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.