Monday, August 4, 2014

Double Standard for Flashbacks?

This post is brought to you courtesy of Netflix and binge-watching. Specifically, the first season of Once Upon a Time.

With one of the most engaging, movie-like pilots I’ve seen in a long time, it took me until episode two to come to the realization that the storytelling device OUAT uses is that of flashbacks. Just like another of my all-time favorite TV shows: Lost.

When I noted the similarity, my husband gave me a nonverbal “duh.” My husband may be the biggest Lost fan on the planet. He will challenge you to a lightsaber duel if you dare criticize the show — yes, even the final season. So of course he knew that two of the writers from Lost are at the helm of Once Upon a Time. Hence the flashback structure is not mere coincidence nor the work of a copycat. It is a purposeful, and I think, masterfully done storytelling device.

Putting aside the other merits of both TV shows . . . wait, I actually don’t think you can put aside the other merits. Great casting, terrific acting, smart writing, clever spins, unique twists, they all contribute to making each show well executed. However, I contend without the flashback storytelling structure, none of those other merits would be delivered in such a way that would glue my bum to my couch night after night.

While there are many reasons why this structure works, for me, one soars above the rest. It is what I care most about in a TV show, movie, and book: character.

As a storytelling device in these television shows, flashbacks allow the characters to materialize slowly. Instead of being presented with stock, one-dimensional stereotypes, we get a snippet of each character at the beginning of each series. Then, if we are patient, we are rewarded with a full character profile in one episode. We viewers get an “origin story” for each character that populates the series. And at least in the case of Lost, that profile is expanded and built upon in subsequent episodes. Over time, we see a fully formed, complicated, multidimensional character. And we love these characters because of this, specifically because we understand them, their motivations, their wounds, and their wants. All things essential to understanding and caring about characters in the novels we write and read.

But this learning about a character’s past sounds eerily like an element of novel writing we writers are told to treat like the plague: backstory. And backstory told through flashbacks? I think all the writing teachers in all the land just fainted at the same time.

Am I living in my own fairy tale to believe this might be a double standard? Is there a reason why flashbacks and backstory make for great TV but mediocre books? Or is that assumption itself incorrect? What do you think?

Disclaimer: The fact that I recently vacationed with one of the stars of Once Upon a Time — who coincidentally was also on Lost — has no bearing on my love of either show. Right, and by vacationed “with” I mean “was at the same resort at the same time.” Hey, we had the same fruit plate for breakfast.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, May 12, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.


  1. I haven't seen Once Upon a Time, but I loved Lost. I think the flashbacks definitely added to the characters, but I also think the flashbacks were successful because they were a large part of the story. This way, the flashbacks were like a separate story with their own arcs and everything. Flashbacks really only bother me when they're sudden and unexpected because it pulls me out of the story I'm already invested in. With Lost, I was as invested in the flashbacks as I was in the main plot. I think the same concept works with books, too. I recently read and loved Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn, which had a flashback every other chapter. Because I was invested in both story lines, the flashbacks worked really well. Anyway, this is a really interesting perspective! I've never really thought about what is accepted in TV but not books, and vice-versa.

    1. Thanks for your comment Catherine. You are absolutely right about the arcs in the flashbacks being equally important. Spot on!

  2. I think that Rowling used the flashback device effectively in the Harry Potter series with the Pensieve. I guess that's one of the benefits of writing fantasy - you're not bound to the same rules as everyone else.

    And, I don't watch Once Upon a Time, but my wife and daughters love it and they feel the same way you do about it.

    1. Yes, that's a perfect example and works so well, of course...its JK!