Why Narration and Flashbacks Don’t Always Work

Flashbacks and narration are two techniques for telling a story. Unfortunately, most of the time they don’t work so you should avoid them in most cases. Here’s what you need to look out for.

Back in 1979, I read the scariest novel in my life. It was “Ghost Story,” by Peter Straub. I remember the paperback cover was literally drenched in sweat since I was so terrified while reading it, yet fascinated. “Ghost Story” is probably one of the best horror novels ever written, and even surpasses much of what Stephen King wrote.

Unfortunately, “Ghost Story” has a less than satisfactory ending. The novel is great. What I mean is that the author, Peter Straub, never quite achieved another novel that was ever near as terrifying as “Ghost Story.” All of his previous and later novels somehow seem tame and meek in comparison. Every time I pick up another Peter Straub novel, I’m ready to be dazzled, but wind up feeling let down and disappointed.

Even worse, Hollywood turned “Ghost Story” into a movie and totally siphoned out all the terror, and wound up creating a horrible mess. The main culprit was the use of flashbacks. Here’s why flashbacks generally don’t work in any movie, and especially in “Ghost Story.”

Imagine you’re watching a movie and getting totally enthralled by what you’re seeing in front of you. Just as the story is about to reach a climax, a new scene suddenly interrupts and takes you back to another time. Suddenly you’re jolted out of your experience and back into realizing you’re just watching a movie, and you’re either disappointed or upset that you’ve just been awaken out of your literal dream and thrust into another scene that has little to do what you were just excited to watch.

Think of having a great dream and someone wakes you out of it. That’s the problem with flashbacks. They interrupt and interfere with almost no benefit whatsoever.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the flashback is used at the beginning of the story, but it works because the movie doesn’t let us get wrapped up into the characters and story. Instead, it poses a mystery as to why so many people are praying for George Bailey, and then the flashbacks satisfy our curiosity. Flashbacks aren’t always wrong, but they must be used carefully.

In “The Usual Suspects,” flashbacks are an important part of the story as Verbal tells the police officer what happened. In this case, rather than tell us what happened, the flashback avoids the narration and shows us what happened.

Similar to flashbacks are narrators who tell you what you’re watching. In “The Tale of Desperaux,” this narration constantly interrupts and short changes the audience. Instead of letting us experience the hero learning and feeling, we’re simply told what’s going on. As a result, the movie keeps starting, stopping, and refusing to let us get engaged before it interrupts us once more with another narration.

Only when the movie dumps the narration at the end does the movie finally take off, but by then it’s almost too late. It’s not a bad movie, but it could have been a great movie. The problem seems to be that the screenwriters tried too hard to follow the book and wound up creating a weak adaptation.

So the lesson for today is simple. Avoid flashbacks and narration if possible. Unless you need it and can use it judiciously, rewrite your script so that you don’t need to rely on these tools. They work, but think of another way to tell your story and you’ll probably find this other way is much stronger and more engaging.

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