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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Storytellling Devices

I'm writing an article now for scr(i)pt magazine about good and bad use of flashbacks (and if I have more space, then other devices, such as voiceovers). I'm planning to highlight a number of films that have used them effectively, or not so effectively. I've already got a few in mind, but I'd love to hear from you.

Tell me some films in which you think flashbacks (and/or voiceovers) were used well or poorly. I will probably explore the topic a bit on here, but before I mention any of mine, I'd love to just get some of yours. Good and bad.




Anonymous Anonymous said...


I hated how the movie Y Tu Mama Tambien used voice overs. They told showed much and showed so little. It was more infuriating because so many people liked that movie.

12:54 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks, Anon!

I didn't see that movie, so I will try to see it to consider! :-)

1:05 AM  
Blogger Webs said...

One thing that bugs me is when people confuse a frame story with flashbacks.

Shelley's "Frankenstein" novel is a frame story, with bits at the front and back framing a story told otherwise entirely in flashback. Cinematic examples include "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Saving Private Ryan".

It feels like I'm running my teeth along a cheese grater when people call those "flashbacks".

1:53 AM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

A pretty classy (and classic)example, I think, of flashbacks and voiceovers put to good effect is Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption."

Darabont uses them wisely and effectively both as a way of letting the story unfold before us naturally in support of our experience of the film and its theme, and as a way to preserve Stephen King's original voice from the novelette.

I think it was a guest-column by Darabont at WordPlay that really helped me to notice how effective, and in fact integral, both of these otherwise-tricky storytelling devices were to the "Shawshank" story. Now, I generally use the film as my first example when explaining flashbacks and voiceover narration as storytelling devices to others.

2:20 AM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Blade Runner gets my V.O. vote. Turned the film into a Noir-scifi flick.

4:43 AM  
Blogger deepstructure said...

omg slack you did NOT just say that! :)

usual suspects and, in a more unconventional sense, the princess bride.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Optimistic_Reader said...

A writing tutor of mine suggested I look at The Go-Between for its flashbacks and they are lovely - just little snippets and non-narrative, and they add to the atmosphere more than pushing the story forward.

My vote for best voiceover is Badlands.

11:05 AM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Hey, I'm a big Dick fan!

12:12 PM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Okay, I probably shoulda worded that a bit differently.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous pd boy said...


Batman Begins
Fight Club
The Usual Suspects

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Casino -- the bold and brash decision to use a dual voiceover. I thought it worked.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

I know Lost is not a film, but we are part way through the second season here in the UK and I think they are getting a bit overused.

At the moment it seems like 1/2 to 3/4 of an episode is dedicated to getting backstory out using flashbacks. To me they are just getting in the way and doing the story damage.

Just my 2 pence worth :)


2:41 PM  
Blogger Loudlush said...

Flashback: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I thought it was confronting having this great whack of flashback in the middle of the film at first. But then breaking up that beautiful Gobi love story would have diluted it way too much, so it was brave to tell it all in one go.

VO: Sunset Boulevard (sorta creepy I guess, but memorable).

3:26 PM  
Blogger Lucy said...

Omigod, can't believe Chris thinks that about Lost cos I do too and have found no one who has agreed with me before!!! Or rather I agree with him here, I should say. Does my head RIGHT in. For the record, confusing flashbacks with frame stories gets on my tits too.

Think the flashbacks in Crow were pretty good, if gruesome. American Psycho's voiceover I thought was great - just enough to give us insight of his pathetic fantasies - which married up well with Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron's new slant on what I call the the Genesis and Whitney Houston monologue chapters which were pretty pointless in the book in my view.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous aaron said...

I'm a fan of George Washington and Green's use of VO.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Shawn said...

Can't believe no one mentioned The Godfather II yet. Yeah, it's obvious, but still the best use of the device. Honorable mentions: 12 Monkeys and Memento.

Can't think of a bad use of flashback. I'll get back to you on that.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks everyone! A few comments:

Daniel -- yeah, Shawshank is a great example. Thanks.

Slack -- that v.o. is a big point of contention, but I think for that reason it might be worth my looking at, and trying to watch both versions!

Optimistic -- never heard of the Go-Between. What is it? Did you like the use of flashback?

Aaron -- huh?


Okay, so now, two follow up questions for y'all.

1. WHY did you like the examples you listed? What made them work?
2. Can you give me some bad examples? Ones that you hate, and why?

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Leif Smart said...

Would you consider the scene in Oceans 11, and indeed most heist movies, where they explain how they did everything to be flashbacks?

If so, those are my examples

6:07 PM  
Anonymous kristen said...

I liked Y Tu Mama's voiceovers. They reminded me of the disembodied start-n-stop mystery voiceover of Persona.

IMHO, there is never a good reason to do a voiceover unless you're doing a movie that is specifically about storytelling. There is a VO in Stand by Me, right? That's because Richard Dreyfuss's character is a storyteller and he's telling you the story. And you get the payoff of seeing him in the end as an adult.

Re: flashbacks... I'm thinking and I can't come up with a good example other than, as someone said, Memento and The Usual Suspects, because both of those are using flashbacks pointedly to say something about memory and point of view.

Though I do sorta like the flashbacks in This is Spinal Tap. But that's a mockumentary so it's par for the course to show old concert footage.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Twixter Scripter said...

The whole VO/flashback debate is frustrating. I bet that if I composed a list of the last 50 films I've watched, that close to half of them rely on one of the two devises (if not both).

One of the more interesting films that I watched recently is Sophie's Choice.

Stingo supplies the VO and frames the story.

Sophie supplies flashbacks. Two things I found interesting about her flashbacks. 1) They make a seperate film that could essentially exist on its own, and 2) they are not in chronological order.

Is Forrest Gump an example of framing, as descibed earlier, or flashbacks?

Flashbacks used poorly in Midnight Cowboy.

The Jerk (V.O.)
"I was born a poor black child."

If it wasn't for that opening line, no one would remember that film had ever been made.

7:03 PM  
Anonymous aaron said...


"George Washington"
written/directed by David Gordon Green

one of the best films this decade.

The voice over sets up the tone of the film and the narrator stumbles through it which feels very natural. It's very Malick which I tend to enjoy.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Optimistic_Reader said...

Joel - The Go-Between is an adaptation of an L.P. Hartley novel, scripted by Harold Pinter and starring Julie Christy. I liked the flashbacks a lot, though I have to admit now I have trouble remembering specifics! They were just really brief little moments and were very subtle.

A lot of the spec scripts I cover use flashback for no-real reason and I think that is why flashbacks have become associated with lazy writing. I think as long as they are subtle and don't try to fill too many gaps in the story they are fine. Looking forward to reading your article!

3:06 PM  
Blogger m said...

After reading this, I was at the blockbuster where a clerk and renter were discussing, you guessed it, flashbacks.

The first thing they thought of was Highlander.

No discussion of flashbacks is complete without Highlander, whose use of flashbacks (that I liked) confused the copywriter for the video box into thinking it was a time travel story.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Formerly, The Dude Spoke said...

I'm gonna take a lot of flack for saying this, but the best use of flashbacks I have seen in a movie was in John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars.

Don't believe me? Most of the entire story is a flashback from Natasha Henstridge's POV. It's fairly standard.
But throughout her flashback, other characters have flashbacks.

And the piece de resistance? (I don't care if I spelled it properly): At one point in Natasha's flashback, Jason Statham has a flashback to meeting up with a dude, who HIMSELF has a flashback. Multiple layered flashbacks.

Similar to the recent Simpsons episode, except without the self referential nods to how ridiculous it all is.

Of course, in a film entitled John Carpenter's Ghosts Of mars, people aren't exactly looking for high art.

Still, I maintain my position as to it's sheer brilliance.

And along these unconventional, B-movie type examples, I'd like to throw "The Big Hit" into the ring. It uses flashbacks to reveal certain plot elements in a very funny manner.

There you go. Two flicks you'd never think of in a million years having good use of flashbacks.

Time to refill my crack pipe.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Jennica said...

Gotta disagree on "Midnight Cowboy"-- I think they're great. Unusual, but great. They give Joe that haunted quality, and why... and they stop at the midpoint of the movie, showing how Joe's first dabbling into friendship/trust is changing him. I've never seen them used like that anywhere else.

I think Andrew Niccol uses flashbacks really well-- "The Truman Show", "Gattaca" and "Lord of War" all have really solid flashbacks that simply fill out the story we're seeing in the present. "Gattaca" is particularly interesting-- there's a full narrative in the flashbacks of the swimming contest with the brother.

Speaking of "Lord of War"-- that's got really interesting V.O. that actually pushes us away from the protagonist.

The V.O. in "Little Black Book" is absolutely terrible. Got a long blog post about that-- see September.

3:19 AM  
Blogger Sal said...

I thought the VO in Stand By Me and in Wonder Boys worked, maybe because the films were both about storytellers. I didn't like the historical flashback bits in Da Vinci Code, seemed a bit too much like one of those "I've done all this research and I'm putting in whether you like it or not" student essays I used to read.

Good topic, I look forward to your further thoughts.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Citizen Kane.

12:04 PM  

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