Writing a flashback scene can be tricky. An effective flashback relays an essential backstory that is a core component of the narrative. They can be a beautiful and moving way to capture the context necessary to propel the story forward. Or, they can be boring for the viewer and unnecessary for plot development.
How can you ensure your viewer’s eyes don’t glaze over with your flashback?
We’ll walk you through what flashbacks can do for you, what the most common flashback mistakes are, how to format flashbacks, and more.
Every screenwriter and most film fans are going to be familiar with the concept of a flashback—the moment when the story takes a brief interlude into the past in order to reveal information that is new and vital to the viewer. When done right, the audience might not even perceive the technique itself, instead only enjoying the new insights into their favorite character’s past.
Like any tool, flashbacks provide better effects when they’re used in the right way. You’ll often hear people advise you to avoid them in your screenplay altogether, and that’s unfair. Some of the most jaw-dropping scenes in film history came in the form of flashbacks. Can you imagine conveying the many complex layers of story in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without them?
However, many seasoned writers do insist it’s better to avoid them unless absolutely necessary. That’s not because the humble flashback doesn’t have inherent value, it’s because when mishandled, it can sour the whole plot. Without the proper planning and intention, flashbacks quickly become a viewer’s most dreaded moment, and that’s an easy pitfall to stumble into.
A flashback isn’t that different from any other self-contained scene. It can do lots of things for you, but it should do at least one, if not all, of these:
A flashback at a crucial moment can reveal vital information about a character’s past that helps define their personality and motivation, as well as set the tone for their fascinating character arc. We can see how they behaved in situations similar to the present ones, how their choices affected them, and how the past might weigh on them in ways that will have bearing on their present choices.
Often, your story is going to hinge on keeping a few secrets. There’s almost nothing better for keeping a viewer rapt then having them wonder “what is this person hiding?” and “what have they done?” A cleverly-placed flashback can be the exact drive a plot needs in order to move forward with the often dire or deadly consequences of a character’s past actions that, without the flashback, would appear sudden and unjustified.
Every story has a theme, whether intentionally or not. It usually makes for a stronger story when the writer is aware of those deeper themes and highlights them, and flashbacks are a great place to do that. What’s the message behind your piece? What is your protagonist learning about the world, how are they growing? Those are the themes that a clever moment from their past can showcase—perhaps a moment they hadn’t even thought was relevant until then.
• Establishing relationship dynamics after introducing new characters
• Enhancing motivation before a pivotal choice
• Showcasing the flawed nature of a generally good character, or the rare kind moments of a cruel one
• Making the audience fear for the protagonist through ominous foreshadowing about an upcoming situation or location
• Establishing the history of a setting when relevant to the plot
• Explaining shocking turns of events when that explanation is satisfying in itself
• Showcase the inside of a character’s mind and what memory connections they’re spontaneously making
• Montage a long history in a few brief flashes
These are just a few of the things you might find flashbacks can help you accomplish.
However, just because they can, doesn’t mean they always should! There are many ways in which flashbacks can go wrong and have the opposite effect of what you’re looking for.
Some people avoid flashbacks out of personal preference, but most do because they’ve been used poorly so many times there’s a certain degree of fatigue, much like with prologues in books. That’s not to say they’re not both vital tools, but it does mean we need to take extra care when using them. On the other hand, this could be an advantage! A well-done flashback might just stand out even more.
Here are the most common mistakes when writing flashbacks:
Unless you’re going for a specific structure or ground-breaking form, there’s no reason to have more than two or three flashbacks per film.
You, the writer, might find it fascinating to know that this character you’ve spent time with went to the pub yesterday and had a terrible whiskey, but will your viewers? They have a much more critical eye and aren’t as personally attached to the story.
Flashbacks within flash-forwards within flashbacks can be interesting if they serve a purpose and you’re playing with a strange structure intentionally and knowingly. However, they don’t belong in the vast majority of films and can easily trip your audience up.
Once the script becomes a film, there are easy ways to signal a flashback and they’re not up to you. However, if you don’t make it clear from the reading stages, you may never get to that phase. Check the end of this article to find out how to clearly format your flashbacks.
You, the writer, know why your flashback is important, but your reader or viewer doesn’t. The flashback should work like any other self-contained scene and have a hook at the front and a good pace throughout, keeping viewers engaged and curious.
If you’re reading this article and giving your screenplay a little wary side-eye, you may need to look at your flashbacks again. Luckily, it’s not hard to figure out whether you pulled it off, and there are three questions you can ask that will help you.
Make an extra copy of your work and just do it. You’ll have the original anyway. Cut the entire flashback out, then read the whole section as if it never existed. Does it still make sense? Is everything explained? Is the intensity and motivation all there? Then maybe you don’t need it.
Paste your flashback into a different document and try to look at it as if it were a very short film all by itself. Is it interesting? Coherent? Does it have a small hook at the start, and a satisfying arc or message? Does it feel like it can almost stand alone? If not, it may need a little more work to become its best self.
Just for the sake of experimentation, try giving the same background information your flashback is giving in a great line of dialogue, instead. Then, try it with a prop, a present-time bit of conflict, or some other creative way you invented. Look at these alternative versions. Does one of them feel like it might be even stronger than the flashback, or do they all pale in comparison?
A great flashback is going to show up at just the right time to give you a vital chunk of the story that you’d been craving all along and didn’t even know you needed. It should add layers of complexity and conflict, and generally feel like the story simply wouldn’t have been complete without it.
Without further ado, here are three great examples that illustrate those flashback goals.
One of my personal favorite flashbacks in terms of execution is a flashback scene from Ratatouille. In the flashback, food critic Anton Ego’s childhood scene near the end of the film transports the viewer to a time when cynical, harsh Anton was still a child, overawed by the flavors of a simple home-cooked meal.
It gives the viewer an explanation as to why he chose his career, and a vivid glimpse of how far he’s strayed from his original love for food. It sets up the recipe that’ll ultimately wow the critic’s taste buds, and gives us a plausible explanation as to why he would turn his whole personality around. Most importantly, it reveals the main theme of the movie: the transformative power of food prepared with love.
Opening with a flashback is a massive risk, and we’re often told to avoid it. That’s why I appreciate this particular instance. The writers heard the conventional wisdom, same as we all do, but then decided to ignore it because the flashback opener made sense in the context of what they were trying to accomplish.
Fully aware that viewers would already be fans of the character and his story, they chose to start with a reveal of him as a child. Viewers were so invested they couldn’t get enough of his background, and seeing him obtain his legendary whip was deeply satisfying.
It’s hard not to credit the stunning structural work that went behind this film. Flashbacks are used not as a means to tell a piece of the past, but as an integral part of the story that’s alive and current and being interacted with. That was a brave move, and could have been jarring for the viewers.
Instead, Joel guides us through his subconscious, making sure to anchor us in when, where, and why everything happens. Seeing his history with Clementine unfold right before our eyes, and seeing how biased his perception of that relationship was, has to be one of the most iconic uses of flashbacks in cinematography.
If you want to know how to format a flashback in your screenplay, look no further. While there isn’t one magical way that will always be correct and everybody uses, there are a few that you can easily draw inspiration from and adapt for your purposes.
Your number one goal when formatting any scene, all the more vital for a flashback, is clarity.
That’s why we use standardized formatting at all: to make it clear to whoever is reading your screenplay. With that goal in mind, you can always modify the way you format a flashback, as long as you never compromise clarity and focus on delivering all the necessary information as concisely as possible.
Keeping in mind that, while Arc Studio Pro helps you format your screenplay correctly, it’s also a flexible tool that allows you to make your own choices, create custom formatting elements, and write in the way you like.
Since a flashback is basically just a scene set in the past, be it a tiny montage or sprawling short story, all the basic elements of formatting a scene still apply. If you are struggling to perfect your screenwriting skills, read through our article on how to format a screenplay. This ultimate guide covers everything you need to know, and more.
Once you’ve got that down, the only extra step you need is to clearly signal that your scene is a flashback. You can do that by framing it between “FLASHBACK TO:” and “BACK TO PRESENT”, all caps, no quotes.
There are other options, too. Since there’s no standard, various screenwriters use various methods. For example, you’ll see “QUICK FLASHES OF ANDY’S LIFE” and “BACK TO SCENE” when we’re flashing to a montage of Andy’s past in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Where you need to add multiple scenes within the same flashback, a simple “CUT TO:” will do the trick.
There are many other variations on this theme. Some people prefer to put the flashback signals in between brackets, some prefer to align them to the right of the page, some people use a different wording for short flashbacks and long ones.
As far as the details - the bottom line is that as long as it’s very clear what’s going on, you’re probably doing it right.
However you choose to use flashbacks, they can add interest and depth to your characters and narrative.
As Leslie P. Hartley wrote in his novel, The Go-Between, "the past is a foreign country."
Flashbacks can be powerful tools in which we can explore different countries, worlds and universes. Thus, it's important to carefully consider this structure before using it in your story.