On Flashbacks and Flashforwards

I don’t know about you, but as tv series addicted,  I have grown annoyed with the massive unnecessary use of flashbacks and flashforwards in storytelling. “ How to get away with Murder” drove me absolutely crazy because of the exaggerate use of this technique, thus making the narration somewhat predictable and BO-RING. Let alone “How I met your mother”.  After yet another flashforward in season six I had to wait till season eight to finally know who married who. Two entire seasons! Even a couple of days ago, while watching “Harlem”, the black, LGBT version of “Sex and the City”, the most unnecessary flash back –  an entire episode which meant to give light to some absolutely superfluous truths – was placed in the midst of the story. I understand that they want us to be glued  to the screen, but if these interruptions to a chronological narration are not skilfully planned, the outcome is just boredom rather than revived interest.

Flashbacks, in fact, help  find  the sense of a particular situation of the present, revealing  details  or  secrets from the past. While flashforwards provide anticipations. Their function  is  to enhance curiosity, as you are allowed to see a small fragment of the future, but as it is only a small part of a whole and being devoid of its context, it  is meaningless, but intriguing enough to make us want for more. Yet, their use should be dosed, pondered, otherwise flashbacks and flashforwards cannot but be downgraded to useless special effects.

The point is  that if you mean to write a story breaking here and there the chronological order of narration, there must be a good  reason to do it and you should figure the impact on the watcher.  On this purpose, I would humbly suggest to these screenwriters  the reading of a masterpiece of literature where there is an excellent use of flashbacks and flashforwards: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte  .

When the novel begins 95% of the story has already taken place. The first narrator, Mr Lockwood,  is “hired” only on the purpose of arousing our curiosity, but  as he is a total stranger to the events, how can he perform his duty? Just telling what he sees. In the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights, in fact,  Lockwood only describes people and tells us his impressions about his neighbours: the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, his meeting with his rude, hot landlord named Heathcliff, the bunch of sullen, mysterious people who live there, whom  he can’t detect  how they are connected one to another, the night visit of a ghost and more. It is the detailed report of  his experience there, that triggers a great quantity of questions in the reader, but this narrator won’t be allowed to give the answers. This is the reason why Emily Bronte calls him Mr Lockwood, as to remark  that “unlocking” mysteries is not  his function here, but quite the contrary.

As Lockwood cannot tell us more than his impressions, a second narrator is needed. Somebody  who knows everything and can unravel the thread of the story, and Emily Bronte’s choice falls on Nelly Dean, a witness of the events. Being the governess of Thrushcross Grange , where Lockwood resides, Nelly is able to satisfy all his curiosities, therefore, she tells him the entire story starting from the beginning. From this moment a long flashback  begins, which stretches from the arrival of Heathcliff when he was a little boy to the present events.

I have to say  that the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are so rich and extremely powerful  in narrative tension that after the initial fireworks the chronological  narration proceeds in a sort of slow “diminuendo” rather than “crescendo” in emotion, despite the many twists in the story.  It is very likely that the necessity to enliven the end of  the novel  could be the reason why Emily Bronte employs the flashback stratagem in her the last three chapters too. Lockwood, in fact, comes back after six month absence and he is told the latest, shocking  news by Nelly, which includes: Heathcliff’s death, his reunion with his beloved Catherine after death – as their ghosts have been seen wandering in the moors – but also happier outcomes. Hence, Emily Bronte not only manages to engage once again her –exhausted – reader, but also balances the structure of the novel providing it with and effective “finale”.  

Read the classics, dear screenwriters, read the classics!

13 thoughts on “On Flashbacks and Flashforwards

      • well sorry for any long delays – I just so happened to be in the reader when your post came though – that is kind of how I stay in touch with those I follow – not the best approach but my MO right now – might change it up for 2022 so I can stay more in touch those bloggers I really enjoy reading – ya know?

  1. Stefania, you are so right about flashbacks and flashforwards in storytelling on TV series and in movies too. I don’t know why this has become so trendy. I hate it. It’s choppy and distracting and poor writing in terms of structure. I’m reading the novel Once There Were Wolves and the author flashes back to her childhood every 3 or 4 pages. Literally we are going back and forth constantly and I’m only 50 pages into the book; there’s already been about 12 or so flashbacks. I am suffering from “flashback fatigue” and fear the whole book will be like this. Character details are important history but when it gets excessive (when any narrative device gets excessive) it becomes meaningless, dulls the reading, and weakens the storytelling. If I get pulled away from the main story action one more time, I may throw the book across the room! Readers need to write reviews on the overuse of flashbacks. I’m so glad you opened the door. Thanks for this great post today.

    • Thank you, Paula. Glad you enjoyed it. It is exactly as you wrote, but I fear, at least for what concern series, it is unlikely they will turn to some other narrative device. 😉

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