Just a few months ago, I was scrolling through Netflix and stumbled across the award-winning CW series, Jane the Virgin. I haven’t logged off since. Jennie Urman and her writing team have worked magic in adapting this telenovela for U.S. audiences. And one of the tools they wield with mastery is the flashback.
Now the flashback gets a bad rap, especially in beginning writing classes. And there’s a good reason–it’s easy to misuse. Like the semi-colon, it’s best saved until after we’ve learned the basics.
But you hear the same thing about voiceover, and this show does that brilliantly, too.
In fact, this series takes a lot of things that most of us writers do poorly and transforms what could be the dowdy writing of the amateur into a classic Rolls waxed and purified into high-octave perfection. So what do we do when we find a piece of writing like that, boys and girls? That’s right–we sharpen our pencils, pull up our chairs, and begin the dissection.
Here are three reasons why Jane the Virgin’s flashbacks sparkle:
- Flashbacks set up the emotional resonance or theme for the entire episode. Many episodes open with a prologue, heavily narrated by voiceover. In these glimpses of Jane’s childhood and adolescence, we often get an overt statement of the theme, whether it’s Abuela saying, “We’re flesh and blood. Nothing you do is unforgivable to me” or the narrator describing Jane’s daydreams of her father coming home one day. This theme then is borne out in each episode’s many subplots, embedding a beautiful coherence from the first scene. This perfectly lines up with the “unity of effect” that The American Heritage Dictionary states as a quality of short fiction.
- Flashbacks raise the stakes. That’s right–they also contribute to plot. Talk about economic writing. In addition to depicting character and setting up the theme, the opening flashbacks also give us motivation. Only by first seeing Jane’s lifelong dreams of having a father can we understand her extreme reaction when she finds out her mother not only lied about her father but is currently in contact with him. Jane’s intense attachment to her imaginary father (Jimmy Smitts) jeopardizes not only her relationship with her mother but also with the real father who enters later in life. Similarly, the prologue about forgiveness sets up not only a scene Jane writes for a telenovela but also her insistence that Rafael forgive his sister. Many of Jane’s choices that have dire consequences come from real places. And we need these flashbacks to know those places.
- In each episode, flashbacks follow a structural pattern, avoiding unnecessary disruptions to the narrative. Because most flashbacks occur at the opening of episodes, we adjust to them. We know where to expect them. They don’t disrupt the plot. They don’t swoop in after a cliffhanger and delay the reveal just to keep us hanging. They don’t fall out of the sky for no reason, other than the writers thought it would be cool. In short, boys and girls, we don’t feel tricked. Cheated. Played. Make no mistake, these writers are still playing us silly. But there’s a tacit agreement between the storyteller and ourselves. We know what to expect. And with a technique as flashy as the flashback, maybe roping it off and making it play nice is half the battle.
There are lots of reasons to love Jane the Virgin, and I’m sure as the junkie I am, I’ll get around to the feminism, the narration, and the other winning elements. But flashbacks can work, folks. And the writers at Jane the Virgin show us how.