In today's Screenwriter Carnival, I'm challenging my cohorts to think of one screenwriting myth they would love to correct.
My pick: Flashbacks.
New writers hear it all the time: Don't use flashbacks.in your screenplay. It's the death knell. NEVER EVER DO IT OR YOU WILL BE DESTROYED.
Balderdash, I say.
As an action writer, I love to start things in medias res, which is a literary term for starting right in the middle of the action. I don't usually do that "Three weeks earlier" thing made popular by Alias, but I do like to skip the boring shit and start with guns ablazin. The downside of that is that at some point I'm going to have to fill in the story I skipped over in order to start here. Flashbacks are excellent in that capacity.
I didn't set out to use flashback in every screenplay, but it has happened. My last three specs have all used them because I had to.
And there's the trick, really. Use them if you have to. Use them if they give us something we can't get from the linear storyline. It takes skill and practice to use them right, and that's why new writers are told not to use them. If you don't know what you're doing, just don't do it.
So how do you use flashbacks correctly? Let's go to my favorite example, In Bruges.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR IN BRUGES
The film starts off as a comedy. We don't know why Ray is in Bruges, but we know he did something stupid and now he's hiding out until the shit blows over. Ray is hilarious because he's an asshole, an asshole we can kind of relate to, but an asshole nonetheless.
Then, halfway through the film, we flash back to what Ray did. We learn that in the middle of completing a job he was paid to do, he also killed a little boy. And when we come out of that flashback, we're in a different film. Suddenly we realize that all this time, what we thought was funny asshole behavior was really Ray coping with what he did. And from this point on, the story is much more serious. We take his suicidal behavior not as a joke, but as a real possibility. We feel sad for him now, where before we felt humor.
That one flashback added information to our story. It told us something that completely changed our view of this world and our character. It changed the tone and the meaning of everything that had come before. Without that flashback, we'd be missing information.
So if you want to use flashbacks in your story, make them mean something. Make them more than just a cute little expositiony scene with information we could have gotten some other way. Make your flashback count for something. Make it necessary.
But don't go around your elbow to get to your thumb just because some guru somewhere said not to use flashbacks. Flashbacks can be awesome if you use them with care.
Red Right Hand