Specs & The City: Flash-Forward and Inception

A bit ago, I took a look at that perennially overused and criminally mishandled screenwriting tactic – the Flashback. I got a lot of great feedback on that column – people, it seemed, were hungry for any information they could get their hands on about how to best manage transitions of time in their scripts. Always one to quench the public’s thirst for knowledge (or personal opinions on vague and subjective topics), I’d been wanting to address the use of Flash-forwards ever since, but two things stopped me.

First, I had other topics I wanted to cover. A few itches I had to scratch. And second, I had to figure out a way to write a column about Flash-forwards without just repeating the points I touched on previously. I’m not ashamed to say it was tougher than I thought it would be, but I think I finally cracked that nut, so let’s get to it.

What I realized is, while both are messing with the linear nature of a story, they’re doing so for completely different reasons. Whereas flash-backs  are generally used to clarify the plot – to provide illumination of the main story – Flash-forwards function more to obfuscate and muddy the waters. When used correctly, a writer can create mystery, and ratchet up the tension for the story, by giving the audience a peek at what’s to come.

It should always be just enough to get them hooked. How does the story get to THERE?

While the technique has been used in film for decades – take a look at Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film, They Shoot Horses Don’t They – it seems like it’s used more, or at least more effectively, in television. I’d wager that most people became aware of Flash-forwards with the final episode of Lost’s third season. When the final scene of the episode revealed that Jack and Kate had safely escaped from the island, minds were collectively blown.

An even more effective use was the second season of Breaking Bad, which gave us a little glimpse of a tragedy at the beginning of the first episode, and then gradually pulled back to reveal more and more as the events of that season unfolded.

But since we’re here to talk about film (and since I don’t have any of the scripts handy for Breaking Bad or Lost), let’s take a closer look at…

Flash-Forwards and Inception

Everyone knows about, and has an opinion on Inception. A dream within a dream within a dream, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, yada-yada-yada. You know the story. No need to recap it here. Let’s jump right in with the opening scene.

FADE IN:

DAWN. CRASHING SURF.

The waves TOSS a BEARDED MAN onto wet sand. He lies there. A CHILD’S SHOUT makes him LIFT his head to see: a LITTLE BLONDE BOY crouching, back towards us, watching the tide eat a SANDCASTLE. A LITTLE BLONDE GIRL joins the boy. The Bearded Man tries to call them, but they RUN OFF, FACES UNSEEN. He COLLAPSES.

The barrel of a rifle ROLLS the Bearded Man onto his back. A JAPANESE SECURITY GUARD looks down at him, then calls up the beach to a colleague leaning against a JEEP. Behind them is a cliff, and on top of that, a JAPANESE CASTLE.

INT. ELEGANT DINING ROOM, JAPANESE CASTLE – LATER

The Security Guard waits as an ATTENDANT speaks to an ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN sitting at the dining table, back to us.

ATTENDANT
(in Japanese)
He was delirious. But he asked for
you by name. And…
(to the Security Guard)
Show him.

SECURITY GUARD
(in Japanese)
He was carrying nothing but this…

He puts a HANDGUN on the table. The Elderly Man keeps eating.

SECURITY GUARD
…and this.

The Security Guard places a SMALL PEWTER CONE alongside the gun. The Elderly Man STOPS eating. Picks up the cone.

ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
(in Japanese)
Bring him here. And some food.

INT. SAME – MOMENTS LATER

The Elderly Man watches the Bearded Man WOLF down his food. He SLIDES the handgun down the table towards him.

ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
(in English)
Are you here to kill me?

The Bearded Man glances up at him, then back to his food. The Elderly Japanese Man picks up the cone between thumb and forefinger.

ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
I know what this is.

He SPINS it onto a table- it CIRCLES gracefully across the polished ebony… a SPINNING TOP.

ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
I’ve seen one before. Many, many
years ago…

The Elderly Japanese Man STARES at the top mesmerized.

ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
It belonged to a man I met in a
half-remembered dream…

MOVE IN on the GRACEFULLY SPINNING TOP…

ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
A man possessed of some radical
notions…

The Elderly Japanese Man STARES, remembering…

COBB (V.O.)
What’s the most resilient parasite?

CUT TO:

INT. SAME ELEGANT DINING ROOM – NIGHT (YEARS EARLIER)

Nolan uses Flash-forward to do exactly what we’ve been talking about, setting up intrigue for the audience right off the bat. Where is this crumbling city-scape? What is this world? And it only intensifies after we transition back to a young Cobb and Saito. We’re hooked. We need to know how these characters end up where we just saw them. With one simple scene, Inception has effectively sucked you into its world, while offering substantially more questions than answers.

In my mind, that’s the true use of a Flash-forward. They are, when used right, effectively the anti-flashback.

Now, I’ve seen some people complain that by flashing forward, you give away too much. They say you drain suspense from your story, and sure, that’s happened. Tell me a technique that hasn’t been used poorly by scores of screenwriters, and I’ll call you a filthy liar.

As with everything, remember – It’s the carpenter, not the tools.

Now get out there and mess with the time-stream.

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4 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Flash-Forward and Inception

  1. Em-Boogie

    A word of warning to rookie screenwriters also.

    DO NOT WRITE SCRIPTS IN THE FORMAT STYLE OF CHRISTOPHER NOLAN.

    Why not? I hear you cry…

    Because you are not Christopher Nolan.

    Using CRASHING SURF and SAME as slug-lines is not a good habit.

    When scripts are broken down for shooting, these is not locations and can cause problems.

    Stick to BEACH etc and real locations.

  2. Brad JohnsonBrad Johnson Post author

    Thanks, Ruth! I completely understand the point your making. Here’s my counter-argument (of a sort). Just because a technique is often used incorrectly isn’t the fault of the technique, but the fault of the writer(s). If you’re utilizing FF as a crutch or a short-cut to mystery and intrique in your story, then yes, you’re already screwed. But if you have crafted that into your story already, the FF can be an entertaining, audience-engaging, and successful way to add a little something extra. An amuse-bouche for your script if you will 🙂

  3. ruth

    great piece – thanks Brad. here’s my argument against ff’s (as a story editor i read far too many of them myself) but if the only way you can create mystery and intrigue around what’s to come is via a flash forward then you’re already on shaky ground. it tells me that the main story isn’t compelling enough to hook or keep me engaged on its own. a strong story should create an urgent need to know what happens next regardless of a flash forward. right? just saying…

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