Don’t Tell Stories as a Flashback

I feel stupid having to say this but… don’t tell stories as a series of flashbacks… please?

I get why it’s done. It’s a clean narrative. The story is telling you a story so why not structure it around a character actually telling you a story?

But the fact is that it’s cheap, it’s lazy, and most importantly, it ruins the fucking story!

Atomic Blonde is a prime example of a movie that would have been 1000% better if it had been told from beginning to end without telling it as flashback. If you haven’t seen the movie, stop here, pour yourself a drink, go watch the movie because it’s good, then come back and find out why it’s not great.

Everyone good?

Rather than beating around the bush with set up, let’s just say it. Telling the story of Atomic Blonde in flashback sucks all the narrative weight of every scene right out the window. Lorraine gets ambushed in the airport? Who cares! We know she survives. Lorraine almost gets caught sneaking across the border between East and West Germany… Who cares! We know she survives. Lorraine fights fifty men starting in an apartment building, down five flights of stairs, onto the street, only to have it turn into a driving gun battle? Who cares! We know she survives!

By showing her sitting down, even bruised and battered, and telling us the story we know that the fight scenes really don’t mean anything. Her life is never in real danger. And the point of telling the story has basically been ruined.

“But,” I can hear you saying. “So what? Isn’t it the journey that matters some times?”

And my answer is… eh…

There’s never really anything at stake because we know how it ends, she lives.

If there’s a story that arcs the character, taking the character on a path from being one thing to another, from being a girl to being a woman, from being unexperienced to being wise, then, yes, absolutely the journey matters. Because the journey is how the character achieved these things. But if the character doesn’t learn anything, is just someone sent to accomplish a set of tasks and is never changed because of those tasks then previewing to the audience that they live through all of them removes all of the tension from the movie.

There’s never really anything at stake because we know how it ends, she lives.

Imagine telling the story of Atomic Blonde in first person to a friend. You’re telling to story and it’s a fun adventure but you’re telling them the story so they know that no matter how bad you tell them any moment got, they know you lived through it. Now, imagine telling the same story but making it about your friend Lorraine. “I had this friend name Lorraine. She went to Berlin…”

At one point, your friend is going to have to ask, “Holy shit? Is she still alive?” because you had a friend, they don’t know, so every fight could be the last one. Every car chase could be the last one. For all your friend knows, the story ends with her corpse being fished out of the river.

But let’s take a step back and examine the whole purpose of a fight scene in the first place? What exactly is the point of one?

Fight scenes rarely alter a character in a fundamental way. They are violent bursts intended to resolve in some way a larger conflict that has become intractable. Fights don’t define a character except as to show that some sort of limit has been reached and that character will bend no further.

In terms of storytelling, they are completely unnecessary to even have, if there’s another way to show who the winner was. The fight itself is really just filler. If you think I’m crazy, watch Braveheart with it’s battle scenes and then watch the Rome episode “Pharsalus” in which the armies of Caesar and Pompey finally meet.

Braveheart is well known for its battle scenes. It was pretty groundbreaking in terms of how they were shot at the time. And they’re stressful precisely because we don’t know whether William Wallace will live through them. But they tell us nothing about his character. And when they’re over, how much more do we know? We know that the English expected to win in but didn’t. And that allowed Wallace to invade York. That’s the sum total of what that battle told us and it took fifteen minutes of screen time (more or less).

Contrast that to “Pharsalus”. We see Caesar and Pompey on their horses heading to battle. After a very tiny montage of ten seconds or so, we see Caesar ride back to camp triumphantly and Pompey and the Senate preparing to break camp to run to Africa. What have we learned? We learned that Pompey intended to win but didn’t. And it allowed Caesar to follow Pompey to Egypt. Total screen time: maybe forty-five seconds.

Fight scenes […] are violent bursts intended to resolve in some way a larger conflict that has become intractable. Fights don’t define a character except as to show that some sort of limit has been reached and that character will bend no further.

The audience, by the end of both, has exactly the same amount of information but one took almost twenty times longer to convey it.

So why have fight scenes at all if it’s simply about conveying information?

Obviously, storytelling isn’t only about delivering information. It’s also about style, the ratcheting of tension followed by the release, and investing the audience in characters and their outcomes. It’s the difference between watching Game of Thrones and reading the plot summaries on Wikia or something. Fight scenes serve to put a character into immediate bodily danger (the tension) and then get them out of it (the release). They can be and often are fun to watch or read but, also for an author, a lot of fun to write! They are not essential storytelling but consuming stories is vary rarely essential anyway so why not add some style.

The point, after all of these words, is that if fights are about the tension and release of danger and then survival, don’t kneecap stories by telling them in the past by letting us know that none of what is going to transpire was ever really dangerous in the first place.

I am using fight scenes here to illustrate the easiest reason to avoid doing this but could you imagine how different the Song of Ice and Fire books would be if they were all narrated by Tyrion Lannister? Who cares if he gets thrown in the sky cells in the Eyrie or Cat’s crazy sister threatened to throw him out the moon door? He’s telling the story, so we know implicitly that he’ll be okay. Whatever else transpires in the story, at least we know that he’ll be okay. And I think one of things that makes Tyrion such a compelling character is seeing him be put into danger the audience really believes and watching him get out of it. An implicit understanding that no matter what, he would survive would actually make the character less compelling even if events transpired exactly as we all know they have.

Suffice it to say, Atomic Blonde was a good movie. But it could have been so much better if it had just been structured with a little more thought.