(SPOILERS: Saving Private Ryan, Casablanca, The Notebook)
I've been talking a lot about narrative devices lately – techniques we use to tell stories on film. Today I want to discuss two related narrative devices: flashbacks and framing stories.
You probably already know what a flashback is. In case you haven't heard the term "framing story," it describes scenes that surround the primary story, often in the present for a story told in the past. For example, Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat) has a framing story – we see Ryan in the present day going to visit the gravesite of Captain Miller in France. The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman) also has a framing story – the grandfather reading the book to his sick grandson. In Saving Private Ryan the framing story literally frames the movie – appearing only at the beginning and end. In The Princess Bride, we move back and forth from the framing story to the main story in the book the grandfather is reading.
What differentiates a framing story from a flashback is where the main dramatic story of the movie takes place. If the main story is in the past, then everything in the present is a framing story. If the main story is in the present, then what takes place in the past is flashback.
It's important to understand where your main story is taking place. This is the story the audience really cares about. Everything in a framing story or flashback serves only to illuminate the main story in some way. Thus you must be careful not to spend too much time in the flashback or framing story. If you do, the audience will eventually grow bored waiting for you to return to the stuff they're really interested in.
Note that not every jump back in time constitutes a flashback as I’m defining it. Sometimes, for example, we might have an opening scene that’s set in the distant past – some bit of history that sets up important information for the present day storyline, as in The Mummy (story by Stephen Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre, screenplay by Stephen Sommers) or Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe). Those are really prologues, not flashbacks.
Similarly, sometimes a movie will start with an exciting bit of action and then flash back to show how we got there, such as in Mission: Impossible III (written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams). Again, this is not really a flashback by my definition, but rather a flash forward used to tease the audience. It’s a perfectly acceptable device, but bears more relationship to the purpose of a prologue than the usual uses for flashbacks.
Like voiceover, flashbacks are considered by some to be a weak device. And like voiceover I think this is because flashbacks are often used badly, not because the device itself is somehow inferior. Flashbacks are almost by definition expository and thus have many of the same challenges as good exposition. They also have an inherent advantage in conveying exposition in that they can be dramatic scenes in and of themselves…as long as the writer makes them dramatic, of course.
Consider the flashback in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), when Rick remembers his time in Paris with Ilsa. It takes us away from the main story line for an awfully long time. But by the time we see it we're very curious about what happened back in Paris to make Rick so angry at Ilsa. Like with any expository scene, placing it when the audience is craving the information makes it more palatable. And the scenes themselves with the invading German army, Ilsa's mysterious past, and the final heartbreaking moment at the train station are dramatic in their own right.
Movies like Signs (written by M. Night Shyamalan) and I Am Legend (screenplay Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman) use flashbacks to reveal how their characters got to be the way they are. This more or less works, but these scenes never feel that interesting. I think that’s because they don’t reveal anything particularly surprising or relevant to the outcome of the primary story. It’s mostly character development and for that I think flashback is kind of a weak device.
Though admittedly Casablanca also tells us how Rick got to be the way he is, we learn something about him that we didn’t know – that he wasn’t always such a tough guy. The character information in the Signs and I Am Legend flashbacks is largely established in other ways in the main story line. And in Casablanca we also get information in the flashback that will be important for the outcome of the main story.
The TV show Lost used flashbacks to reveal character very effectively in the early seasons. But in those cases again we were learning things about the characters that were usually both unexpected and relevant to the main storyline happening on the island. By the later seasons (when we start to have flash forwards and flash “sideways”) we are no longer really looking at flashbacks. At this point they’ve become stories told out of chronological order.
Framing stories are a potentially powerful device, but one fraught with risk. I think the framing story in Saving Private Ryan is the weakest part of the movie, and I'm certainly not alone. The Bridges of Madison County (screenplay by Richard LaGravenese) also has a cringe-worthy framing story that detracts rather than adds to the primary story. If we don't sense a relevant purpose for the framing story then it simply annoys us when it takes us away from the main action.
Sometimes the framing story is just a way to introduce a narrator for the main story. We learn that what we're going to hear is one person's perspective on the events. Edward Scissorhands (story by Tim Burton & Caroline Thompson, screenplay by Caroline Thompson) opens with Kim, as an old lady, telling her granddaughter why it snows. We then go back in time to when Kim was a teenager for the main story, only returning to the framing story at the very end for a nice tag. The framing story provides sweet bookends to the movie and gives it a fairy tale quality.
More interesting are framing stories that have their own conflict and structure. The Notebook (adaptation by Jan Sardi, screenplay by Jeremy Leven) is a good example. The main story line is in the past, the tale of the rocky romance between Noah and Allie. In the framing story an old man tells an old woman this story. We learn, of course, that these are Noah and Allie and that Allie has Alzheimer's disease. It adds incredible poignancy to the main story and serves as a profound punctuation mark on the romance of the main story line.
Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles) also works in this way. The main story is of course Kane's life, but it's framed by a reporter's search for the meaning of Kane's last words. This cleverly allows the main story to be told by a series of narrators in interviews with the reporter. (These may appear to be flashbacks, but remember our definition: the main story of Citizen Kane is in the past.) The framing story is a device to structure the way the narrative is told.
So how do you know when to use these devices? Usually if you find yourself writing a long monologue of someone telling a story from the past you should consider using a flashback. But if you find yourself writing a lot of flashbacks in a script, you might want to rethink your story. If what happened in the past is so important, maybe what happens in the present isn't interesting enough. Maybe you ought to be telling the back-story as your main story!
You should consider using a framing story for: 1) bookends to present the audience with a narrator, 2) thematic or emotional context for a story in the past, or 3) a device to structure past events. But be cautious…make sure your framing story is actually adding something worthwhile to the movie.
Both flashbacks and framing stories are forms of non-chronological storytelling. There are other kinds of non-chronological narrative devices besides these. Movies like The Usual Suspects or Memento are not using flashbacks and framing stories so much as breaking down the linear story chronology altogether. (Though within its non-chronological story structure Memento does have some traditional flashbacks to the murder of Leonard’s wife.)
There are plenty of other things to discuss with non-chronological storytelling. And those things will probably become topics of future posts!