David C. Martell on Flashbacks and The Life of David Gale

August 7, 2012

[Note: When I first published this post, I thought the article in question was written by Syd Field. That was an error on my part. My bad.]

A while back I exchanged a few blog posts with Michael Hauge on the subject of flashbacks, and two and a half years later those continue to be some of my most popular articles on this site. So when I saw an article from David C. Martell on the subject, I was immediately interested.

To summarize Martell’s overlong and repetitive piece:

  1. a good flashback moves the story forward by escalating conflict, rather than just giving us exposition
  2. The Life of David Gale is a bad movie, because the first two flashbacks don’t do this.

While I agree with the premise, I completely reject the assessment of The Life of David Gale. Somewhere buried in the end of the article’s quagmire of repetition is the recognition that the David Gale‘s flashbacks are really just a framing device; that the story takes place in the past and this is a reminder that “more exciting things are to come.” This technique is used constantly in films, particularly ones that take a while to set up.

But for some reason, Sunset Boulevard‘s careful setup warrants much more respect from Mr. Martell than David Gale‘s. Most egregiously, to me, is the following comment:

“You’d think a guy with only three days to live would cut to the chase!”

Um, no David, if you think that, you completely missed the point of the movie. He wants to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, and now you’re saying that his lack of urgency is bad thing? It’s an essential character choice!

It gets even worse a few lines later:

“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 . . . A flashback needs to CHANGE the present situation. These flashbacks just wasted our time.”

Again, no. As you so aptly pointed out later on, the flashbacks were a framing device. The flashbacks are the story. By definition, they’re not going to change it.

Sorry you didn’t like the movie. But there are better examples for flashbacks that don’t change the story or escalate the conflict at all. It’s time to move on.


The Three Act Structure Is a Load of Crap

March 22, 2011

This morning, I woke up to a reply from Linda Aronson on my Flashbacks discussion with Michael Hauge (scroll to the comments at the bottom). One of the things she brings up is the fact that not all scripts have to follow the three-act structure, which works only for a certain type of film.

One of the things I’m wrestling with in my current screenplay is that the low point, in the last draft, occurred on page 98 (out of 112). At my reading a few weeks ago, I was told that I need to have it about 20 pages earlier. I’ve been really struggling with this, because I know that the script has some structural issues, but I don’t quite see how to gut the entire first two acts AND add in some of the stronger suggestions they made and still accommodate this change.

After doing a little more research I discovered that yes, in Snyderesque BS2 format, the “All Is Lost” moment needs to happen on page 75, leading to the “Dark Night of the Soul” (75-85) and then the 2nd turning point driving us into Act 3. But then I kept looking and discovered, much to my relief, that this doesn’t always have to be the case. In The Jumper of Maine, which won a Nicholl Fellowship and the AFF Screenplay Competition this year, the low point occurs much later, around page 91 (of 107), leading to a VERY short final act, and the climax.

Then I re-read the “Act Design” chapter of McKee’s Story, which corroborated the idea that you don’t have to shoehorn every story into three acts. Which is good news, because one of the things I’ve been keenly aware of through this whole process is that the closer you stick to the formula, the more formulaic your movie becomes.

So in rewriting Postville, my low point is going to occur earlier than it did in the previous draft (mostly a function of trimming the fat), but then I’m also going to extend out particularly the final act, to give the audience some time to deal with these characters as they’re going through their final crisis.

Still haven’t quite figured out how to do that just yet … but I’m getting closer.


Effective Flashbacks RESPONSE from Michael Hauge

March 31, 2010

A few days ago I posted a response to Michael Hauge’s article on flashbacks. I also e-mailed him that post and invited him to respond, and he was kind enough to do so. Here is his answer:

I appreciate David’s kind words about my article on using flashbacks in your screenplay. But since he challenged some of my statements, I thought I’d better clarify what I said.

My intent with the article was to identify the various forms flashbacks can take, in order to give writers a better understanding of this device, and when it might be appropriate. When, at the conclusion of the article, I advise writers not to use flashbacks, I perhaps should have worded it differently and said use flashbacks only as a last resort. My goal was (and remains) to discourage writers from automatically creating a flashback as soon as they want to reveal something from the past.

The “bad” examples of flashbacks David would like to see occur mostly in screenplays that never got produced, or in early drafts of scripts written before I began coaching the writers. The good examples are from films where the screenwriters clearly pondered many other ways of revealing the past, and wisely concluded that some form of flashback worked best.

I also should perhaps have omitted the Prologue from the list, since technically it doesn’t flash “back” from anything; it’s the opening sequence of the script. But since it occurs in the past, prior to the main body of the story, and since it serves many of the same functions (anticipation, curiosity, foreshadowing, echoing and exposition), I included it.

But my point remains: flashbacks are overused devices in the majority of scripts I read (not in the majority of produced films). I looked at the top 25 box office hits of all time listed on www.boxofficemojo.com. Of those 20, I couldn’t identify a single one that used a simple flashback. Finding Nemo has a prologue, Titanic tells two parallel stories, and Iron Man has a big action teaser (all of these are explained in the article). But unless I’ve forgotten something about the others, none of them contains any form of flashback. And three out of twenty-five hardly indicates a commonly used device.

Even referring to the IMDb movie list David cites, I don’t recall a flashback of any kind in The Godfather, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Schindler’s List, 12 Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight – and only the Parallel Story device in The Godfather Part II and Pulp Fiction – leaving only The Shawshank Redemption, which opens with a combination Prologue and Single Past Incident. Again, three out of their top ten films hardly indicates frequent usage.

As for contradicting that old maxim “show, don’t tell,” I wanted to point out that once in awhile the most powerful way of eliciting emotion is through a character telling us something from their past, and allowing the audience’s own imagination to create the images – especially when the past event is particularly painful. This is how we learn of the death of Neytiri’s sister in Avatar, for example – and seems to me a far more moving revelation than if we had to flash back to actually see her slaughtered by mercenaries.

I hope that clarifies any confusion about my article – or at least stimulates more discussion, and makes you think twice before resorting to a flashback in your own screenplay.

– Michael Hauge

Thanks, Michael, for your response to a humble peon like myself. I agree that the prologue was an odd inclusion, but didn’t challenge that, for the same reasons you cited. And having been a reader for Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition, I certainly agree that flashbacks are often used poorly in bad scripts – but then again, so are dialogue, exposition, and chase scenes. I can’t tell you how many awful chase scenes I’ve read. Certainly, though, the simple flashback is a dull device that should be used sparingly, although I don’t remember the scene you’re referring to in Avatar, so it obviously didn’t make much of an impression on me. Far more effective for me was V for Vendetta, which I remember being incredibly moving, as he told the story while we watched it on screen also something that needs to be done well or not at all).

I’d still like to think of some examples of poor flashback use in well-known movies. Enough bad movies have been made over the years, there’s gotta be something.

As far as the IMDb list, you’re right on. I was counting 12 Angry Men as having a prologue, though perhaps I shouldn’t have under the terms of this discussion, since it happens immediately before the story, and not significantly beforehand. It is, in the classical sense, a prologue, though, which is why I counted it. Schindler’s List, was my mistake – I was thinking of the epilogue, which takes place in present day, and The Dark Knight and The Godfather I was confusing with their prequel and sequel, respectively, both of which do employ flashbacks.

It bears pointing out, though, that The Shawshank Redemption, in addition to the Prologue, also contains a Single Past Incident flashback to Tommy’s former cellmate, as well as The Explanation at the end.

So at least I can claim the best movie of all time.

I appreciate David’s kind words about my article on using flashbacks in your screenplay. But since he challenged some of my statements, I thought I’d better clarify what I said.

My intent with the article was to identify the various forms flashbacks can take, in order to give writers a better understanding of this device, and when it might be appropriate. When, at the conclusion of the article, I advise writers not to use flashbacks, I perhaps should have worded it differently and said use flashbacks only as a last resort. My goal was (and remains) to discourage writers from automatically creating a flashback as soon as they want to reveal something from the past.

The “bad” examples of flashbacks David would like to see occur mostly in screenplays that never got produced, or in early drafts of scripts written before I began coaching the writers. The good examples are from films where the screenwriters clearly pondered many other ways of revealing the past, and wisely concluded that some form of flashback worked best.

I also should perhaps have omitted the Prologue from the list, since technically it doesn’t flash “back” from anything; it’s the opening sequence of the script. But since it occurs in the past, prior to the main body of the story, and since it serves many of the same functions (anticipation, curiosity, foreshadowing, echoing and exposition), I included it.

But my point remains: flashbacks are overused devices in the majority of scripts I read (not in the majority of produced films). I looked at the top 25 box office hits of all time listed on www.boxofficemojo.com. Of those 20, I couldn’t identify a single one that used a simple flashback. Finding Nemo has a prologue, Titanic tells two parallel stories, and Iron Man has a big action teaser (all of these are explained in the article). But unless I’ve forgotten something about the others, none of them contains any form of flashback. And three out of twenty-five hardly indicates a commonly used device.

Even referring to the IMDb movie list David cites, I don’t recall a flashback of any kind in The Godfather, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Schindler’s List, 12 Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight – and only the Parallel Story device in The Godfather Part II and Pulp Fiction – leaving only The Shawshank Redemption, which opens with a combination Prologue and Single Past Incident. Again, three out of their top ten films hardly indicates frequent usage.

As for contradicting that old maxim “show, don’t tell,” I wanted to point out that once in awhile the most powerful way of eliciting emotion is through a character telling us something from their past, and allowing the audience’s own imagination to create the images – especially when the past event is particularly painful. This is how we learn of the death of Neytiri’s sister in Avatar, for example – and seems to me a far more moving revelation than if we had to flash back to actually see her slaughtered by mercenaries.

I hope that clarifies any confusion about my article – or at least stimulates more discussion, and makes you think twice before resorting to a flashback in your own screenplay.

– Michael Hauge


Effective Flashbacks

March 30, 2010

This month’s article from Michael Hauge’s Screenplay Mastery website is a great piece about flashbacks, and how to make the best use of them in your screenplays.

The problem I’m having with the article, though, is reconciling the conclusion with the body. Michael’s suggestion to tell, rather than show the backstory to the audience runs antithetical to everything else that’s ever been said about effective writing. And the fact that he spends most of the article giving examples of where these devices have been used effectively completely undercuts the argument at the end that it’s better not to use flashbacks.

Plus, a look at the IMDb Top 250 shows that a significant percentage of the best movies ever made use one of the techniques he highlights in the article, especially at the top of the list: Among the top 10 movies, seven of them, by my count, use one of these techniques, including the top three.

So although I’m certain that there are a million movies that have used the Prologue, for example, to their detriment, I suspect there are far fewer bad movies that use the Parallel Plots device. And it would be interesting to think about what sets those films apart from the likes of The Usual Suspects and Julie & Julia that use it so darn well.


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