s bad writing. The flashback is a tool designed to provide exposition to the audience that cannot be comfortably incorporated into the primary narrative. From this perspective, any use of a flashback can be considered a failure on the part of the writer to find a coherent way to place all of the information needed to tell a story into that story. There are, of course, many valid creative and practical reasons to employ flashbacks, but in most of the specs I read, it appears as if the device has been used because the writers weren’t clever or skilled enough to fit the exposition in any other way. As a result, the final product often comes across as unimaginative, clumsy, and ham-fisted.
2. It’s bad storytelling. A flashback is by its very nature an intrusion into the primary narrative, which is why traditionally the device has been used only sparingly. However, most of the specs that I read tend to use them very liberally. As a result, the primary narrative is constantly being interrupted, which makes for some very choppy and often very hard to follow storytelling. This is an especially big problem when — as often is the case — these multitudes of flashbacks are concentrated in the first 10 to 15 pages of the screenplay.
Since the purpose of a flashback is to provide information vital to our understanding of a script’s plot or the characters, it follows that, for a flashback to be effective we would first need to know what that plot is or who those characters are first. Which means that, ideally, a flashback should be introduced well into the story — after the plot has been set up and the characters established. Despite this logic, many of the scripts I read begin using flashbacks on the first page and often in the first paragraph, before the writer has the chance to establish much of anything.
The problem with doing this, of course, is that before the readers can figure out what’s going on in the script’s present tense, they’re yanked out of that situation and plopped down into an entirely new one only to be re-yanked and re-plopped back down into the original circumstances a few lines later. If this happens — as it usually does — over and over again, the result is almost always total narrative confusion and disorientation. To repeat a piece of advice I’ve given on several previous occasions, if you can’t get through the first 10 to 15 pages of your screenplay without flashing back, then perhaps you should consider starting your script at an earlier point in time, since your story so obviously does.
3. It’s gimmicky. In the past decade, non-linear storytelling — the jumping back and forth from past to present to future rather than simply telling a story in chronological order — has become all the rage. While I do think that non-linear storytelling can be an interesting and effective tool when it is an organic outgrowth of a particular piece’s theme and/or content — Memento and Betrayal come to mind as excellent examples — otherwise I think it’s just a gimmick — something tossed in to jazz up a piece to make it seem more exciting. My feeling about this is that the excitement in your script should come from your story, not the way the story is told. If the tale you’re telling isn’t inherently compelling, then all of the bells and whistles in the world aren’t going to make it so. If it is, then trust it to take us where you want us to go.