You know the device. You start with some tense and possibly wacky scene. Then the screen fades to black and the title card pops up: “One Week Earlier”. You’re now back in a comfortable scene and wondering how on earth the strange circumstance in the opening came about.
This is a great technique. It’s also misused constantly, even by experienced and excellent writers.
The flashback opening works for a highly specific reason: it gets the audience curious. However, it comes with significant drawbacks. The future event is a distraction from the present. If we’re wondering how that future moment came to be, we’re paying less attention to the characters and struggles.
It also robs story of curiosity in other areas. Because you know at least one point in the future, a lot of other possibilities clearly aren’t going to happen. If the opening shows the main character stumbling around the mouth of an active volcano before a flashback, we’ve made a commitment. If he’s arrested, we know he has to break out. If he’s seemingly killed, we know he survives. After all, he’s got an appointment with a volcano.
Flashback openings should be used when you are faced with two challenges:
1) You need to immediately hook the audience.
This sounds universal, but it isn’t. People commit to movies and plays in a way that they don’t to an episode of TV, with the remote a constant temptation. People commit to tabletop RPGs and AAA videogames in a similar fashion. Episodic TV and novels demand a more immediate hook. They’re easier to put down the moment they start to lose the audience.
2) Your story demands an opening that would make someone want to put it down.
If this is true, it sounds like the response should be, “You either suck at exposition, or you need a better story”. This isn’t always the case. Breaking Bad is a story about a loser. Walter White in the pilot is a painful man to watch. We’re forced to view repeated humiliations and impotent responses. These are necessary to the story, we need to understand how miserable Walter is in order to empathize with his indifference to his own death. We also need to see Walter is already exhausting honest options for making money and medical bills are a whole new impossibility.
How can we keep the viewer from changing the channel? Simple. Start with an opening showing a man wearing nothing but underwear and a gas mask driving an RV in a high speed pursuit with the cops. Then reveal that he’s a mild-mannered chemistry teacher. Wondering how on earth this man got from the pathetic scenes we’re currently witnessing to the situation seen in the opening keeps us engaged. We might not enjoy what we’re watching yet, but our curiosity keeps us in to the end. By that point the writers have gotten the requisite pathetic scenes out of the way and we can focus on the good stuff.
Unfortunately, many writers use this technique to hurt themselves. The Hangover is a great comedy that uses this technique to terrible effect. We’re buckling in for a movie, we don’t need to be hooked in the same way TV does. We’re also watching funny character being funny, not the wretched humiliation of beaten man. The opening to the Hangover is entertaining. While it might not be as entertaining as what happens later, there’s no need to press the panic button.
But press it the movie does. We open in the desert, showing our characters standing around without their friend Doug (who we’ll soon learn is a notable absentee) and saying they’re not going to be able to make it to the wedding. This is completely unnecessary. All it does is ensure that the characters cannot succeed until they make a trip out to the desert.
Tales from the Borderlands is a beautifully written game. Let me describe the opening sequence: You’re about to receive a promotion that’s going to make you wildly rich and powerful. However, you discover that your rival in the company has stolen the job from you and thrown the man who promised it to you out the airlock (it’s a space western). But before the meeting’s even over you get wind of a multimillion deal that this jerk has his sights on. You resolve to steal it for yourself and get revenge in the process. All it’s going to take is going down planetside to town full of bandit psycopaths with ten million dollars handcuffed to your friend’s wrist.
These are the first 3 scenes of the game. That’s a pretty compelling opening. Except I lied. These are scenes 2-4. Scene 1 shows you getting dragged through the desert by a masked person who insists you tell him everything that happened to you. This starts your flashback.
This is completely unnecessary. While it does create some fun banter when you take dramatic license at certain points during your retelling, creating absurd sequences where you live out your over-the-top fabrications, from a narrative standpoint it’s a major problem. I’m already hooked by a corporate sting operation taking place on a wild west world. If anything, the future of getting unceremoniously dragged through the desert makes me want to check out. I know that all my efforts are still leading to this one point. The game’s possibilities have been narrowed, for no significant reason. If the embellishment scenes were so important, taking a Dragon Age 2 approach would have worked just as well (a third party telling the story to someone, which reveals nothing about the ultimate fates of the main characters).
TLDR; It’s way too easy to write or design based off of instinct, without considering why you need to use this particular tool. Instinct is great for things like tone or pacing, but it doesn’t work so well with structural tools like this. Your instincts are going to remember all the times stories you loved started with a flashback opening. Since it doesn’t happen too often, because of the drawbacks I mentioned, your desire to be original is going to push you in that direction. Fight it. Always remember what your goal is right now and ask yourself why this tool is right for the job.