Studies in Flashback: (5 Part Series)

Casablanca, The Social Network, (500) Days of Summer, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ordinary People

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with — hopefully — guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Part 1: Casablanca

Part 2: The Social Network

Part 3: (500) Days of Summer

Part 4: Once Upon a Time in the West

Part 5: Ordinary People

In this series, we hit on several takeaways:

  • We can use flashbacks to tease out and reveal a story’s mystery as with The Social Network, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Ordinary People.
  • We can use flashbacks to portray an accurate way in which memory actually works, jumping around in time as with (500) Days of Summer.
  • If the events from the past are so traumatic, so memorable, and frankly so visual, they can make for great cinema.

Hollywood’s conventional wisdom may default to ‘flashbacks = bad writing’, but that’s simply not true. Write it well and it can be an asset to a story. Like this:

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Write. Write well.

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