So, I’ve been thinking about flashbacks; mainly because the novel I’m currently writing – at a glacial pace – features two ‘strands’ of narrative, one of which is a flashback for the main story, providing background detail for it.
I was watching the TV series Jekyll the other day, and – as is often the case with his work – the writer Steven Moffat does some interesting things with the structure, flashing back to scenes (either familiar or unseen) to provide information about the current story. In one of the episodes, a tough-looking military chap is introduced, and then we have several minutes of montage-style flashbacks showing him being tough in various situations before he engages with the main character. It works pretty well, but in the hands of a lesser writer (like me), it could just be a way to introduce a character or plot element and retro-fit them into the story to plug a gap; the good guy’s cornered by a horde of hooligans, but then we see a flashback of him picking up a taser as he leaves home, and so he deus ex machina-s his way out of the predicament.
There’s a problem for me with the film Kill Bill Part 2 as a result of this (and after this parenthesis, there be spoilers); in the second film we see a sequence where The Bride is being trained in certain techniques, and then we see her using them a little later in the film; all fairly normal, but of course this is the second of two films, and if Tarantino wanted us to ‘almost forget’ that she’d learned the wood-breaking technique or whatever and then go ‘ah, right, of course’ when she uses it, I’d imagine he would have buried (pun intended for those of you who know what I’m on about) that sequence in the first film so you would have nearly forgotten it. I’d imagine that if the film had been released in one chunk then that sequence would have been earlier in the running order, though that’s just my guess.
On the other hand, if you release a film and there’s a period of time before the completion of the story, it means keen fans may see it more than once and spot scenes which are possibly setting up pay-offs in later instalments (cf the hoverboard in the Back To The Future films), but you don’t necessarily want the audience to spot that something is clearly setting up a later event. It’s a fine thing to balance – some stories can be sufficiently involving that you forget the key plot element (I’d nominate the boiler plot point in The Shining), or there can be so much going on – such as many possible suspects in a murder mystery – that you’re not sure which clues are relevant or not. On the other hand, flashbacks can suddenly appear and inform the current situation with such plodding obviousness as to remove the suspense or mystery from the story.
I remember a chap I worked with who said he didn’t like the flashbacks which started to appear in the second series of The West Wing, because he felt that it showed they’d run out of story, and were resorting to making up stuff that had happened before the show started; I didn’t think that was the case, but I know what he means – it’s a fairly frequent occurrence in film sequels or long-running TV series for one of the main characters to suddenly encounter an ex-wife or mentor or adversary, and depending on how it’s handled it can add a bit of depth to the characters, or just look like they’re bolting something on to the existing setup in the hope it works.
As is so often the case when I’m talking about the specifics of writing, I don’t have any kind of definitive conclusion on this, but it’s certainly something I’m mindful of at the moment, when writing and or reading and when watching TV or films alike; flashbacks, at best, should contribute something to the characterisation or plot, but at the same time they’re best when they don’t scream ‘look at me, I’m important!’. Better, I think, that the flashes should are discreet; my aim in my novel is for them to intertwine with the ‘present day’ events like a background harmony (appropriately enough, the example which comes to my mind is the ‘Frere Jacques’ bit in The Beatles’ Paperback Writer), but as with most things I’m involved in the creation of, I’ll probably be the least qualified to judge whether I’ve been successful or not.
Still, one of the benefits of writing a self-contained story is that I can go back and insert things to make it look as if I knew what I was doing all along, and not just making it up as I went along; that’s what all the drafts after the first draft are for, really.
Or, if I can’t be bothered to do that, I’ll point to this blog post and say see, I did think about the flashbacks, even if I didn’t really make them work.