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?

The Two Episode Rule

This is my own personal rule for television episodes, and I’ve never heard anyone else say anything remotely like it –  but I think implementing it in all TV drama would improve almost every series no end.

The two episode rule says:  never base an episode on a part of your character’s history that you didn’t introduce, or at least hint at, in the first two episodes.

Let me give you an example.  One of the great TV plot clichés, particularly in American TV,  is that episode where the main character’s estranged father turns up.  Yeah, you know the one. Dad appears at the end of the teaser: they don’t get on, they argue for a while, have a big showdown, and then they make up in time for the closing credits.

Those episodes never work.  And one of the main reasons  (apart from being a cliché, and trying to solve a huge family problem in an unrealistic amount of screen time)  is that the main character has invariably never mentioned that they don’t get on with their father.  They’ve probably never even mentioned whether their father is alive or dead.  The subject has never seemed remotely important before.

And then out of nowhere, the viewers are expected to accept that they have this severely dysfunctional relationship that they never bothered to mention, and which, as far as we can see, has never affected their behaviour or personality in any way.

In contrast, the American supernatural detective series Angel spent nearly four seasons   slowly feeding in hints that one of the main characters had been bullied and emotionally abused by his father throughout his childhood, and was still struggling with the after-effects.  A line here, a moment there… Emotionally crippled by all this, the character went through some extremely dark times, did some bad things, and ultimately came out a stronger, better person –

And then his father appears for an episode.  Can you imagine how powerful that confrontation was?  And it works because it’s grounded in what we already know of this character.   We know this relationship is important to him, we’ve seen the effect it’s had on his life –  and now we’re seeing not a cliched plot-of-the-week, but a make or break moment for someone we care about.

Of course, I’m not saying you can never mention anything that wasn’t established in the first two episodes.  With characters as with real people, we discover new things about them all the time.  It may take a while to discover that they preferred hockey to netball, or that they hate chocolate, or whatever.

But you’re not likely to want to build an entire episode around them not liking chocolate.  What we’re talking about with the two episode rule are the important things –  the key character traits, the key relationships, the key desires and dreams.  The things about your character that are likely to drive an entire episode, even an entire ongoing plot thread.

And when we say  “established” in those first two episodes, that doesn’t mean everything has to be spelled out in capital letters.  The “establishing” could be something as simple as making it clear that your female forensic scientist has difficulty forming relationships, and she’s been single for years.

What have you established there?   Maybe that she’s mildly autistic – or that she’s too ambitious and devoted to her job to care about love –  or that she was raped and is suffering the emotional fallout. Or a thousand and one other things, I expect.

But when you finally write the episode revealing the reason, everyone will subconsciously think,   “Of course! That’s why she’s so distant and keeps pushing people away…”

You don’t have to lay it all out on a plate for the audience.  In fact, your series will be more effective if you don’t.  Keep them curious, keep them interested.  But there has to be a character framework there in those first couple of episodes, a set of first impressions; the writer’s gut reactions to the character, almost.  They’re what stops you being tempted to make them act out of character, what stops you forcing them to be things they could never be.  They’re the ring-fence holding in all the potential this new, unformed character has.  And they should all be in those first two episodes.

The First Day Of School

Just arrived back from a trip to the North of England to see locations and meet the director and crew for my children’s TV show.

Since any details are commercially sensitive, I’m going to have to be careful how much I give away here.  If I say the wrong thing, the BBC may tie me to a chair and make me watch infinite repeats of Bonekickers.  But I will keep you as updated as I can.

What I did want to remark on today is the peculiar process of passing on your work to the people who are actually going to make it happen.  You spend so long – a couple of years in this case –  labouring away at your idea, turning it from a spark to an idea to an outline to individual episodes.  The notes come in, the jokes fly at meetings, the ideas you really wish you’d had come from other people and are woven into the world.  But you feel you have the whole thing under control.  Mapped out in your head.  It’s yours.

And then one day, the world you’ve created takes its first steps outside your control.  Things start to happen – wonderful things, things that are absolutely right for the characters and the show – without direct reference to you.  Another writer decides that Jane’s favourite chocolate bar is a KitKat, a location is found that looks different to what you saw in your head.  Suddenly there are thirteen episodes by half a dozen different writers, and your universe is now so big that you can’t remember crucial details without referring to your notes.

Your project is all grown up, and taking its first faltering steps into the real world.  Like a parent seeing your child off on their first day at school, you’re no longer the only influence on your precious baby’s development.  It will always be utterly yours, but it has a life of its own now.  Like that parent at the school gate, you feel disorientated, full of pride, and profoundly grateful that your precious baby has made it this far.

And it’s a really great feeling.