Three Days Earlier

Hubby and I are big fans of Leverage.  Timothy Hutton is marvelous.  Christian Kane is…delicious.  And really, it’s everything I love about The Count of Monte Cristo in an hour long episode in which the bad guys always get their comeuppance in the end.  What’s not to like?

Last night we were watching the latest episode on DVR and it opened, as it often does, near the end of the action of the episode, in a dramatic moment that’s designed to make you go WHAT?  Then it flashed back to previously to recount all the events up to that pivotal moment.

This is something that TV and movies do often, often to great effect.  And I think it usually works in that media.  But it’s something that rarely works in books and is usually seen as a cop out.  I know I don’t like it when I read it.

So why does it work in a visual media and not in print?

Well, let’s start with the why it doesn’t work in print part of this question.

While it is important to open your book with a hook of some kind, something to snare a reader’s interest, opening with some pivotal, often life threatening moment is a real gamble.  Why?  Because we don’t know the characters yet.  We don’t care about them.  And you really can’t depend on human decency and sympathies to hook a reader because for all they know, this person you’ve got dangling off a cliff in scene one is going to plummet to their death and then we’ll be moving on and introducing the actual hero/ine of the story.  There’s also a sense that the author couldn’t think of a more interesting way to introduce the characters, so they blow the load early by putting the end at the beginning and then telling the entire book in an essential flashback.  It feels like cheating.

So what about TV and movies?

Well, depending on the movie, I often have the same problem that I do in books.  If I don’t care about the character yet, then doing that end flash and starting earlier often feels like cheating.  But not as bad as in books.  Because that opening flash sets a tone of expectation.  We know where the character is going to end up, and so we’re then primed to look for clues to how they end up there.  Which can be a great way to misdirect the watcher and pull the rug out when you wind up there again because by the time you see everything that leads up to it, that same scene may mean something entirely different.

The place where I think this works best, though, is in TV.  Why?  Because in TV, you have a series about the same characters, which mean you have time to build a relationship with those characters.  You grow to care about them.  So when the episode opens with the hero standing over a dead body and a detective trying to arrest him for murder, you instantly think Well crap, Nate, how are you gonna get out of this one?  You’re already emotionally invested in these characters, so you have more latitude.

What about you?  Do you think this tactic works better in TV and movies than in books?  Why or why not?


5 thoughts on “Three Days Earlier

  1. I think you can get away with it in books if you have regular characters. Robert B. Parker does it all of the time with Spenser. Half of the time you forget they are actually trying to solve a crime :).

    Lee Child does something similar with Reacher, though the first book didn’t take long to get started.

    But if you are writing stand-alone books – then you should get to the action as soon as possible.

  2. I agree with you that it works much better in TV for the reasons you stated. Although, I don’t ALWAYS like it in TV either. CSI NY did it one time and it kind of annoyed me a little. If it’s well done, though, it can work. I agree with Mark that it can sometimes work in a long running book series, but then there’s the reader that picks up the fourth or fifth book in the series and knows nothing about about the characters.

  3. I’ve not watched Leverage, which is odd as I know someone who has been an extra in more than a few episodes. Definitely agree it works better within a series, TV or long running book series. I’m drawing a blank on any movies where I’ve seen it done well though I’m sure there’s been one or two 🙂 There’s a reason the Hero’s Journey is so well documented. As you said, we need to care about the characters to want to follow them through their story.

  4. Lee Child and Reacher can do whatever they want. Normal rules just don’t apply.

    So with that in mind, I’m not even a fan of this in TV/movies. I really don’t like the backward timeline. I think it was an interesting device the first three times I saw it, but now I just groan when that “three days earlier…” flashed up and I go, “Really? Do we have to?”

    Yeah, even when there’s Winchesters involved.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m just saying that I don’t like it. And in books, yeah, no, not good. Part of that might be because it’s easier to lose me at the beginning of a book. When you’re talking about screen stuff, you’ve got images and audio straight to your brain. No translation, no extra baggage. In theaters now you’ve also go speakers that shake your seat. With a book you’ve got the words on a page and you have to rely on those words to paint the pictures and whisper the words. You have to translate them. Sometimes you have to slog through some description that doesn’t add to dramatic moment you’re trying to experience and was better left out. And sometimes I just don’t have the patience to slap dealing with a different kind of timeline on top of that.

    I don’t want to sound like I don’t like books. I do. I think writing an engrossing book, one that really draws you in such that you hardly realize you’re reading, is a tremendous challenge. Screen stuff and books are different, though, I think it’s partly because of the translation aspect, especially at the beginning of story, and I agree that the starting at the end, either because you’re giving a glimpse of the climax or because you’re working the whole thing in backward jumps, works better on the screen than on the page.

  5. Hmm…It depends, I guess. Sometimes, I get annoyed if there are more flashbacks than what’s happening in the present.

    The reason why it works well with Leverage is because it explained everything we missed. We thought that they’re trapped. Then, we found out that they’re not. That’s when they would explain how they got out of their mess.

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