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.