Too many flashbacks? Trying too hard for surprise endings?

I recently watched two TV series that used the flashback technique extensively in their narrative structure. The use of flashbacks in telling a story goes back a long way in the written form and there are good reasons for its use.

The flashback technique is as old as Western literature. In the Odyssey, most of the adventures that befell Odysseus on his journey home from Troy are told in flashback by Odysseus when he is at the court of the Phaeacians.

The use of flashback enables the author to start the story from a point of high interest and to avoid the monotony of chronological exposition. It also keeps the story in the objective, dramatic present.

Its use in films is necessarily more recent, as this Wikipedia article describes.

Flashbacks were first employed during the sound era in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film City Streets, but were rare until about 1939 when, in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights as in Emily Brontë’s original novel, the housekeeper Ellen narrates the main story to overnight visitor Mr. Lockwood, who has witnessed Heathcliff’s frantic pursuit of what is apparently a ghost. More famously, also in 1939, Marcel Carné’s movie Le Jour Se Lève is told almost entirely through flashback: the story starts with the murder of a man in a hotel. While the murderer, played by Jean Gabin, is surrounded by the police, several flashbacks tell the story of why he killed the man at the beginning of the movie.

One of the most famous examples of a flashback is in the Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane (1941). The protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, dies at the beginning, uttering the word Rosebud. The remainder of the film is framed by a reporter’s interviewing Kane’s friends and associates, in a futile effort to discover what the word meant to Kane. As the interviews proceed, pieces of Kane’s life unfold in flashback, but Welles’ use of such unconventional flashbacks was thought to have been influenced by William K. Howard’s The Power and the Glory. Lubitsch used a flashback in Heaven Can Wait (1943) which tells the story of Henry Van Cleve. Though usually used to clarify plot or backstory, flashbacks can also act as an unreliable narrator. The multiple and contradictory staged reconstructions of a crime in Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line are presented as flashbacks based on divergent testimony. Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon does this in the most celebrated fictional use of contested multiple testimonies.

Telling the viewer right up front that some dramatic event has a cause that will slowly be revealed enables the suspense to be built up as the layers of the past are slowly removed via flashbacks. I am fond of the mystery thriller genre and flashbacks are used extensively in them. In the more standard form, a crime occurs right at the beginning and the person investigating the crime interviews people who recount past events. This is a form of flashback narrative but with merely a verbal re-telling. But in other forms, the past is recounted in visual flashbacks which undoubtedly make for more riveting viewing.

But recently, I am beginning to wonder if flashbacks are being used too much, resulting in considerable repetition.. Especially with the advent of the mini-series format where a story can be told over six to eight hours or more rather than within the two hours of a film, flashbacks seem to be sometimes used to stretch the story out longer than necessary. The series Behind Her Eyes that I reviewed negatively recently used flashbacks a great deal. Tabula Rasa that I just finished watching is far superior to Behind Her Eyes but to my mind used flashbacks far too much. I think that the nine one-hour episodes of Tabula Rasa could have been cut quite a bit by eliminating many flashbacks (of which there a lot) and creating a tighter narrative.

I have another peeve with both these series in that both have shocking twists at the end. I have no problem with surprise endings and indeed the mystery genre is built around them. The goal should be to surprise the viewer but at the same time have them feeling “Ah, now I understand!” What I find problematic is that in their efforts to stun the view with a huge surprise at the end, these writers have sacrificed plausibility. Rather than providing a pleasing finale where the revelation enables one one to piece together the puzzling elements up to that point, both these stories resulted in me immediately noticing the gaping holes in the denouement, leaving me frustrated. I would prefer less effort put in to shock and more effort to create coherence.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) comes to mind.

    I would prefer less effort put in to shock and more effort to create coherence.

    Me too. Sadly, incoherence seems to be the dominant mode of storytelling these days.

  2. says

    Obscure is not clever but is often mistaken for it.

    Memento uses flashbacks well. But mostly I treat them as a warning that someone had to prop up a poorly-constructed story line.

  3. DonDueed says

    Another good example is D.O.A. (1949), in which a man recounts the events of his own murder to the police.

  4. mnb0 says

    The problem in the end is pretty simple. Flashbacks and twists need to be in service of the story told. The other way round they are used for their own sake; to me that somewhat feels like a form of cheating.
    A fine example of both is the French Movie L’Appartement (nothing in common with the Billy Wilder classic) from 1996. All the flashbacks and twists (though they require a strong focus; you can’t go to the kitchen for a beer, return and catch up) are crucial for the story; the denouement is not entirely satisfying though for the reasons MS gives.

    As almost always the American remake Wicker Park is vastly inferior.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    A nomination for worst use of flashback: The series finale of Star Trek: Enterprise which is presented as a TNG holodeck recreation. A great big WTFuckingF.

    DonDueed @3: I think that’s my favourite noir film. Edmond O’Brien is phenomenal.

  6. xohjoh2n says

    According to IMDB there were a little under 10,000 movies and 8,600 TV episodes released in 2020.

    I’d bet that the *vast* majority didn’t use flashbacks. In fact you could probably spend an entire year picking out of that list at random and not (randomly) encounter one.

    So no, there are not too many flashbacks.

    The only question then is on a case by case basis, was the use of flashbacks appropriate for that particular production, which will be more of a matter of opinion. Then there’s the issue of me-tooism where a successful and inventive film spawns a bunch of other films that try to cash in on it but completely butcher the very concept that made the original clever. I remember when it was penguins.

    (My main bugbear with flashbacks is the cheap flashback filler episode that every single season of every single TV series apparently has to have: almost universally a main character has either lost their memory, or is on trial for some (usually politically motivated) charge, and flashbacks to all previous episodes are their path back to normality.)

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    OT: There’s a large subset of noir that I don’t care for; the ones where the characters slowly sink into a darkness of their own making. I’m thinking of films like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. In D.O.A., you know pretty much from the outset that Frank Bigelow will die. But he kicks and punches at the darkness until his last breath. I love that.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    xohjoh2n @ # 8: … you could probably spend an entire year picking out of that list at random and not (randomly) encounter one. … the cheap flashback filler episode that every single season of every single TV series apparently has to have…

    I don’t watch TV at all, and haven’t for decades, so I can’t opine on the veracity of your observations -- but don’t you notice a contradiction there?

  9. consciousness razor says

    Sometimes, they’re not actual flashbacks but some other kind of narrative framing device which can serve a similar purpose.

    One that comes to mind is The Princess Bride. In the movie, the main plot is actually a story which is being read from a book and told by a grandfather to his sick grandson. (This is analogous to how things work in the novel version as well, although I haven’t read it.) It works pretty well, because you do sort of care about what’s happening with those two, even though it’s primarily about the other characters (Westley, etc.) They help to tell that story in the way that the writer wanted to tell it: from that narrator/grandfather (played by Peter Falk) to his audience/grandson (Fred Savage), who each have their own perspectives, which shapes what the actual audience (you and me) can take away from it. We know we’re not supposed to take it too seriously, just have fun with it, enjoy these silly characters from a safe distance away from their fictional storybook world, etc.

    But if you’re basically just chopping things up into bits mainly for the sake of chopping things up into bits, with no very good motivation to do so as is often the case, it can definitely make things difficult to follow. (Sometimes that may be desirable, but sometimes not.) And it may make the later or earlier events relative to a “flashback” (or whatever it might be) seem just sort of … wrong or misplaced or pointless.

    Rob G. brought up Enterprise in #7, which is a good example. Were we supposed to think of the entire show in relation to TNG this whole time? To me, it feels more natural to flip it around and say that you were supposed to care about all of the events/characters from Enterprise, and the events/characters of TNG (a couple centuries later) are pretty much irrelevant. As the series finale, it brought Enterprise to a rather abrupt end, as told from the perspective of a completely different set of characters who didn’t have anything to do with it, which just didn’t make for a very satisfying conclusion. But “the holodeck is cool” and “most trekkies liked TNG” you say, so you use that to tell the wrong story, and we’re still complaining about it now.

  10. DonDueed says

    Rob @7: It’s great, isn’t it? I remember the first time I saw it, hoping somehow an antidote would be found…

  11. blf says

    The Usual Suspects (1995) seems to have gotten the use of flashbacks right along with the surprise ending. At least at first viewing. The second time I watched it, it wasn’t as entertaining because I knew what was going on and would happen. That difficulty doesn’t apply to some films; as one example, I still enjoy Doctor Who’s Blink (2007) despite knowing exactly what is going on and how it will end.

  12. flex says

    I would suggest that a TV series with a good use of flashbacks, would be the first two seasons of Murder in Paradise. While flashbacks are used regularly, they are generally used to illustrate what the detectives have just figured out rather than to provide information to the audience which the detectives don’t know.

    I can’t comment beyond the first two seasons because in the first episode of the third season the original main detective was murdered and his replacement was a character neither I nor my wife enjoyed.

    Then, of course, both the novel, movie, and TV Mini-series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, used flashbacks to excellent effect.

    I’ll have to look out for D.O.A., I don’t think I’ve seen that one.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, in my opinion The Princess Bride movie is far better than the novel. The novel drags, and the bookending story about the grandfather reading to his son is replaced by the writer dealing with Hollywood while asking for someone to locate a book he remembered from his youth. This interrupts the narrative several times and really doesn’t add anything. I was informed her a few months ago that the writer of the novel also wrote the screenplay, and I can only say they cut out the really annoying parts of the novel and wrote an enjoyable screenplay.

  13. John Morales says


    For me, flashbacks are fine, so long as they are effectively footnotes — that is, they illustrate back aspects of the narrative, rather than being part of it.

    But, when used as an arty fancy storytelling gimmick, they do annoy me.

    As do stories in media res, always.

    (And, of course, flashforwards are even worse. Notable one in the series Dollhouse)

  14. xohjoh2n says

    @10 Not at all. When I come across it it’s because I’m on a very specific binge that can hardly avoid it. My point was that a random selection of what is out there would be unlikely to come across it. Basically when I do come across it it’s because I’m avoiding the huge fields where it isn’t. (I think it’s a cheap and lazy way of getting an extra episode in that rarely adds much to the overall series arc, but if I genuinely cared about it that much it would be trivial to not watch it.)

  15. John Morales says


    … if I genuinely cared about it that much it would be trivial to not watch it …

    Thing is, unless you read a proper review, you need to watch it to determine it’s that type of episode. So to know you don’t want to watch it, you have to watch it.

  16. chigau (違う) says

    I have a vague recollection of an episode of Highlander where there was a flashback within a flashback.

  17. xohjoh2n says

    @18, it’s usually pretty obvious within seconds whether it’s that kind of episode or not…

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