I was going through a script full of flashbacks the other day. The flashbacks seemed unmotivated to me. The scenes themselves were important to the story, but I didn't know why we were flashing back at that point.
I think the best rule is: Use a flashback when the audience has just asked the question that the flashback answers
. Which means, of course, that you provoke the audience to ask the question, and then you provide the flashback that answers it.
This is actually a pretty good rule for any sort of cutting away from what the hero is doing right now, whether it's to the past or the future or to another character. When I'm telling a well-crafted screen story to my stepson, I find that he often asks a question just before I come to the part that answers that question. That's good story telling. Let the audience ask the question, and then answer it for them. When the audience asks the question, they pull themselves into the story.
By contrast, just pushing information at the audience tends to push the audience out of the story.
You can, especially in TV, cut to the B-story just to trim the A story -- it's always easier to jump from one time to another time when you jump to another story in the middle. But if you can relate the B story to what's happening in the A story, that's usually stronger.
I do like flash back's a lot, but I think a lot of time in movies they get overdone. I enjoy them sporadically, but when it gets to be the entire movie, it gets a bit annoying.
This post can be applied to look at which episodes of Lost were more impactful than others. Very often, the writers would not bother to motivate the flashback, instead just treating it as an independent storyline to fill time. Those episodes can be watched without the flashbacks, and nothing would be missed.
I wonder what you think of the practice of beginning a TV show at the end of the story and then cutting to '12 hours earlier.' Ron Moore has discussed that they'd do it on Battlestar when an episode just wasn't 'working' linearly, but other shows, such as The Good Guys, seem to have this—dare I say—gimmick built in at the script stage.
Maybe you should teach screenwriting at UQÀM Alex. When I went there, the only thing that was said about Flash backs was "don't use them in movies... cause it doesn't work". Well... Most of the teaching was that way to be honest...
@David: Yes, everybody knows flashbacks don't work. That's why CASABLANCA is such a failure as a movie. Oh, and FORREST GUMP. Oh, and MEMENTO. Oh, and CITIZEN KANE. Oh, and A FEW GOOD MEN.
Why would you cripple movie storytelling by requiring only linear narrative?
@Gregory: starting at the end and going back works. It's another way to tell a story. Why the hell not? Sorkin and Whedon use it all the time, and they are among our best TV writers.
Alex, how you feel about the use of the flashbacks/dreams in SIGNS? I've always liked them there and am trying to emulate it in a feature I'm writing right now. They raised questions, gave you just enough to wonder before bringing seemingly disparate threads together.
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