You’ve heard it before: “Avoid using flashbacks in your screenplays.” Flashbacks, screenwriting gurus tell you, are about as good for a screenplay as a crying jag is for the rust-prone Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
But those gurus’ advice doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? After all, think of all the successful movies that use flashbacks. Not just old classics (among them, a lot of detective movies and courtroom thrillers), but also more recent films, like Memento.
Well, all those screenwriting experts are right. In most instances, flashbacks are bad for your script. The problem is, the experts have never explained to you why. So, here’s why:
Flashbacks, used correctly, are a structural device. They’re best used when they are integral to the mechanics of the story, as they were in Memento. Flashbacks are not, however, intended as a crutch to make up for a writer’s lack of skill in conveying backstory.
Used properly, flashbacks can be a great asset to a screenplay. So, why am I suggesting that you avoid including them in your script? Because, if you’re like the vast majority of aspiring screenwriters, you don’t use them correctly. Here are two common examples of the wrong way to use flashbacks:
- For exposition, as in: “Oops! I forgot to tell you this important information about the story or my character’s background, so I think I’ll pick up some of this stuff along the way, using flashbacks.” Quite simply, this results from lack of adequate planning before writing the script.
- To create audience sympathy for your main character, especially in a drama. For example, showing us in flashback that he was beaten up by the school bullies back when he was a kid. We don’t need to see this.
Remember, it’s always best to start your story as “late” as possible in the trajectory of your main character's life -- right before he undergoes a major dramatic change and he’s confronted with a crisis that is the central dilemma of the story. Start in the present, and stay there.
Recently, I saw the classic 1952 Western High Noon (by Carl Foreman, based on a short story, “The Tin Star," and directed by Fred Zinnemann) for about the fourth time. If you went to film school, this movie and its screenplay are considered Screenwriting 101.
High Noon is about a middle-aged marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who is getting married -- and turns in his badge, mainly to please his beautiful young bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), who is a Quaker (ergo, a pacifist) and wants him to retire to run a store. But just after the newlyweds take their vows, news comes that the bad guy whom the hero sent away to prison, Frank Miller, has been pardoned and is coming back to town on the noon train to “get him."
After leaving town as planned to start a new life with his bride, Kane’s conscience gets the better of him (especially since the new marshal hasn't arrived yet), and he returns to confront the danger and protect the community, putting his badge back on. Kane's new wife makes him choose between her and his duty. Naturally, since he’s played by Gary Cooper, Will Kane chooses duty. Not only does Amy desert him just when he needs her most, but also every friend he ever had does the same thing. When high noon arrives, he has to face the villain and his henchmen -- alone. See the movie if you want to know how it all turns out.
What can you learn from watching/reading High Noon? How to write a story that unfolds in “real time," for one thing. The running time of the movie roughly corresponds to the elapsed time in the story, as the clock ticks down to the villains’ arrival on the noon train, and the hero sweats nobly, desperately seeking deputies. The movie is set in the Old West, but it’s really a metaphor for the Hollywood blacklist of the '50s, when industry pros accused of being communists found out very quickly who their real friends were. (Screenwriter Foreman was blacklisted shortly after writing High Noon.) The movie is also notable for its acting -- Cooper won an Oscar® for his starring role -- and Zinnemann’s work, and for the haunting ballad on the soundtrack, “Do Not Forsake Me," sung by Tex Ritter (father of the late comedic actor, John).
Not only is High Noon tightly constructed with watch-like precision, it’s also a master class in writing backstory.
In fact, the entire movie hinges on the backstory. Will Kane and his past relationships are key to understanding this story. Every character in the movie has a different reason for refusing to help Marshal Will Kane in his hour of need. Those reasons are complex, unique to each individual, and rooted in the past. They range from sexual jealousy to simple cowardice, and everything in-between. And, of course, the reason the villain is pursuing Kane is also connected to the backstory: Kane was the one who arrested him for murder, after which the bad guy was sent to jail. Our understanding of the characters’ motives in the present depends on our knowing the backstory.
So, with all this backstory to cover, how many flashbacks are there in High Noon?
None. Not one.
Sure, the writer comes close to doing a flashback -- once. The town judge reminds the marshal of the moment in the courtroom when the convicted murderer, Miller, swore that he’d never hang and would kill Kane someday. In the present, the camera dramatically zooms in on an empty chair in Kane’s office -- as if it’s the witness stand -- and the judge quotes the villain's threat to Kane in the courtroom on that long-ago day. But is there a flashback to the courtroom? No.
At one point in the story, Kane asks a desk clerk at the local hotel if a woman he’s looking for (Helen, played by Katy Jurado) is in. The nasty clerk tells him she is, and then adds pointedly, leeringly, “Think you can find it all right?” In just that one sentence, we know the whole backstory. This woman is Kane’s ex-lover.
High Nooncould have shown us Kane’s past affair. Or the courtroom trial. It might have given us flashbacks to Kane’s courtship with Amy, instead of starting the movie with their wedding day and his retirement. It didn’t. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have.
So, the next time you’re sure you need flashbacks in your script, resist the temptation. Unless flashbacks are absolutely necessary to your structure (as in Memento or Rashomon), consider whether skillful writing set only in the present -- giving us the backstory through clever dialogue with subtext, or revealing behavior -- might be a better alternative. It almost always is. If you don’t believe me, see High Noon.
Keep pitching. See you next month.