Specs & The City: Flashbacks and ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Flashbacks are a touchy subject in the screenwriting world. There are a lot of people out there that just don’t like them. In fact, if you read the majority of the screenwriting books out there, delve into the resources online, or listen to any of the self-appointed “experts”, you’ll get one message loud and clear – Flashbacks are a tell-tale sign of a lazy screenwriter.

The truth is, as with most things in world of screenwriting, it’s all in the execution.

When it’s used well, Flashbacks can add a deeper and more meaningful look into the core of your story. It can add another level of excitement and pull your audience deeper into the world you’re creating. Used poorly, it’s a destroyer of dramatic tension. A badly implemented Flashback will squeeze all of the life out of your script faster than you can say “THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE”.

When you really look at it, the problem isn’t the use of Flashbacks, it’s the poor execution. And it’s a vicious circle: Amateur screenwriters are constantly being told not to use them, so the overall skill at implementing them doesn’t improve. Then professional readers and studio execs get so frustrated by the poor use of Flashbacks in the scripts they read, they scream “NO MORE FLASHBACKS!” from the top of the Hollywood hills. And the cycle continues.

It’s like LOOPER, but without that creepy kid or Joseph Gordon’s Levitt’s prosthetic nose.

I can win the argument against those Flashback naysayers – the proof that Flashbacks can be done, and done well – with two words: Quentin Tarantino.

Flashbacks and RESERVOIR DOGS

In RESERVOIR DOGS, Tarantino tells the classic tale of a heist gone wrong, but with his own unique twist. Large chunks of the film are spent with Flashbacks showing the audience how each of the individual characters got to the warehouse. The example I like to use involves Mr. Pink, and is a perfect example of a well-executed Flashback scene.

Here’s how Tarantino sets up the Flashback:

MR. WHITE
You’re right, this is bad.
(pause)
How did you get out?

MR. PINK
Shot my way out. Everybody was
shooting, so I just blasted my way
outta there.

CUT TO: 

EXT. CROWDED CITY STREET – DAY 

Mr. Pink is hauling ass down a busy city sidewalk. He has a canvas bag with a shoulder strap in one hand, and a .357 MAGNUM in the other. If any BYSTANDERS get in his way, he just knocks them down. We DOLLY at the same speed, right along side of him.

FOUR POLICEMEN are running after Mr. Pink. We DOLLY with them.

There’s a lot of action going on that we don’t need to focus on, so let’s skip to the transition OUT of the Flashback:

Using the car as a shield, Mr. Pink FIRES three shots at the Cops.

Everybody HITS the ground, or scatters.

Mr. Pink HOPS in the car.

Cops FIRE.

INT. CAR (MOVING) – DAY

CAMERA in the backseat, Mr. Pink FLOORS it. SPEEDING down the street, with the Cops FIRING after him.

BACK TO:

INT. BATHROOM – DAY

Mr. Pink and Mr. White still talking in the bathroom.

MR. PINK
Tagged a couple of cops. Did you
kill anybody?

MR. WHITE
A few cops.

There are a lot of things being done well here, but the main point to notice is how the Flashback serves the story. First, the present day action and dialogue that bookend both sides of the Flashback, are directly related to what comes in between. This lessens the impact of the linear break on your audience.

The second point that needs to be driven home here is despite moving back in time, Tarantino is moving his narrative forward and revealing key character traits about Mr. Pink – his willingness to do anything in order to save himself – that will come into play later in the script.

Finally, if you read the entire Flashback scene, you’d see it contains its own arc. Mr. Pink is running from the cops – the cops catch up with him – he’s trapped – Mr. Pink finds a way to escape and gets away.

These points are key. For some reason, when writers include a Flashback in their script they tend to forget the basic principles of scene construction. Never forget that every scene should be moving your story forward, revealing character and having its own micro-arc. The unique nature of a Flashback doesn’t excuse it from those rules.  In fact, it makes it all the more important that they be followed.

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3 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Flashbacks and ‘Reservoir Dogs’

  1. E.J

    Great point, Mr. Johnson. I have always loved flashbacks and can’t for the life of me understand how people screw them up. Flashbacks help the story move forward by going back to the past. It’s kinda like the saying (and I’m paraphrasing here) “How can you move forward, if you don’t know your past?” Flashbacks aren’t completely necessary but when executed well… they are a thing of beauty.

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