Preview Flashback: Hook and hold an audience in seconds
September 12th, 2019
by Linda Aronson
Remember the opening of Goodfellas where you have three men driving at night in a car and there's a banging sound as if the car's got a flat tyre? They pull over. But the banging continues. They open the trunk. Inside is a bloodstained man, begging for his life. One man jumps towards him, cursing, stabbing him obsessively. A second shoots him twice. It’s horrific. We come into close up on the third, a young man and hear his voice over. ‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.' And the story flashes back to his adolescence.
What an impact. And, effortlessly, without noticing, we are given the genre, the central character and two other major characters, a piece of the plot, and, although we don't entirely realise it at the time, we get the moment where the young man descended irredeemably into evil. We'll understand that later, as all the jigsaw pieces come together.
Just look at the effect it has. It’s chilling. But had the film started at its chronological start, with the young man as an innocent adolescent running errands for some wacky minor criminals, the film would have come over as just a gangster romp that suddenly changed its mind and became a moral tale. As it is, we know the nice young boy is on his way to moral destruction.
It is, of course, a type of flashback. More precisely, it's a brilliant example of what I've termed a preview flashback, which is one of nine different types of flashback I've isolated, some simple, some complex, each with its own structural rules and specific storytelling uses. I've called it a preview flashback because it consists of one crucial, intriguing scene or sequence from the middle or ending of the story that is put at the start of the film to grab and hold you- before taking you back to the start of the story and continuing uninterrupted to its end, repeating the preview scene on the way so that you can grasp its full meaning. You’ll find with good preview flashback that often it will sum up what the story is about in terms of plot, deeper meaning and sometimes both.
But while it’s a fantastic structural mechanism, it can go wrong. So, as a writer, you need to know not only the ‘What’ of preview flashback, that is, how to recognise it, but also the ‘How’, the ‘Why’ – and, crucially, the ‘What Can Go Wrong’.
What’s so great about Preview Flashback?
Preview flashback is a particularly useful kind because it gives you a lot of the upfront punch of the complicated double narrative flashback types that you see in films like Citizen Kane or Blue Jasmine or Slumdog Millionaire, films that have a complete story in the past and a complete story in the present and the action jumping back and forth between the two - but, crucially, you don’t have to interweave and service two stories.
Instead, you have that one hard hitting scene. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. Got a film with a slow start? Just insert a flashback.
You have to use the right scene or things can go badly. And we need to look at this because it’s all tied up with a general misunderstanding of flashbacks and how they work.
Flashback is not a cure-all
There’s a widespread belief that preview flashback can remove the curse from a film that’s very slow to start. Not so. But wait a minute - isn’t that exactly what I pointed out is happening in Goodfellas? True. But the preview scene in Goodfellas worked because it was relevant to the story. Preview flashback that doesn’t work is caused by content that isn’t relevant to the story you are trying to tell.
You can't just insert any old exciting or interesting flashback into a film that's flagging or boring and hey presto it's fixed. Neither is it true that flashback will always overcome a slow script. Yes, you will get instant energy from most flashbacks, but unless they’re pushing the story forward, you will find that when the flashback is over you have to return to the same boring bit. What’s more you will have complicated your problem - because the audience will then realise just how boring the boring bit is.
You will factor in a massive anticlimax. If you insert a number of these flashbacks into a boring or meandering story the audience may actually forget where they are in the present. Alternatively, your flashback may rivet your audience's attention but send them into completely the wrong direction, believing your story to be about something it's not (the trick of course is to remove the boring bits. I’ll discuss this a bit later when I show you some examples of preview flashback that doesn’t work, but stay with me now)
A detective story with clues
The point is, flashback at the start of a film instantly turns your film into a detective story. The preview has to be a clue. It has to be relevant later in the film. If you draw an audience’s attention to something at the start of a story they have a right to expect it to be a clue that will pay off. In fact, we could say that in successful preview flashback the preview actually gives us the topic of the film, that is, what the film is 'about'
Bottom line: if you say to your audience: ‘Look at this!’ they will naturally assume it’s of itself important. And they will be particularly irritated if you mislead them at the start of your film because audiences assume that every moment at a film's beginning is a clue. You have maximum audience attention and goodwill at the start. Mess with that at your peril.
Some examples of what can go wrong
Just as a relevant preview works brilliantly, so an irrelevant preview can be very dangerous. The audience can feel cheated, feel as if you’re wasting not only their time, but,crucially, their emotional involvement. And actually, you are.
That said, it’s very easy to choose the wrong preview scene. This is why you should decide the location of flashbacks yourself. Don’t leave it to the editor and the director when they’re doing the cut. Even the finest directors and editors can get distracted. Decide it for yourself. Note what Stephen Daldry said about the story jumps in The Hours. ‘This was not a film that was created in the edit room’. He and writer David Hare worked on the structure before. Here are some good films which in my view are damaged by irrelevant previews.
Trap a) ‘What was that all about?’
You can see this problem very clearly in The Well, which is a psychological thriller. Two women accidentally run down a man in their car, killing him. The heat of the story is the fascinating idea that the women hide the body in a disused well and drop down stones to cover it only to suspect, to their horror, that the man is not dead and that he has escaped and is coming back to kill them. Excellent story!
So what goes wrong? The film opens on its first act turning point with a preview scene of the accident which is indeed striking. But then the film flashes back to some time before the accident to show us how the two women got to know each other. This is not only boring but has nothing to do with what we’re interested in – the real heat of the story - which is about what happens after the running down.
The only thing that flashback to the past has done is make the film start all over again when we get to the accident for the second time. Hence, the response to seeing the accident again is a feeling of: ‘So why did we go back to all of that irrelevant stuff? What was all that about?’ Yes, the accident does indeed insert excitement and tension into a slow opening. But surely the answer here is simply to junk the slow and irrelevant 'how they met' section. A redundant bit of back story is a redundant bit of back story.
(Personally, I would have cut the section about the women getting to know each other, made the accident the disturbance and made the first time the two women thought the man was getting out of the well the first act turning point. The backstory I’d have just snuck in via dialogue - probably during a disagreement, which is when people throw the past back at each other. I think that approach would have created the requisite tension. But that’s just a writer’s aside)
The issue here, actually, is understanding what story you are trying to tell. Significantly, the film was an adaptation of a short story. Fiction can get away with a very slow meandering set up. Film usually can't. Watch out for that.
Trap b) Redundant preview setting up only character traits
The film Beat, about the Beat Poets, opens in a riveting way - a man has a gun to another's head! Exciting? Yes. Setting up story? No. The scene goes nowhere. It just depicts a random moment of risk-taking among the beat poets. It’s a bit of characterisation. As in The Well, once it's over, the film has to start all over again. This means a waste of the audience’s emotional engagement.
Trap c) Redundant preview that sends audience in the wrong direction
Regarding misdirecting the audience’s emotions, The Jammed, a very fine film about human traffickers does this via a misleading preview, I suspect inserted to pump up a slow start. This time it makes us think the story is all about one character when actually it’s about another.
The film opens with a blonde Caucasian girl desperately running to a phone box and making a call for help. We naturally assume that this girl is the central character and that this scene is crucial to the film. We emotionally connect with her in her terrible distress and panic. However, we then cut to a different story, with a slow set-up. An Australian woman is at an airport and accidentally meets a woman from China who has come to Australia to hunt for her missing daughter.
The story then cuts between the two women hunting for the Chinese girl and the Chinese girl herself, trapped. Personally (and perhaps this was just me) while I could see that the hunt was interesting and exposing a dreadful social problem, one part of me was waiting for these women to get off the screen so that the desperate blonde, whom I thought was the centre of the story, could come back into the picture. I didn’t think the story had started. Finally, when I realised that the blonde was only a minor character and the film was actually about the Chinese girl, her mother and the mother’s new friend it was a major anticlimax. I’m afraid I disengaged. My response was: Oh. Okay…
Instead of emotionally engaging with the desperate mother and her daughter and living their hunt as the filmmakers intended, my engagement when it finally came, was largely intellectual. That visceral panic I had about the escaping blonde was wasted.
Viewing it a second time I could see all the film’s strengths. Had the opening scene shown the Chinese girl in the phone box the problem would be solved. Unfortunate.
Trap d) Three Dollars Waiting for the cavalry to arrive – and it doesn’t
Three Dollars is another film sends us in the wrong direction because its preview is irrelevant. An opening voice over from a man, the protagonist, who tells us that his life was regularly changed by the unexpected intervention of a girl named Amanda. We wait for Amanda, who must clearly, we think, be a very important character, the center of the story. She turns up only at the end, tying up the loose end in a story. Again, it was an instance of waiting for the story to start – but it never did.
Wasted emotional engagement
In all three examples, the emotional engagement of the audience is wasted. That’s dangerous. Preview flashback, as you can see, has to be treated with care.
Which structural high point of the film to use as the preview?
I started this discussion by talking about Goodfellas. Goodfellas starts at its midpoint because that it is the moment at which the protagonist crosses the line morally. If you were writing a film that had the same kind of moral message as Goodfellas, the midpoint would be a good place to start.
However, in my experience, most flashbacks that occur at the start of a film commence at certain structural high points. These are, the first or second part of the second act turning point (the first part being the protagonist’s worst possible moment and the second part being the decision to fight back) and then jump back to the disturbance, to where it all started. In some types of flashback they start on climax then jump back to the disturbance ( I have written about all this in The 21st Century Screenplay).
In opening on its midpoint, Goodfellas was an exception. Another exception is the fine telemovie An Accidental Soldier. This opens on its first act turning point (the protagonist, a World War I deserter, running desperately through a village in France and finding a woman who takes him in). It then flashes back to the start of the story, showing why and how he decided to desert. When the film returns to its opening moment (the man running away, deserting) we start pursuing the main story, the man’s relationship with the woman.
So why does a preview flashback from first act turning point work in An Accidental Soldier but not in The Well? Because it’s relevant. In An Accidental Soldier, both the opening sequence (the preview) and the material to which we jump back are crucial to the plot.
Preview Flashbacks that pay off in unusual ways
There are two interesting instances in which successful films seem to do exactly what I recommend at the start of this article you avoid. In fact, they are all following the basic rule whereby the content of flashbacks or flashforwards is crucial plot material.
The first can work in a structural form I have termed ‘fractured tandem’ which uses equally important stories running in tandem but chopped up (21 Grams, Babel, The Hours etc.). Fractured tandem often works on dread of death, and can make us feel a relief when the death we've been dreading doesn't happen. Paradoxically, the climax is an anticlimax.
In these films, the preview can be a red herring, playing with your expectations so it actually uses anti-climax to create a climax that works because it fills you with relief
The second is when character who is not the protagonist can successfully appear in an opening flashback.
a) Red Herring : playing with your expectations
A good example of the red herring effect appears in The Hours. Here, the film opens with a scene of a suicide. We assume this is a preview flashback, giving us a suicide that will happen later in the film. We expect a suicide and yes, we get it - but the person who commits suicide is not the one we expect. Thus, the opening suicide scene is a red herring but provides us with a satisfactory surprise at the end.
b) Mentor Antagonists
I argued earlier in discussing The Jammed that a preview flashback which features a character who is not the key character, particularly the protagonist, is dangerous. There could be an exception might when a Mentor Antagonist character appears in the preview flashback
A mentor antagonist is a special kind of antagonist that I've isolated. It appears in stories with very specific content. They are stories in which a passive reactive protagonist is taken on an adventure of the soul by an enigmatic charismatic and proactive outsider with a wisdom born of pain. The enigmatic outsider does not change, or changes very little, indeed, what marks them is their fixity of purpose. The person who changes is the protagonist. I've named this enigmatic outsider character the mentor antagonist.
Typical mentor antagonists are Raymond in Rain Man, Merrick in The Elephant Man and Andy (the Tim Robbins character) in The Shawshank Redemption. These characters are more interesting than the protagonist and need, for the sake of the story, to be seen from the outside, as antagonists, from the point of view of the much more normal protagonist whom they teach. This way they remain inscrutable, unpredictable, mysterious. We must not be inside them.
Why? On the most basic level, if you could see what Andy in The Shawshank Redemption does in his cell you wouldn't have a film. It's also because the essence of the Shawshank Redemption story is that it's Red's story. It's about Red, Red, a normal person, the protagonist, is changed because of Andy. Changing the protagonist is what mentor antagonists do. I've written a lot about mentor antagonist stories in The 21st Century Screenplay.
The thing to note here is that the mentor antagonist is crucial to the protagonist's story. Indeed, they are the protagonist's story. So having a preview which is all about them is still relevant.
In conclusion, Preview flashback is one of the most useful of flashback forms but needs to be used with care. When you find yourself wondering whether you want to write a double narrative flashback film that jumps between past and present (like Citizen Kane or The Usual Suspects or the like) check that you really want to handle the two storylines. It might be that you get the result you want with a preview flashback. That decision can save a great deal of time and stress as you try to punch up a story in the present that you don’t really want to tell.
However, as I say, proceed with care. If you do use a preview flashback, make sure your preview scene is relevant.
Thanks for your time.
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For more information about all sorts of flashback and other nonlinear and multiple storyline forms see Linda Aronson’s book The 21st Century Screenplay. See also extensive information at www.lindaaronson.com (where you can subscribe to a newsletter) Facebook and YouTube.