The Flashback: No Time Like The Present

The flashback – like its ugly brother the Voiceover – has caused some heated debate. If used well, it can be a great way of getting exposition across or spicing up your script. If used badly, flashbacks suck. Worst case scenario, they can seriously dullify your story.

by Karel Segers

I’m not going to talk about all-out non-linear movies such as Pulp Fiction or Memento but look instead at films that have a clear story in the present, from which we – repeatedly – jump back in time.

Happy In The Past

Did you see Ladder 49 (2004) and wonder what went wrong in that movie?

Poor use of flashbacks in the movie Ladder 49

The drama in the present is about Joaquin Phoenix’ character, a firefighter trapped inside a blazing multi-story factory. While he’s lying there helplessly, he reminisces about his past life and this plays out as a series of flashbacks. This reviewer points at the main issue:

“Ladder 49” is a movie almost entirely without conflict, at least of the human variety. A firefighter’s family life is presented as next-door to idyllic. Firehouse high jinks are nothing but jolly and delightful. A comrade’s death is sad, but not ultimately unsettling.

For a full 45 minutes, flashback is used completely without drama, and the movie drags itself along at a snail’s pace. In fact we don’t care about those flashbacks much, as we just want to know what’s going to happen in the present, when our hero’s life is in danger. The problem is that this present story takes up no more than a third of the movie’s total screen time.

we don’t care about those flashbacks much,
as we just want to know
what’s going to happen in the present.

Admitted, Ladder 49 did half-okay with its worldwide, all-time gross of $100m but for a movie with Travolta and Phoenix and an undisclosed budget, this is probably the mark of a flop. Reviewers at the time suspected that the pic relied on emotions in the aftermath of 9/11 and the admiration for the Ground Zero firefighters. This theory is substantiated by the fact that the movie only made a measly 25% of its worldwide gross outside the US.

Back to our story analysis.

Flashbacks No Fix

I believe this: if a dramatic situation is set up in the present story, any time spent on a non-dramatic flashback is wasted. The audience wants to see the drama unfold, intensify and resolve in the present. And if a present-day situation is not dramatic, a series of dramatic flashbacks won’t fix it. Ultimately audiences are drawn to what is happening in the present-day story.

any time spent on non-dramatic flashbacks is wasted.

Did you see Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight Of Water (2000)? Probably not. It did a measly $110,000. From what I remember, a recurring dramatic flashback informs a largely undramatic present day mystery. The result bored me senseless.

Here’s what Roger Ebert had to say about its structure, which cuts back and forth between a present and past storyline:

“We don’t feel the connection, and every jump in time is a distraction.  The older story is the more absorbing.”

Recently I read two screenplays that had similar problems with their use of story time. In both scripts the flashbacks ate up more screen time than the present story. Consider this a big fat red flag. Secondly, the flashbacks were more dramatic than most of the present story.

Show – Don’t Illustrate

Turning back the clock with flashbacks.One of the scripts was a short film in which two people in a bar tell each other dramatic stories and these stories are shown in flashback. In my view this ‘illustrated telling’ doesn’t qualify for ‘show don’t tell’. Ultimately the audience knows that in the present the two people are safe, in the bar – and this situation is completely un-dramatic.

Most films that use flashbacks well, do it to intensify the drama in the present story, not to compensate for it.

The other screenplay – a feature – had a gripping story in the present but for about half of the screenplay, this story is not progressed. The issue is vaguely similar to the one in Ladder 49. Here, the writer set up a lengthy expositional backstory of a supporting character in order to enhance a single dramatic moment in the third act.

Most films that use flashbacks well,
do it to intensify the drama in the present story,
not to compensate for it.

If you are going to use flashbacks, use them sparingly. Avoid to make them more dramatic than your story in the present.

Oh, and finally: don’t show flashbacks from other point of view than your main character.

Unless, of course, you are an auteur.

– Karel Segers

Photo Credit: Dave-F via Compfight

7 thoughts on “The Flashback: No Time Like The Present”

  1. Karel, insightful commentary as always. Perhaps you could add where flashbacks do work. Maybe to reveal to the audience some aspect of the protagonists character that otherwise couldn’t be done without dialogue? The recent film “The Iron Lady” has flashbacks that drew me in. Did they work for you?

    • I still need to see THE IRON LADY! But I’ll keep looking out for flashbacks I like and add them here in the comments.

    • One of the best movies I’ve seen in the last 15 or so years that wonderfully incorporates flashbacks is John Sayles’ “Lone Star”. And yes, John Sayles is an auteur, demonstrated by the fact the flashbacks occur form various points of view. :)

      One of the reasons it works so well is because the movie is a mystery that has its main character exploring his father’s past, believing he was responsible for the murder of the town’s sheriff (his father being a deputy at the time), from an objective view (how others saw him) – all the while exploring it subjectively from his own memories as well, both of which come into conflict.

      Great, great multi-layered film worth checking out if you haven’t seen it. Here’s the trailer:

      • I wouldn’t call LONE STAR one of the best but it surely is one of my favorite movies, too. He is indeed an auteur and a great one.

    • I watched BLUE VALENTINE two weeks ago and tried hard to like it – but I failed. It’s one of those movies where I wonder… “Why?” It didn’t give me any insight in the human condition, instead confronted me with situations and experiences that our real lives have no shortage of. It’s a very well made film on every level but the story left me stone cold. The flashbacks were fairly well integrated but I really didn’t give a darn about how these characters got to the point of their relationship in the present. I get that without explanations…

      The same week I watched PRECIOUS. I cannot describe the gamut of emotions that movie unleashed. There’s mythical storytelling for you. I didn’t share a single experience withPrecious’ ‘real life’, thank God, but the film resonated on a much deeper level about themes such as validation, self-esteem etc. Supreme storytelling. There were a few very brief flashbacks, peppering very subtle exposition into the story. It worked a treat.

  2. Thanks for the reminder, Karel. I’m about to ‘wrap’ the screenplay I discussed with you ages ago, and this is perfect timing for me.

    Now I have a far better method of determining whether my flashbacks work or not.


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