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
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
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!