The box-set revolution of the last fifteen years has pressed huge demands of screenwriters to flesh out narratives into 10-20 hours of television. Over the last few years, there has been a go-to technique that has helped writers add meat to the bones of complex narratives, whilst filling up the content needed to air modern TV shows. We’re talking about the flashback.This is not a new technique, cinema has been using flashbacks for generations with Ferdinand Zecca in “Histoide d'un Crime” being the first recognized use in 1910. Notable uses of flashbacks in the history of cinema include Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Usual Suspects.
We’ve also been used to observing flashbacks in serial dramas, with the character exploration in Lost being one of the most prominent uses of the technique in modern times. Character’s decision making in the main narrative are explained through the use of flashbacks (or flash forwards…or sideways). This particular use is also prominent in the excellent Orange is the New Black.
The glorious writing of Vince Gilligan and his team have used flashbacks with great effect in Breaking Bad, and with more prominence throughout the three seasons of Better Call Saul, but it’s the writers in the thriller genre that have graced our Netflix nights with some of the most creative use of flashbacks of recent times. I’m looking at you Stranger Things and Big Little Lies.
Both of these shows strengths are in their ability to drip feed their respective stories in a non-linear narrative. Flashbacks stop becoming disjointed character building exercises, or revelatory methods, but rather an integrated sequence set in a different moment in time that keeps us coming back for more. Stranger Things and Big Little Lies are only one season in so far, so naturally the writing feels fresh compared to the 121 episodes log of Lost, yet the writers use their flashbacks without a fixed structure so they never feel like airtime filler.
This is not to say this is the only way to structure a successful long running TV show. Game of Thrones seldom leaves it’s linear timeline, and the first two seasons of The Killing proved that a who-done-it serial drama can wait till the very last episode without a whiff of a flashback.
Alex Hern of The Guardian recently commentated that Netflix’s biggest rivalry is the human body’s urge to sleep. The reason for this is that we are in an age of increasingly brilliant, prolific, and creative writing in television. Flashbacks have been a key component in any writers artillery, but the last few years has thrown up some masterful uses of the technique that will inspire the next generation of writers. Why don’t you try to use this technique in your next short film?