Studies in flashbacks: “The Social Network”

March 5th, 2013 by

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the second of five movies that use flashbacks: The Social Network, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on a book by Ben Mezrich.

To me, the single smartest decision Sorkin made about The Social Network, besides choosing to take on this project, was to use the dual depositions as a narrative device to jump back and forth from present to past, past to present. Sorkin wants the reader to be so aware of this conceit, once he establishes the second of two deposition rooms, he says flat-out in scene description [P. 27]:

We’ll be back and forth between the two deposition rooms a lot.

For the record, the “back” part is flashbacks.

The script does a masterful job with these jumps using lines of dialogue, pre-laps, audio and visual clues to serve as touch points for each transition.

The narrative structure of TSN is remarkably similar to Citizen Kane with the deposition room testimony providing the same function as Thompson the reporter tracking down the variety of witnesses to Kane’s past, with the past narrative timeline playing out in linear fashion while using the interviews to provide the basis for time ellipses.

There’s also a bit of the Rashomon dynamic here, where there is the testimony representing one ‘truth,’ vs. what we see in the past, sometimes representing another ‘truth.’

That single choice — using the dual depositions as a device to manage time jumps and the narrative — is a smart one, enabling Sorkin to wrangle the details of a biopic into a compelling, fast-paced drama. And that device is entirely reliant on flashbacks.

Takeaway: If you have a story which has a mystery unfolding in the past that can be best served by the use of multiple flashbacks… well, you have Citizen Kane and The Social Network as touchstones to inspire and guide you.

Tomorrow: (500) Days of Summer.

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