Studies in Flashbacks: “(500) Days of Summer”

Part 3 of a five-part series on movies where flashbacks work.

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.

Today the third of five movies that use flashbacks: (500) Days of Summer, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber.

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Go here to read an interview I did with Scott and Michael, and part of that discussion was — obviously — about (500) Days. Two interesting points arose in that conversation about the use of nonlinear storytelling generally and flashbacks specifically:

  • They wanted to construct a narrative that was a reflection of how memory works. As we all know, our minds are a jumble of thoughts and images, we don’t think in strict linear fashion, instead we can bounce around from memory to memory. To wit here is the chronological order of the Protagonist’s Tom’s days one after the other in the movie:

488: Park Bench, T and S, wedding ring, Narrator

1: Office, T sees S for the first time, intro to T & S as young people (The Graduate / cut hair)

240: Fateful Day, Postscript with T breaking dishes, sister, talks about the arc of relationship

1: Office, S introduced to the company

-5513 / -4779 / -3 / -1: Summer’s special something

3 + 4: Office, T declaring he’s not interested in S, elevator where she likes his music

154: “I love everything about Summer” series of shots

11: T and sister playing Wi where he says S is “special”, warning from sister

22: PacMan center, “It’s off,” she had a “good” weekend, times he tried to reach out to her and she rejected his clues

27 + 28: Office / Karaoke bar: She’s interested in him, but just wants to be friends

29: Copy room, surprise kiss / T’s apartment with Paul

238: Ikea, negative vibe (payoff)

31: Ikea, positive vibe (setup)

32: Greatest Morning Ever!

268: Office, despondent, T in “going to get her back mode”

45: Office, “Knight Rider” payoff

59: Going to movies

87: Record Store, Ringo Star [setup], porn video, shower sex

95: Tom’s Park, 1st time with Summer, architecture talk and draw on her arm

109: S apartment, “I’ve never told anyone that.”

116: PacMan café: T says they don’t need to nail down what they are

118: Soccer I, T asks sister about whether to push S about what they are

366: Party at Summer [setup]

269: “I hate everything about Summer” [payoff]

185: Bar, fight / T & S fight as he presses her on what they have / restless night apart / she shows up / next morning talk about her ex boyfriends

141: Park, “penis”

273–286: Movie montage of T depression

293: “Worst Morning Ever” [payoff], cut from movie

303: Meets with Boss, now to do funeral and grieving cards

167: Montage: Great at job [nice contrast to 303]

306: Seeing Summer everywhere, cut from movie

345: Blind date, FB to where Summer was turning against him, ending up at karaoke bar

360: Train, he and Summer going to the wedding, wedding, dancing

366: Summer party, getting married

402 + 403 + 403 ½: Total depression

404: Quits job

419: Soccer II, starting up with architecture again

240: Fateful day [Payoff]

421–464: Getting his act together montage

488: Tom’s park, T meets with S one last time, he was right, she says, he is a realist now

500: Job interview, meets Autumn


That made for a more interesting way of approaching the narrative than boy meets girl, boy loses girl.

  • By juxtaposing key moments and inverting the present and past, the movie creates a fun, surprising pattern of payoff, then setup, Therefore moments where we know the ending of a subplot or a storyline, then see the beginning underscores the central conceit of how memory works. And every time the movie starts with the payoff, then goes to the setup, that second beat is in effect a flashback.

Check out the story as told in chronological order starting with Day 1 all the way through Day 500:

Takeaway: As opposed to using flashbacks as ‘traditional’ narrative devices that a reader knows all too well and may find hackneyed and overused at this point, why not create different ways of approaching them? Like what Neustadter and Weber did, essentially wallowing in time jumps, forward, backward, present, past, future, whatever, all in the name of entertainment, but all grounded in the central idea of reflecting how memory works.

Part 1: Casablanca

Part 2: The Social Network

Tomorrow: One Upon a Time in the West.

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