The Storytelling Technique That's Taking Over TV

The Storytelling Technique That's Taking Over TV

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?

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2 Comments

David Love's picture

It can also be the worst technique if done as bad as Lost and some of the others. Viewers get fatigued with constant stalling like a waiter that keeps bringing you appetizers because the meal is taking forever. I think some shows have a great synopsis for a show and do an amazing pilot and then the studio wants to expand it extra years, leaving them writing filler until the time comes when they can get back to the original point.

Talking is another thing that stalls. Just watch Walking Dead to see them stall with that one. Break Bad wins at this with their flash forward intros that had you intrigued into what the hell just happened. I admire Game of Thrones for announcing an end instead of just milking it to death.

I would love to have a family moment filter on tv shows. Click a button and it skips all family arguments and touchy scenes in The Sopranos, Breaking bad, walking dead, etc. Or a sad piano filter that skips every time the arrow or a CW show stops the action for a long sad monologue (basically every 10 minutes.)

Ethan Chin's picture

What about the "technique" where the cast just stand around and talk, and provide exposition a lá "The Flash" (by the CW)?