Jumping around in time with flashbacks can be confusing in a script, and can make it hard for a reader to get oriented and settle into one particular story, in a specific time frame. And this is what tends to really grab readers — a discrete challenge for a main character they care about, which that character will grapple with over time. Whenever you change the time frame, you’re obviously leaving that situation for something else.
When you’re leaving it for something that happened in the past, you lose the most important elements that keep an audience engaged in scenes: big stakes, and unknown results. A story is most compelling when the main character has something significant at stake, and is engaged in a struggle whose outcome is still in question. Whenever you cut to something from a previous time period, you’re essentially dramatizing something that is already OVER, meaning its outcome isn’t a question anymore. And there isn’t the same sense of stakes, because no matter how the flashback ends, we know the character is going to end up in the present day situation that we previously saw, with some new and present problem — which it usually would have been better to have just stayed with, and developed further, rather than bringing its dramatic momentum to a full stop with a flashback.
No matter how good the scenes from the past are, they tend to not have the same sense of emotional import. They tend to play more as information about how the character go to their current place. This can be important to do, and it’s certainly better to see these things in dramatic scenes than hear them described in dialogue, but what’s even better is to see dramatic scenes in the present, when the outcome is still unknown.
I’m not talking here about “quick flashes” that visualize something in a character’s memory, but don’t really take us out of the present day scene. I’m also not talking about a movie like Forrest Gump, where essentially everything in the first two acts is a flashback from the bus bench where he’s telling his story to people. In that movie, these “flashbacks” essentially function AS the present, and the bus bench is just a “framing device.”
I’m talking about a story that is playing out in the present, and then suddenly stops to give us a scene or more from the past.
Sometimes writers try this because they feel the audience needs to know things about the character’s past that, for whatever reason, didn’t fit into opening ten pages, or “Set-up” section — maybe because they started the script with the character already in the middle of something, and didn’t really take the time to get the audience up to speed with them first. I think this is usually a mistake. Writers tend to underestimate how hard and yet crucial it is to get an audience emotionally invested in a main character, and thus fully engaged in the script.
A related issue I see are scripts where the Set-up consists of a variety of scenes from different time periods in the main character’s past, and we don’t really get to the “present” until right before the main story Catalyst (which the Save the Cat books say should happen right about p. 12). This approach tends to limit the audience’s ability to get invested in the character pre-Catalyst, because no matter how dramatic or sympathetic these events are, they’re still past events. They don’t immerse us in the character’s current status quo life, which is rocked by the Catalyst — and we need to be, if we are going to really feel the impact of that event on this person. Which usually requires a full ten pages (or close to it) of us experiencing and feeling what their circumstances, relationships, situations and concerns are right before the Catalyst occurs.
So what I usually recommend, if there’s some really pivotal defining event from their past that must be there, is that it takes no more than the first 2-3 pages of the script — more of a brief prologue — and then we cut to the present day, for the rest of the Set-up.
Which brings me to the normal remedy for flashbacks: the time cut. More often than not, if I see something really important in a script that is presented as a flashback, I suggest putting it earlier in the movie instead, so that things happen in chronological order. You can always “time cut” from a past event to later, and most of the time, that will be more dramatically effective (and easier for an audience to follow) than using that same event as a flashback. You just have to be careful not to use a string of such events in different time periods. It’s usually better to just have one, at most, and have the rest of the movie take place in what seems like continuous present time.
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