“There’s something we need to talk about…”
Suspense is usually the most linear of genres, but a lot of thrillers include exactly one flashback. You know the one I mean: it comes near the end, just after the big twist, to explain precisely how you were fooled. In a heist movie, it frequently involves the revelation that the plan you thought the protagonists were following was actually something else entirely, and in films that are heavily dependent on fridge logic, it can reveal that much of the movie you believed you were watching was really an elaborate mislead. At its best, as with the unforgettable flashback that occurs two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, it can singlehandedly justify the whole concept of flashbacks in general; at its worst, in a movie like Now You See Me, it can leave you asking why you bothered taking any interest in the plot at all. And these reveals seem to be becoming more common, as the need to find new variations on old surprises has caused such plots to become ever more convoluted and implausible. (We’re at a point now where a single flashback scene isn’t enough: we’re treated to entire flashback montages, replaying what seems like half of the movie from a different point of view. When handled well, as in The Illusionist, this sort of thing can be delightful, but it can also leave a viewer feeling that the film hasn’t played fair with its obligation to mislead us with what it shows, rather than what it omits.)
This sort of flashback is obviously designed to save a surprise for the end of the movie, which is where we’ve been conditioned to expect it—even if some violence has to be done to the fabric of the narrative to put the reveal in the last ten minutes, instead of where it naturally occurred. This isn’t a new strategy. Jack Woodford, the pulp writer whose instructional book Trial and Error was carefully studied by Robert A. Heinlein, thought that all stories should end with a punch ending, and he offered a very useful tip on how to artificially create one:
A good way to do this is to go ahead and end it with the usual driveling collection of super-climaxes, anti-climaxes and what not that amateurs end stories with, and then go over it, find where the punch ending is, rework the ending so that the anti-climaxes, if there is anything in them at all that really needs to be told, come before the final crux ending.
This is why so many stories contrive to withhold crucial information until the point where it carries the most impact, even if it doesn’t quite play fair. (You frequently see this in the early novels of Frederick Forsyth, like The Odessa File or The Dogs of War, which leave out a key element of the protagonist’s motivation, only to reveal it at the climax or on the very last page. It’s such a good trick that you can almost forgive Forsyth for reusing it three or four times.)
Another advantage to delaying the explanatory scene for as long as possible is that it turns an implausible twist into a fait accompli. I’ve noted before that if there’s a particularly weak point in the story on which the credibility of the plot depends, the best strategy for dealing with it is to act as if has already happened, and to insert any necessary justifications after you’ve presented the situation as blandly as possible. Readers or audiences are more likely to accept a farfetched plot development after it has already been taken for granted. If they had been allowed to watch it unfold from scratch, during the fragile early stages, they would have been more likely to object. (My favorite example is how in the two great American drag comedies, Some Like it Hot and Tootsie, we never see the main characters make the decision to pose as women—we cut to them already in makeup and heels, which mostly prevents us from raising any of the obvious objections.) This explains why the expository flashback, while often ludicrously detailed, rarely shows us the one scene that we really want to see: the conversation in which one character had to explain to the rest what he wanted them to do, and why. Even a classic twist ending like the one in The Sting falls apart when we imagine the characters putting it into words. The act of speaking the plan aloud would only destroy its magic.
I put these principles to good use in Chapter 50 of Eternal Empire, which rewinds the plot slightly to replay a crucial scene in its entirety. Structuring it as a flashback was clearly meant to preserve the surprise, but also to downplay its less plausible angles. For the story to work, Maddy had to reveal herself to Tarkovsky, justify her good intentions, and propose a complicated counterplot, all in the course of a single conversation. I think that the chapter does a decent job of pulling it off, but placing the discussion here, after the effects of the decision have already been revealed, relieves it of some of the weight. The reader is already invested in the premise, simply by reading the events of the preceding chapters, and I hoped that this would carry us past any gaps in the logic. But it’s worth noting that I never actually show the crux of the conversation, in which Maddy spells out the plan she has in mind. Asking a character to fake his death for the sake of some elaborate charade is a scene that can’t possibly play well—which might be why we almost never see it, even though a similar twist seems to lie at the bottom of half of the surprise endings ever written. We don’t hear Maddy telling Tarkovsky what she wants him to do; we just see the results. It’s a form of selective omission that goes a long way toward making it all acceptable. But as the reader will soon discover, the plan hasn’t gone quite as well as they think…