Monday, March 8, 2010

PS I Love You and the Art of Flashbacks by Susan May Warren

Susan May Warren has returned this Manuscript Monday with the second installment of her craft series. Welcome, Susan!

Craft Tips and Techniques from Today’s Blockbusters Series
P.S. I Love You and the Art of Flashbacks
by Susan May Warren

Plant clues to the past to raise your reader’s curiosity...

P.S.: I really, really love you!

P.S. I Love You and the Art of Flashbacks.

Gerard Butler as Irish pub-singing Gerry. The incredibly talented Hilary Swank as uptight American tourist Holly. A few precious moments with charming Denny, er Jeffery Dean Morgan, aka Denny, my favorite heart transplant patient from Grey’s Anatomy. What’s not to love? And I did love P.S. I Love You. Love, love, loved it. Cried my eyes out. My favorite line was “Let’s just go barefoot,”—a brilliant use of resonant metaphor in dialogue.

Aside from the many wonderful themes written into this screenplay, the movie also can eloquently teach us about effective use of flashbacks. Let’s take a look at how the screenwriter weaves in the backstory through flashbacks to draw out our emotions.

First, in the long prologue scene, the screenwriter gives us the clues that form the backbone of Gerry and Holly’s past, and provides a checklist of the backstory scenes we’ll need to experience to fully understand the story. It’s embedded smoothly in their “fight” scene: 1) Gerry was an Irish singer (now out of his element), 2) Holly and Gerry got married quickly (something that made her mother angry), and 3) Holly has to have life planned out. (Ultimately, these elements also raise the driving story question: Will Holly be able to get past her grief of losing her first brilliant love to find love again?) First principle of revealing backstory: Plant clues to the past to raise your reader’s curiosity (and provide some backstory elements to search for).

The first wonderful flashback scene is the hilarious karaoke moment when Holly breaks her nose. But that scene is essential for the reader to understand the impact Gerry had on her life. Through it, we see that only he could coax her out of her controlling personality. (It also plays into the epiphany moment, when she realizes that he saw in her more than she ever did). The second principle to revealing backstory: Focus on one specific essential moment. There may have been a thousand moments when Gerry made her think/act outside her tight personality. But this one stood out in stark, painful relief. And by focusing on one event instead of piling many together, we see the power he has in her life.

The second flashback scene takes place in Ireland at a pub. We don’t understand the significance of the pub nor the rather strange reaction Holly has when hunky hero Billy Gallagher (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) begins to sing. Holly rushes out, leaving us to


wonder why—something we’ll discover later. Note that in revealing backstory, the screenwriter doesn’t trek all the way back to the beginning and build it chronologically, but rather unwinds the past starting at the most recent events. The key isn’t the sequence, instead it’s the significance. In the first flashback, Jerry liberates the inner “free” gal locked inside this rather tight real estate agent. It is a hint that there is more to her than we see and raises questions about how these two got together. The second flashback only raises more questions: What is it about this song and this pub that haunts her? Third principle to building backstory: Don’t reveal the backstory in one dump. Use it to raise more questions about the plot, even if you have to do it out of chronological order.

The final flashback clip is long, and finally we see how Gerry and Holly met, the girl she was when he first fell in love with her, and the significance of the pub scene. We see how he swept her off her feet, and likewise, what she was to him. More than anyone, Gerry believed in Holly and her vision, unclear as it was to her at the moment. Understanding this moment when they met, the girl she was, and Gerry’s goal to help her see that again is essential to give resonance to the ending and Holly’s final step in the journey. Fourth principle to revealing backstory: Give the final reveal of the backstory significance to the epiphany. This moment has to do more than build character; it has to reveal some truth vital to the story.

I was a sopping mess while watching the final flashback scene. I then rewound back to the pub scene, over and over, and . . . well, it’s a good thing I have TiVo. Then I rewatched the move. Again. And again. Like reading a good book over again, now that I knew the ending, the scenes became richer, evoking more emotions, and bringing the themes to life.

Flashbacks can be used effectively: Plant Clues, Focus on the most important moments, Raise More Questions, and finally Reveal Truth that add significance to the epiphany. These are the principles for creating backstory that is relevant, essential, and emotionally powerful. And P.S. . . . see the movie—you’ll love it!

Susan May Warren is the founder of My Book Therapy, a boutique fiction editing service for writers, and runs A Writer’s Blog. See her Web site to learn more about her award-winning fiction.

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