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B&N Week 58: Flashbacks

| January 31, 2012 | 3 Comments

Welcome once more to Tuesday, and yet another installment of Bolts & Nuts! I’m feeling under the weather today. [I never really understood that saying. Aren’t we all literally “under the weather”? Anyway…] I wish I could go back just a few days. I was sore and tired, but I wasn’t sick.

And that’s what I want to talk about this week. (Being sick?) No! Going back in time in a story, better known as a flashback. Ready? Then let’s go.

A flashback is a storytelling device that takes you back in time during a narrative. If your narrative [because we’re starting as late as possible in order to keep interest] is JKL, but your character is telling someone something that happened to them during this JKL, but that happened in ABC, then your narrative will look something like this: JAKL. The flashback is part of the ongoing narrative, even though it happened in the past.

Did I lose anyone?

Just in case, let’s say this a different way, but with an illustration.

You’re sitting with your significant other, eating dinner, and relating your day. You’re telling about the idiot person you had on the phone who couldn’t understand that they had to plug their computer to the electrical socket before it would work, and you’re telling them about the thoughts that were going through your head at the time. Then you spear another succulent yet amusing asparagus tip and pop it in your mouth, shaking your head as you remember.

Let’s break this down.

The sitting down, eating dinner [with the succulent-yet-amusing asparagus tips] telling the story about your day is your ongoing narrative. This is happening in real time. If this were a comic and since it is germane to the story, the visualization of the story is going to happen in a flashback. When the story is done, so is the flashback, and we’re back to the present, as you spear that asparagus and shake your head.

In scripting, it could look something like this:

Panel 1: Joe and Judy are sitting at the dining room table, candles lit, food in front of them. Joe is telling Judy about his day.

Joe: Blah blah blahblahblahblah wah wah.

Panel 2: This is a flashback, with Joe sitting at his desk in his cubicle, headset on. He is bent over, the palms of his hands in his eyes. You can read the aggravation in his posture.

Joe: Blah blah wahblah…

Panel 3: Still in the flashback, we now see Joe sitting up, eyes closed, holding the bridge of his nose with a hand. Yup, still aggravated.

Joe: Wah wah blahwah…

Panel 4: We’re now out of the flashback, and Joe is poised with the fork near his mouth, asparagus tip (succulent-yet-amusing) speared and ready to enter. Joe’s smiling.

Joe: Blahwah wahblah wah. Blah.

See what I did there? This is very, very important.

Remember that the script is nothing more than a set of instructions for the creative team. You have to tell them what you’re seeing. I started in the now, then told Graeme McFreelancer that we were going into a flashback, and then told him when we were out of it.

This is very important, because if you don’t say you’re out of the flashback, you could end up confusing Graeme. What if he decided to change up styles during the flashback? What if Graeme is also coloring the book, and colors it in “flashback mode”? If you don’t say you’re in it or out of it, you’re doing the team a disservice, and will have no one to blame but yourself if it doesn’t come out right.

Now, there are a few ways to denote a flashback. Like I just said, the panels could be drawn in a different style. This doesn’t happen too often. What happens more often is that the panel borders are different than the regular narrative, or the panels are colored differently. The colors could be lighter or darker, with only a few different hues used. If the book is in color, the flashback could be in sepia tones.

There are a few things I want you to be cognizant of when using flashbacks. These are pretty easy traps to fall into. The first one was already mentioned: letting your artist know when you go into and come out of a flashback.

The second trap is making the flashback too long. Remember that comics are made up of scenes, and could have five or six, depending on the number of pages you want to devote. The longer your flashback, the longer your scene is going to be. My basic advice is to stay in the flashback only for as long as you need to. If you feel you’re in it too long, then more than likely, you are. If the flashback goes to multiple pages, like three or four, then you’ve probably been in it too long.

The next trap is mistaking the flashback for actual action. This is a big one. Don’t fall into that trap. The flashback is not action. The flashback is there only to illuminate or support the current narrative. Whatever is happening in the subjective now of the story, the flashback is in support of that.

Flashbacks are something like captions: the reader can “sit back” and let the story be “told” to them, because this has already happened. They’re not “leaning forward” in engagement of the story. If you mistake the flashback for actual action, then the reader is going to feel like nothing happened.

Now, if you need to have an extended flashback, I sincerely suggest breaking the narrative into two different timeframes. A then and now.  [Or even a now and then. Whichever you fancy.] Why do I advocate breaking it up that way? This way, the flashback can be its own scene, instead of being part of another scene. Just make sure you label it accordingly, not just for the artist, but also for the reader. [The added benefit is that, because you’ve broken the narrative timeline with a then and now, your then can now actually be action, instead of it having the illusion of action that being in a flashback would give it.]

Used correctly, flashbacks can be a powerful tool. If used incorrectly, they aren’t doing more besides padding the script, and a decent editor will call you on it. Either they will, or the reader will. Don’t give them the chance to do that.

Personally, I believe flashbacks should be used sparingly. I’m not going to throw out any numbers, because it depends on the dictates of your story. However, the fewer flashbacks you have, I believe the better off you’ll be.

And that’s all I have for this week. Homework: Look at your scripts and see how long your flashbacks are. See if you’re mistaking it for actual action, instead of supporting the subjective now of the tale. Basically, put it against everything I’ve said here, and fix accordingly.

That’s all I have. See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (3)

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  1. John Lees says:

    A good, well-timed column for me. I just recently had this problem of a script having too much flashback, and me getting it mixed up with actual action. It’s weird, how by redrafting the script and putting the information previously covered in captions over the flashback into an extended conversation in the present, it felt like more was happening. Which is strange, since it was two people in a room talking – which I feared would feel too static – as opposed to a montage of dynamic images. But you’ve managed to voice the reason for it here: it’s that immediacy and the sense of “anything can happen” drama that the present brings with it.

    A “then and now” split narrative is something I made use of in The Standard, and it was definitely beneficial there. There was too much content in the past-set stuff to have it simply be presented in flashbacks narrated by a character in the present.

    Something else to consider is the “flashforward”. IE, if a flashback is the past, and your ongoing narrative is the present, a flashforward would be a brief glimpse at the future, perhaps at a dramatic, climactic moment of the story. In my early scripts, I found myself almost always using a flashforward to start things, getting round the “try and grab the reader’s attention as quickly as possible” problem by starting with the story’s emotional high-point, and then going into the main narrative to explain how we got to that point. It’s a good tool, and one I wouldn’t object to using in future for scripts that require it, but I fear it was becoming a crutch for me, where I started to feel like I couldn’t just tell a story chronologically and start at the beginning.

  2. This column has been very useful to me as I’m working on my debut comic series. It’s a murder mystery and very flashback intensive. I’ve been working in a similar way to what you outline, breaking them into short chunks scattered across the present-day narrative and making each one count.
    A rule I’ve applied is to have the last panel before the flashback starts directly or in-directly refer to something that’ll happen during the flashback, hopefully easing the transition and justifying the placement of each one.

    • Hello, Gordon! welcome to the Tribe!

      Glad you found the article useful.

      Just try not to rely overmuch on flashbacks. Generally, readers like a story that is told linearly. You don’t get many Pulp Fictions that do extremely well.

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