MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
The problem is, a screenplay is like a shark - it has to be moving forward or it dies.
When you think about flashbacks in movies, what they do is move the story
forward... not fill in a bit of the past. The flashback in RESERVOIR DOGS is a
good example - Mr. Orange lies bleeding on the floor after the robbery goes
south... all around him the other robbers are pointing guns at each other and
accusing each other of informing the police - how did the police get there so
fast? Now we get Mr. Orange's flashback... he's an undercover cop. Now, we
may be going back in time, but Mr. Orange being an undercover cop
ESCALATES THE CONFLICT - they will kill him if they find out! He can't run,
he's been gutshot. So each bit of that flashback moves the story forward - we
are discovering more and more information that makes the present situation much worse. The
flashback moves the story forward - it isn't filling in a plot hole.
THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE is a textbook example of how NOT to use flashbacks.
An ambitious young reporter (Kate Winslet) is granted an interview with David
Gale (Kevin Spacey) a college professor and anti-death penalty activist who will
be executed at the end of the week. She will be given an interview on each of the
three last days of his life. Winslet and the interviews become excuses for flashbacks
of the events leading up to Gale's conviction. The first two flashbacks concern Gale's
life as a college professor... how he had an affair with a student that cost him his
job and his marriage. How he descended into alcoholism. How he couldn't keep even the
simplest of jobs. How he lost almost all of his friends and ended up a homeless drunk.
Okay - some of you may be wondering what this has to do with being on death row.
And that's a good question. The first problem is that these two flashbacks have nothing
to do with the story of a man on death row. Though these events provided an excuse for
why a jury might convict an intelligent, articulate man of murder when there is almost
no evidence - the flashbacks are boring and don't change the CURRENT story at all. At
the end of each flashback Gale is still on death row and we haven't learned anything
that will help his case. You'd think a guy with only three days to live would cut to
the chase! Because the flashbacks have no impact at all on present events, they are
pointless. They do not move the story forward, they just waste our time. We get to
know who David Gale is... but it's the life story of a college professor who screws
up his life. Not the most exciting story in the world. The first two thirds are like
sitting next to someone on a long airplane flight who insists on telling you about
their life in Topeka. Who cares?
The third flashback is the one with all of the story material. It's here where we
finally get to the murder and murder conviction. But even though Winslet gets to search
a house and find a video tape and race across town to try and stay the execution because
of the new evidence... the course of the story doesn't really change. The situation at
the end of the third flashback is EXACTLY THE SAME as the situation at the beginning of
the movie... making all of the flashbacks (and the movie itself) pointless. The flashbacks
don't change the story in any way - they don't give us any information that we couldn't
have guessed from the premise itself (many people have), and two of the flashbacks are just
time killers. A flashback needs to MOVE THE STORY FORWARD. A flashback needs to CHANGE the
present situation. These flashbacks just wasted our time.
Screenplays are told in present tense, so the stories told in screenplays usually take place in the
present - we see the story unfold as it is happening. Flashbacks are *not* about the past, they are about
the present time story. If they do not change the present time story, they are probably either plugging a
plot hole or some form of *Soap Opera Plot Twist*.
Hey, but what if that flashback provides critical backstory? Well, where you place your backstory will
depend on where it moves the story forward - that may mean it's the opening scene! Or it may escalate the
conflict if you save that information and reveal it later.
If you have 7 different backstories that are really background material and
therefor need to be established before the story starts... you're in trouble. Let's
say your story is about 7 people who got screwed over by George Lucas as
he climbed his way to the top who decide to band together and kill him at the
premiere of the animated CLONE WARS movie. The problem is you need to
establish their motivations before the story starts, because the revelation that
Character #3 was the editor who said "R-2, D-2 would be a great name for a
robot!" doesn't escalate the conflict at all. So you have to start with these 7
stories... and each one will have to establish the relationship between the
character and Lucas so that the back-stabbing-on-the-way-to-the-top is a real
betrayal. That's not like the snippets we get in SORCERER that only need to
show us why these guys are broke in South America... each of these Lucas
things is it's own story. So the beginning of your script is going to be 7 stories
that need to be told before you can get on to the REAL story - killing George
Lucas. If each of this stories are cut down to 12 minutes - and that will be hard
to establish the bond of friendship and how it is betrayed in so little time - you
have 84 minutes before you can even get to the real story! If you're a frigging
genius and manage to get that story of friendship and betrayal down to 5
minutes each, you're still at 35 minutes of background material before the
story even starts! So a story like this is better suited to a form where you can
spend more time on the backstory - like a novel.
The problem with using a flashback only to reveal backstory is that it's just plugging a plot hole - it's
*script spackle*. If we need to know this piece of backstory in order to understand the present time story,
but that backstory has zero impact on the present time story - it's classic plot hole plugging. You need
to establish whatever backstory is required much earlier - Act 1 is the Set Up Act. Usually you want
to plant this information as early as possible and maybe even use the "rule of three" and re-establish the
information a second time somewhere in the story so that the audience just *knows it* without making a big
deal about it... and use whatever "reveal" as the third time that breaks the pattern. When you introduce
information - in a flashback right before it becomes important to the story it seems as if you are making
it up as you go along (and not in a good way) and the story seems false. You want the story to seem as
if it is unfolding naturally... not that the writer had to go back and add a piece so that it would make sense.
Things that happened in the past, before your story starts, are only important if they impact the current story -
*change* the current story. Using flashbacks as "soap opera twists" - where a bit of shocking information about
a character's past is revealed that *doesn't change the current story at all* is also a waste of time. Sure, it
may give the audience a jolt - but just like one of those plot twists on a soap opera ("He... was... my... boyfriend!")
they end up being silly and overblown because they don't have any real meaning. The story remains the same.
If that information changes the direction of the present time story, that's okay - but if it's just revealed information
that doesn't matter... it doesn't matter.
FLASHBACKS MOVE THE STORY FORWARD - THEY DON'T GO BACK & PLUG PLOT HOLES.
A screenplay is told in present tense and it is about things that are happening *now*... but there's a great little
"cheat" called a "framing device" that is often used in films that may start a little slow. A couple of great
examples are DOUBLE INDEMINITY and SUNSET BLVD - both begin at the end and then "flashback" to the beginning.
The thing about this technique is that after that initial scene, the rest of the film happens in a form of present time...
where the story's conflict is. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY the protagonist Walter Neff is bleeding to death and clicks on his
dictaphone to record his confession... and then the whole rest of the movie is what brought him to this point in time.
So, even though it's technically a flashback, it's the story unfolding in one time period. No flashbacks within that
flashback. SUNSET BLVD opens with the protagonist *dead* - floating in a swimming pool while paparazzi take his picture...
and then we flashback to how he came to be dead. But once we have flashed back, we stay back. How these stories work is
that we eventually go through the story until we get to that point where we started (the end) and then we get a little
smidgen or story (or not in the case of SUNSET BLVD). These aren't really flashbacks, because they tell the whole story.
Just to throw in another example, MURDER MY SWEET opens with Marlowe being interrogated by the police - eyes bandaged
and blind. Lots of people have been murdered and the police think he may be responsible. So, as Marlowe "confesses",
we go back to the beginning of the story and it is told in that version of the "present" until we come to the police
station in that version of "present time" - our story has gone full circle to the beginning! Then we get that minute
or two "tag" at the end. Like the two Billy Wilder films, this is only technically a flashback, since only 1% of the
story takes place in the present. The other 99% takes place in the same time period as the story unfolds just like any
other story would. Usually this is done when a story starts slow, to clue in the audience that there are exciting
things to come, and/or build a mystery (how did Marlowe get blinded?). This is a great technique for the toolbox.
I suspect this may be the idea behind the flashbacks in DAVID GALE, except the problem they ran into was that *nothing
happens* in the first two flashbacks - the first two thirds of the film - so they had to return to the Death Row element
to remind us why we should care. But the problem is that nothing happens for two thirds of the danged film, and no
amount of artificial flashback stuff is going to make it more interesting. This is a *story problem* that can not be
resolved with the "framing" technique. If you look at the two Billy Wilder movies and MURDER MY SWEET, once we get
past the initial "frame" opening the story really gets going - lots of exciting things happen. The problem with
DAVID GALE is that once we flashback, nothing happens. Nothing happens for two thirds of the film! It's all kind
of boring backstory stuff. Compare this to MURDER MY SWEET where there's a gun out and a threat the moment we
"flash back"... or DOUBLE INDEMINTY where we go directly to Neff and Phyllis meeting and flirting and taking about
a life insurance policy for that husband she doesn't love anymore... or SUNSET BLVD which has our protagonist out
running repo guys who are after his car because he's a flat broke screenwriter. And even after we have "flash backed"
into the story, there's no shortage of conflict and excitement. The problem with DAVID GALE is that nothing happens
until the last third (or less) or the story, so those two initial flashbacks are just time killers. This is a
story with serious structure issues, and those can not be solved with a framing device.
When you use a framing device, the conflict alive and active in that "past" - once we go back and become involved
in the story we stay there and deal with that conflict until it is resolved. The issue with DAVID GALE is that even
when we went back to the "past" there was no conflict... the only conflict in the story is that he's on Death Row.
So the flashback is just expositional, and not only doesn't change the present time conflict... there's no conflict
in the past either! The only conflict in the story is the execution - and that's a dead conflict. It can not be changed.
You want to find a conflict that is *active and alive* and not dead. Any time you have a conflict where the
resolution is set in stone, it's dead, Jim. Had each of the flashbacks in DAVID GALE been filled with conflict
and twists and *things happening*, the film would have worked. Instead, every time we came out of a flashback...
we were in the exact same place and not a thing had changed.
And the story seems stalled out and dead.
YOUR SCRIPT CHECKLIST:
1) What is the impact of your flashback on the present time story?
2) Does the flashback escalate the conflict, or just give information?
A script is like a shark - the story must always be moving forward... even when it's a flashback.
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