J3 Commentary: Flashbacks

In J3: LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration, S2 E13 DanJay and Bob watch an episode of a giant space-robot anime. I know I promised to talk about Paradise Lost the next time we we saw LLS-TA, but I lied again. I want to talk about flashbacks.

A flashback is an interlude in which the audience sees something which happened chronologically prior. There are two kinds: flashbacks which introduce new information, and flashbacks which remind the audience of old information.

Flashbacks of the first kind are sometimes considered marks of poor storytelling. How many times have you rolled your eyes at a story for introducing yet another cookie-cutter character with a tragic backstory? Still, TV shows like LOST use these flashbacks to produce intrigue. These flashbacks can add new dimension to otherwise flat characters—anyone who’s watched the latest season of Bojack Horseman can attest.

Movie-goers seem to love flashbacks of the second kind, in which the audience is reminded of important details as they become relevant. When a detective realizes the connection between two clues, they might have a flashback to the scenes in which the clues were introduced. Fitting puzzle-pieces can give the audience a cerebral catharsis. If everyone sees the twist coming, though, the flashbacks will just garner another eye-roll.

In Akayama DanJay I try to avoid flashbacks by providing the reader will all the information through the protagonist DanJay. DanJay’s double-life lets him learn about characters and plot elements in a roughly sensible order, and he happens to meet exactly the right people to tell him stories. Jango tells Jay a story about his childhood, which isn’t quite a traditional flashback in the sense that the reader is learning about information alongside Jay instead of in a free-floating narrative interlude. DanJay anchors the reader in the present.

This week’s episode of LLS-TA pulls a similar shtick. Lucille learns the truth about the Hurricane and her parents’ deaths from a recording made by Professor Akayama. In the next section, Dan will note that people who watched the first season of LLS-TA already knew the twist; Lucille sees it for the first time, but the audience just sees the same thing again. Jay will say it has more impact the second time because the audience must await Lucille’s reaction to something they know will hurt her.

The readers of Akayama DanJay are like Bob. They had not seen the death of Commander Bojack and Princess Lucia until now, and they did not know the Hurricane’s origin. So I’ve cheated again by having a flashback which isn’t a flashback. It’s not quite a flashback in LLS-TA because the event is re-contextualized for the audience by Lucille’s presence. It’s not quite a flashback in Akayama DanJay because the reader is seeing these events alongside Bob in the narrative present.

By presenting flashbacks in this manner, I hope the reader is constantly learning something new and perceives time as constantly moving forward. When they read a ‘flashback’ they don’t feel like the narrative is on hold. I can give the reader whole chapters which are technically flashbacks, and the time spent in the chronological past impacts the narrative present simultaneously.

If my technique isn’t working—if all the flashbacks Jay witnesses by proxy are boring and a waste of time—then the next chapter is going to be a slog. Next week we’ve got a very special guest.

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