By Jennie Jarvis
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen beginning screenwriters cling to the notion that they HAVE to use flashbacks in their work in order to tell their story. “How else can I show that my character’s actions are motivated by the fact that she was molested by her father/neighbor/uncle/priest/clown when she was a child?!” Setting aside the fact that I also see way too many beginning writers try to incorporate molestation into their work, I always try to address those pesky flashbacks first.
Flashbacks are a tool that has existed almost as long as film itself. First employed by D.W. Griffith in his 1916 film Intolerance, a flashback is a moment in a film where a character “flashes back” mentally to an event in their past. In other words, the character is remembering what happened in the past. In a perfect world, the character should only remember something when it is relevant to what is happening in the present, but too often, I run into writers that feel they NEED to use a flashback in order to convey an important event in the past or other piece of backstory.
This weekend, director Danny Boyle’s newest flick Trance hit a theater near me. The plot of the film is simple – during an art heist, the inside man gets hit on the head and forgets what happened to the painting that they were trying to steal, and so he enlists the help of a hypnotherapist to help him remember what happened. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) is a brilliant director who has proven time and time again that a director is capable of producing quality work in multiple genres (Hear that Hollywood? Stop pigeon-holing people!). Sadly, this film wasn’t his best. While the performances were fantastic and Boyle’s amazing visuals made for a compelling story, the screenplay (written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge) suffered from the very sin that I feared – it was trying too hard to be cool. It’s a testosterone fueled jaunt that has gaping plot holes, unclear character motivations and a really predictable “twist” ending, but honestly, I was willing to forgive a lot of it because James McAvoy is an actor that I could watch read the phone book, and I’d be intrigued.
One of the things that really impressed me about the screenplay, though, was how it handled the memories. Because of the sheer number of bad flashbacks I’ve encountered over the years, I was worried that this story might fall prey to using them as exposition dumps. The story could have allowed for it, since the entire premise of the film was trying to remember the past (read: justification to use flashbacks!). But the script didn’t make my fears a reality.
Here’s a brief list of what a beginning writer can learn about using flashbacks by watching the film Trance:
1. A flashback needs to do more than just tell the past
The film opens with James McAvoy looking directly at the camera and telling us, the viewers, the procedure that he was taught as an auction house employee for hiding an art work during a robbery. By definition, he is remembering the past and explaining to the audience everything that he has been taught. In the wrong hands, this could have read as an exposition dump, and we, the audience, would feel weighed down by the smelly load of information that just fell on our heads. But the writers knew they couldn’t do that to us. Instead, they made sure that every scene that gave exposition also had a separate and more compelling dramatic function. The opening wasn’t just telling us what happened in the past, it was also setting up for the future. The scene cut back and forth between the set up and the actual robbery. We saw the robbers using a stolen key card, finding their hidden guns, pulling out their gas masks. The procedure of HOW the painting was removed from the floor was immediately important because we saw it being robbed. The backstory here wasn’t just telling us information – it was also thrilling the hell out of us.
2. Memories can lie
Just like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The English Patient, this film did a great job of presenting memories in a realistic fashion. When we saw the past, whether it was the night of the robbery in question or a mysterious image of our protagonist knocking on a glass to get the attention of who knows what, the past wasn’t always complete or true. In real life, when we look back at an incident that occurred in the past, we can’t always remember it correctly. Think about an argument that you may have had with a friend or loved one. You remember the fight one way, but they will remember it another way. Which way is the “truth”? If you sit down and talk to the other person afterwards to try to understand where the other person was coming from, then your memory of the event can change. Suddenly, you may not see them as a selfish jerk that was trying to be mean anymore. Now, he or she might be a concerned friend that was scared to tell you how they really felt. This film used the fact that our memories aren’t perfect recreations of the past to great effect. As the memories began to resurface, they were fragmented and sometimes wrong. This allowed for great drama in the plot, and it kept the audience guessing what would happen as well.
3. Memories aren’t autonomous
One of the biggest errors that I see in using flashbacks is that a writer feels like they need to tell us a piece of backstory in one big chunk. As mentioned above, the memories that resurfaced in this film were often fragmented. As a result, this film did a really great job of revealing information over time. In an early scene of the film, we get an image of a key ring, but we don’t see the car until the end halfway through the film, and we don’t understand its significance until the end. In one scene, we see a page torn from a book, but we don’t see who tore it until later. Integration (setting up all the pieces to a whole over time) is essential in making sure to avoid the information dumps that make audiences feel so overwhelmingly bored.
4. Flashbacks should add to the drama, not take away from the story
One of my least favorite flashbacks is the backstory revealed in the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The story flashes back to meet the child Willy Wonka. We learn that his father was a very strict dentist that prevented Willy from ever eating chocolate – the bad man. While it’s a quirky and fun scene, it does nothing to move the overall story forward. The plot literally stops in order to tell us this story of Willy’s past. While the information is important and sets up the father figure that will be reintroduced later on in the film, it really felt like a place to get up and go to the bathroom during the film (in other words, I could have learned the same information in a lot less time with a well worded monologue delivered by the brilliant Johnny Depp).
Trance never stops the story in order to look back at the past. Every time it flashes back, the story still moves forward. Our protagonist, Simon, wants to remember what happened, so every time we see the memories, the scene is still servicing his goal. By making the flashbacks serve the protagonist’s overall goal, they enhance the drama and tension instead of take away from them.
5. Whose memory we are looking at should always be clear
One of the things I hate is when a film shows the past, but it doesn’t tell us why we are seeing the past. Who is remembering what happened? Is it just an omniscient God with a camera or is it a character that needs to remember what occurred? Trance never suffered from this, even though we went into the minds of four different characters over the course of the film. At all times, we knew who was remembering the events that we were being shown, and we always saw it from their perspective. I don’t mean this in terms of camera angle – I mean it in terms of subject matter. If Simon (James McAvoy) was remembering an event, it was slightly different than if Frank (Vincent Cassel) was remembering an event. This wasn’t a happy accident made by the director either. This was a conscious choice made by the screenwriters. The past should always be revealed through a perspective since there isn’t such a thing as an objective truth.
6. The story should dictate the use of flashbacks
The best thing about Trance’s use of flashbacks was that the story supported their use. This was a film about a man trying to remember, so there was no way that it could be told without seeing the past. Films that deal with the mind and memory can use them effectively. Perks of Being a Wallflower had to have them. The English Patient had to have them. The Hunger Games could have gotten away without them (although audiences who read the book would have been very upset to lose their “boy with the bread” flashbacks).
If this film was a romantic comedy like The Proposal or a family adventure like National Treasure, then flashbacks wouldn’t make sense. Those are stories about the here and now, and so the action needs to stay in today. Yes, National Treasure has a brief scene that takes place in the past, but that’s not a flashback. It’s a scene that takes place in the past. There is a difference. A flashback is a person remembering something – literally flashing back to an earlier event. A scene that takes place in the past is… a scene… that takes place in the past.
If you are writing a story that takes place in the now and has no reason to go back in time, then you can find a way to give exposition that doesn’t involve a flashback. Trust the actors to give a great monologue about the past, or let other characters reveal the bad things that your character has done. But if you want to use flashbacks, despite my advice, then take a lesson from Trance and try to do it right.