To Flashback, Or Not To Flashback?

So, I’ve been watching Once Upon A Time, which is a lot of fun, with some great performances.  But to my mind, there’s a flaw in the concept –  a flaw familiar from Lost, a flaw that in fact we rarely saw before Lost

Extended flashbacks.

Once Upon A Time is divided between the ‘real’ world, where a group of amnesiac mythological characters are living ordinary lives in ignorance of who they once were – and the fairytale world they once inhabited, where we see their lives before a witch’s curse transported them to our world.

Okay, fine, but those scenes in the fairytale world?  They’ve already happened.  They’re ancient history.  And it’s very hard to get excited about what a character did years ago, however much it may inform and shape their present, when we’d rather be seeing what they’re doing here and now.  Especially when the here and now is as fascinating as “a bunch of people live in ignorance of their true natures” or  “plane crash survivors struggle to survive on a mysterious island”.

And secondly – although the Once Upon A Time writers work very hard to make those flashbacks illuminating and dramatic  – there’s always the possibility that extended flashbacks are just a lazy way of conveying character traits, flaws and strengths that the writer should actually be showing us in the present.  What’s stronger: flashing back to show us the hero lost a sibling in childhood, or seeing him here and now, still unable to enter a hospital because he’s so weighed down by bad memories?  To my mind, the present always trumps the past.  It feels more real, more immediate, the stakes are higher and the outcome of each scene less certain.

So, over to you.  Am I wrong on this?  Has Lost made extended flashbacks showing the key moments of a character’s life a legitimate storytelling technique – or does it annoy you as much as it annoys me?


2 comments on “To Flashback, Or Not To Flashback?

  1. I have to admit they annoy me too. However there are always exceptions to the rules. I tend to like them if they go beyond a reveal and take you to a different viewpoint on a character. So they reveal a conflict which we haven’t seen yet. I’ve not watched more than the first episode of Once Upon a Time so can’t comment on that one. But the extended flashback in Homeland last week worked, I felt my usual niggles but then by the end of it I had a completely different viewpoint on Brody so it worked for me.

  2. Tom says:

    I think you are wrong here. The flashbacks aren’t supposed to make you wonder if the character lives or dies, they’re there to show you how these characters became the people they are. As they say, “Show, don’t tell.” The fact that the writers can weave such a complicated story – in two timeslines – is pretty impressive.

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