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For the second part of my essay on alternative structures and storytelling choices for screenwriters, rather than writing in ways that may seem, shall we say, a bit formulaic, perhaps a tad predictable, somewhat on the clichéd side, the same as everyone else, etc. (or, as someone said in an essay I just read, a way of telling the story that reveals the ending in the first ten pages)…
In the first essay, I made a list of films that have various variations on the use of multiple story lines.
This time, I am going to focus on films that use flashbacks and differing points of view for their structure and storytelling.
The reason I am combining the two is that flashbacks are often seen from someone’s point of view and, subsequently, a discussion of one is difficult without a discussion of the other.
Though I don’t have the statistics to prove it, my experience has been that most screenplays I read have an omniscient viewpoint. They may have a central character, but most of the time, their viewpoint is not driving the story; the story itself gets away from them as necessary to unfold the plot. But sometimes using a point of view can be an interesting way of telling the story. It can especially deepen the emotionality of a story since we are responding to the character’s emotional reactions and read of what is going on.
Now, when it comes to flashbacks, I’m mainly dealing with the ones that arise out of a point of view. Others, such as though used in movies like Lone Star and Memento I have or will be covering in other parts of the essay.
At the same time, many gurus, books, classes, etc., are on the bandwagon of late in advising writers not to use them at all, considering them to be a lazy way of telling a story.
And I don’t see them used as much as I used to (so these gurus may be achieving their goal).
But as far as I’m concerned, I don’t really care whether an author uses them or not. Like voice overs, they are just one stylistic choice of many. And flashbacks have been used very effectively over the years.
In addition, they can be useful, often being a way to comment on present action, giving the audience a huge amount of information that otherwise would have to be given through exposition, deepen the emotionality of another scene with the contrast of something that happened earlier.
And to be honest, in my opinion, once a group of gurus bind together and say you shouldn’t or can’t do something, that’s the time to do it…and with a vengeance.
However, when it comes to telling a story from someone’s point of view, especially via flashback, there is one aspect of it that I am a bit of a tickly stickler about.
When you dramatize a story from a particular character’s viewpoint, then you really shouldn’t include any scene, anything that happens, any event, that that character didn’t witness themselves.
I do know that sometimes authors will cheat a little here and there, and there are exceptions (depending on how you set up the flashback), but generally, someone really can’t relate something they haven’t personally experienced or haven’t been privy to the information in some way. This is one of the most common errors I seen in screenwriting.
But beyond that, I say go forth and create the screenplay you want, using any stylistic choice you want, as long as it fulfills your vision and helps you write the screenplay you want to write.
And so, before getting to the list, I would like to quote some paragraphs from the first part of this essay:
“Now, I know that many of you will find a way to take each example and demonstrate how it really fits into the traditional structure that is often taught, if not enforced, by many in today’s writing environment.
Well, here I’m going to be perfectly frank, or speak the truth and shame the devil as they say where I am from.
To quote Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, ‘I don’t care’.
I don’t. I don’t really care whether in the end you come to the conclusion that there are alternative structures to be used in creating films that go against prevailing wisdom in the literature, or whether you come to the conclusion that the traditional structure…is really much more malleable that one might have thought at first and that there are numerous variations to the original.
Either way is fine. I’m not going to argue it.
My point is that I think it’s time for writers to start thinking outside the box. And however you have to justify it to yourself in order to do it is fine….as long as, for god’s sakes, you do it.”
So with all that being finally said and done, following are a selection films with structures and methods of storytelling, both unusual as well as a bit more traditional, that are worthy of being studied.
PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES: This movie starring Humphrey Bogart has an extremely unusual structure, one of the most unusual I’ve ever seen in movies. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, but not just flashbacks, but flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s a little hard to explain, but it starts out at Point A; then flashbacks to Point B; then flashbacks to Point C; then flashbacks to Point D; whereupon it then flashes forward to Point C again; then to Point B; then to Point A, whereupon the story is completed.
I have no idea how this ever got approved in the studio system, but it almost has to be seen to be believed.
This is also a structure that is not often used, but it can be seen in such movies as The Locket (1946) and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Inception, at one point, uses this structure, though it’s not flashbacks within flashbacks, it’s dreams within dreams.
THE DETECTIVE: Abby Mann and Gordon Douglas’s mystery starring ole Mr. Blue Eyes is a story that begins with one through line, then when that through line gets resolved (sort of), another through line begins. But it’s not until the second half of the movie that it’s revealed that the two story lines are connected, and that is through a very lengthy flashback.
The story revolves around a murder in which the victim’s housemate disappears, but is eventually convicted of the crime and put on death row. Then later, someone commits suicide and the same detective investigates. He eventually discovers, through a narrated flashback, that the two deaths are connected.
OUT OF THE PAST: This classic film noir by Daniel Mainwaring and Jacques Tourneur (perhaps one of the greatest) is similar to The Detective, except that the lengthy flashback that explains how the characters got to where they are is revealed almost immediately. And it’s quite lengthy for a flashback. The story then returns to the present and resolves all the conflicts.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY/REBECCA: Many films tell a story using one character’s point of view through one long extended flashback. The Killers and Rebecca are two of the best. In Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, from the novel by hard boiled writer James M. Cain, a man who has been shot races to his office to record his confession and his part in a murder.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s, the story begins with the second Mrs. DeWinter narrating over a present day, burnt down Manderly. The story then flashes back and tells the central character’s story. In one way, this is an important opening: it lets the audience know that the central character is alive at the end of the story (Sunset Boulevard is years off).
Other movies that are told in flashback through one character’s point of view include The Keys of the Kingdom and How Green Was My Valley.
One reason for using a structure like this is that you let the audience know the ending first, which can give the rising action a different emphasis: the story is now what happens, but how the character got to where they are.
SUNSET BOULEVARD: Sunset Boulevard, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s blistering attack on Hollywood, also is told from a single point of view. The unusual aspect of this film is that the story is told via flashback of a dead man.
American Beauty is similar, though in Alan Ball and Sam Mendes’s film, they give the character a more omniscient viewpoint. And one might make an argument that Laura does this same thing before Sunset Boulevard did.
ALFIE/THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: These two films use a first person point of view. But they are different in that they both break the fourth wall and the characters look into the camera and talk directly to the audience. In Bill Naughton and Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie, a young man who lives to sleep around will constantly talk to the audience about how he feels about what he is doing. In Terence Winter and Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the central character shows great relish and he describes all the debaucheries going on around him.
Other movies that do this include Richard III, Jersey Boys (using more than one narrator) and of course, both the original and remake of the television series, House of Cards.
CITIZEN KANE/ALL ABOUT EVE: These are stories told from several different viewpoints (it’s a way of getting around the limitations of telling something in flashback form and still be able to include scenes and events that couldn’t be dramatized if only one person was telling the story). However, both do cheat here and there, revealing something none of the characters could have witnessed first hand. But they do it so cleverly, you don’t realize you’ve been hoodwinked.
In the first, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the plot concerns a reporter who, in pursuing a scoop, looks up different people who knew the title character. Each person tells, in flashback form, their part of the story.
In All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (brother of Herman) dramatizes a story about an ambitious actress who lies and cheats her way into become a leading lady. The plot is related by three different characters.
A recent example of this is Jersey Boys. The Killers is also structure like this.
RASHOMON: Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa’s classic film is also told from different viewpoints. But there is a major difference here. Where in the previous scenarios, the characters don’t contradict each other, but pretty much support or tell the same story, Rashomon is its own unique thing.
In this story, a rape and murder involving a woman, her husband and a bandit is told four different times, each time being fully dramatized. But each character puts their own twist on the story until it is unclear what is the truth and what exactly happened.
This structure was so new and breathtaking that it now has its own name, a Rashomon structure, and is so much its own thing, it is rarely ever used (because everyone will recognize the structure immediately).
But it has been used in other films such as the British film The Woman in Question (after a woman is murdered, a detective interviews various people who knew her and each one has a very different view of the woman) and Les Girls, a musical with Gene Kelly, in which a libel trial leads to the history of the characters involved told from very distinct and different viewpoints.
It also shows up constantly in single episodes of TV series such as All in the Family and The X-Files.
KILL BILL: VOLUMES I and II: I feel a special place should be given to Quinton Tarantino’s pastiche on martial arts and crime films. This is a story that is constantly going back and forth in time. But what makes it interesting to me is that the various flashbacks will use different styles: a graphic novel for one, a romantic black and white approach for another, Asian action films in another. It revels in the style is uses to tell it’s story. It just doesn’t use flashbacks, but to quote myself above, Tarantino does it with a vengeance.
LAURA: In this 1940’s classic film noir directed by Otto Preminger, a police detective becomes obsessed with a woman in a painting, a woman whose murder he is investigating. What is interesting about this structure is that the first half is seen from the viewpoint of Laura’s mentor, Waldo Lydecker, but then, suddenly, about half way through, the story is then seen from the point of view of the Detective.
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE: Woody Allen’s comedy about a schlemiel of a theatrical agent is told from an omniscient point of view as several friends gather at a deli and tell Danny’s story. None of them have anything personally to do with the story being told, but just relate the story as they have heard it told to them.
THE NAKED CITY/TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN: These two films have an omniscient point of view, but are different in that the point of view is related via narrator. Albert Maltz, Malvin Ward and Jules Dassin’s The Naked City was considered something a bit new at the time: a much more realistic, and less romantic look at police work (especially in the way it was filmed often on real locations). It is narrated by an unseen character who has the famous last line of “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them”.
In Woody Allen’s mockumentary about a small town hood, the narrator is used as a narrator often is in a documentary.
The Age of Innocence, Jay Cocks and Martin Scorcese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, has a similar structure in that it is told from the viewpoint of an unseen narrator (voiced by Joanne Woodward). This latter approach is used in many, many movies, especially ones by Francois Truffaut like Jules and Jim.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW/DAYS OF HEAVEN: These are stories told from a single point of view, but not in flashback form, but as the story unfolds. In each case, the character whose viewpoint is being used is in every scene.
What Maisie Knew, a modern day adaptation of a Henry James story, is about a child who is being used as a bargaining chip in a battle between parents. Days of Heaven, Terence Malick’s rapture on some people caught up in a love triangle in Texas, is told through the eyes (often in voice over) by a young girl involved in the situation.
In both cases, the characters don’t really drive the story by their actions or goals. They are more witnesses to the other characters and their conflicts. They are sort of the central character without their actions or even reactions driving the story.
But in both cases, every scene is seen from their point of view.
HE LOVES ME…HE LOVES ME NOT: Laetitia Colombani and Caroline Thivel’s thriller is divided into two parts. The first half revolves around a young woman who is in love with a doctor who she thinks is going to leave his wife for her. But about halfway through, after some deaths and the doctor being arrested for murder, the story returns to the beginning and is shown with the doctor as the central character, and the truth of what is really going on is revealed.
This is different from Rashomon because it’s not done in flashback. Both stories are presented in the time logic in which they happened and aren’t really told from any one person’s viewpoint.
STAGE FRIGHT: Just for kicks and giggles, I thought, as a coda, I would list this film because, though not a great movie, it did change the way flashbacks were used and was actually quite controversial at the time. In Alfred Hitchcock’s film about a woman helping a man who claims to be innocent of murder, there is a flashback early on told by the man. But as is revealed at the end, he lied and the flashback was not an accurate dramatization of what happened.
This had never really been done before. Up until then, flashbacks had always been considered to be objective truth. Even in Rashomon, which came out the same year, the flashbacks are accurate from the viewpoint of the characters and are not really lies in that the characters believe they are telling the truth. But in Stage Fright, the flashback was a total and deliberate lie. And from that point onward, it allowed anybody else using flashbacks to lie in them as well.
NEXT: SURREALISM AND ALTERNATIVE REALITIES