Screenwriting books and instructors often warn aspiring writers against writing flashbacks in their scripts. They know beginning and amateur writers often use them in a way that can bring a film to a dead stop.
However, so many great films have used flashbacks with resounding success. So, let’s learn from some films that figured out how to do them the right way.
What is a Flashback?
A scene or moment in a narrative that interrupts the chronology of a story by showing an action or event that happened earlier in the story. An internal flashback takes place within the primary timespan of the story. An external flashback takes place outside of its primary timeline.
Tips on How to Write a Flashback in a Script:
- Is the flashback necessary? Why?
- Consider the ideal placement of the flashback
- Weave the flashback(s) in naturally to avoid disrupting the flow of the narrative
Flashback Examples in Movies
Scripts that use flashbacks as structure
Many time when a screenplay takes a trip to the past, it is an isolated deviation. In other words, flashback scenes in movies are more common that "flashback movies." That being said, there have been a number of fantastic screenplays that use a flashback structure to weave in and out of a story's chronology.
Below are just a few classic examples, each brings a distinct flair and personality to writing flashbacks. Some simply start in the present and tell the entire story through one giant flashback. Others bounce back and forth strategically to tell a more nuanced narrative.
- Shawshank Redemption
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- Social Network
- Sunset Boulevard
- Hiroshima Mon Amour
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- The Godfather II
- Don’t Look Now
- Fight Club
- Citizen Kane
At the end of this article, check out our detailed blog that covers technical formatting for flashbacks in your screenplay.
But as we go along, our examples will help you adapt a style of your own. You can take some creative liberties if you honor the maxim: “Thou shalt not confuse the audience.”
Why Do Writers Use Flashbacks
The power and purpose of flashbacks
A good flashback can create mystery, raise the stakes, and clarify meaning and significance. A bad one slows the story momentum with boring information, or worse case, makes it feel like it’s moving backward. To determine if a flashback is necessary ask this ironic question
Is this flashback the best way to move the story forward?
Individually, flashbacks can deepen our connection with a character. They can clarify and accentuate a fact or feeling. On the flip side, they can create doubt, suspense, and mystery.
When using multiple flashbacks, devise an overall strategy that lets them be more than the sum of their parts.
Will they focus on merely mystery, plot, and story? Will they deepen insight into the protagonist? Will they make us ponder meaning and theme?
We will show you when, why, where, and how to write flashbacks in a screenplay.
Orient the Audience
Distinguish your flashbacks
You are familiar with the common transitions that lead us in and out of a flashback, which include editing transitions like dissolves, clever wipes, blur effects, white flashes, leading dialogue, and ominous music.
You want to avoid overused clichés yet understand their essential function. Intrigue the reader, don’t confuse them. Make sure flashbacks aren’t disorienting or distracting. Modern moviegoers have developed a sophisticated understanding of film language, so they don’t need much.
The look of Memento with its alternating color and black-and-white film stock differentiates the present (forward-moving) and past (backward-moving) timelines. The style of The Bourne Supremacy announces its flashbacks with a sudden surge in its rhythm, pace and prose style:
Use Recurring Visual, Locations and Props
Anchor your flashbacks
The charming 1967 Stanley Donen film Two for the Road used the couple’s four distinctive cars to track them throughout the story’s four time periods.
The Irishman also uses a car like a timestamp during the 1975-set road trip where Russell and Frank drive to Florida with their wives. What allows the film and this sequence to deftly slip between several eras? Not the high-tech digital de-aging process. But rather good old-fashioned low-tech ingenuity from director Martin Scorsese and his Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
ROAD TRIP EXCERPT
Notice some of the elements unique to each era that help to identify it:
- 1943 - Anzio. Frank in the war. Voiceover segue, uniform, rifle, soldiers
- 1950s - When Russell and Frank begin their relationship. Formal attire and manners, lush restaurant interiors, noticeable absence of wives when the men are together, music, Frank’s voiceover about Russell
- 1975 - Road trip to the wedding. The car, presence of wives, Carrie’s cigarette and smoking, Frank’s voiceover about Carrie as mob royalty, sunny daylight exteriors in nature.
The Irishman script doesn’t even use the word “flashback.” It’s supposed to feel like a single seamless and flowing story. That should also be the goal for your own flashbacks.
Build Characters and your Theme
Flashbacks beyond story & into theme
Arrival weaves flashbacks and flash-forwards into its story. In fact, Amy Adams’ character Louise’s prescient powers motivate the twisty flashback structure and empower her to “save the day” and the world in the climax.
The flashbacks resonate significantly as they reveal her decision to have her daughter despite the foreknowledge that the child will die at a young age. The non-linear structure also contributes to fascinating thematic ideas about time, language, communication, and fate.
Theme in Flashbacks
These two cinematic masterpieces use flashbacks in their stories in similar but ultimately different ways. The contrasting approach yields drastically different results. Learn from them how flashbacks are a dynamic tool in storytelling.
Citizen Kane and Rashomon are renowned masterpiece “flashback films.” Their characters are unreliable narrators who contradict themselves and others due to intentional deception or subconscious subjectivity.
Everyone seems to discuss them, so to explore them more deeply, check out the clip above. But for a change of pace, here’s a flashback from Citizen Kane that is only verbal.
Bernstein’s memory begins as intriguing, but ultimately its anticlimactic, “shaggy dog story” ending sheds no light on the meaning of “Rosebud.” Instead, it addresses a thematic question at the heart of the film: Does subjectivity make memory unreliable?
What’s Love got to do with It?
Show the unshowable
Flashbacks also allow us to show what can’t be shown in any other way in the narrative. For example, in Gladiator, Maximus’s wife and son are dead. To help the audience feel his love and loss for what would otherwise be absent characters, the film shows “flashbacks” of “imagined memories” (triggered by the figurines of his wife and son).
Remember how Casablanca, possibly the greatest love story of all time, used a flashback similarly to show the unshowable. In present Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa have lost the love they had in Paris. To establish their past and draw the audience into the story, the filmmakers have to leave the present and revisit the past as Rick reminisces about their time in Paris.
Ironically the story here must go back so it can ... wait for it ... move forward.
Where to put Flashbacks
The Placement of Flashbacks
The placement and purpose of a flashback are inextricably related. When looking for the right spot, don’t think in terms of facts and information. Instead, look for emotion, experience, and mindset. Let a flashback align the audience with the character’s feelings.
Destroyer is a clever and complex flashback film directed by Karyn Kusama and starring Nicole Kidman as Bell, a self-destructive cop on the hunt for a criminal for shady reasons. So you can watch or study it, here is a purposely vague and spoiler-free example. When Bell finally finds her target, he’s wearing a mask and preparing to rob a bank.
She needs to know it’s him. And we need to know it’s him. More importantly we need to know she knows it’s him. We can then “feel” her processing the emotional revelation which motivates her to abruptly drop her cover and risk her life to pursue him.
Here is another typical placement of a flashback, but it’s a bit more subtle. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice travels to West Virginia for an autopsy of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. The exam room happens to be in the back of a funeral home. An unrelated funeral triggers a flashback to her father’s funeral:
This flashback is precisely placed but its function is less obvious and concise than our Destroyer example. It gently creates emotional resonance by relating the case and Clarice’s career to her father. She has no personal relationship to the funeral, so the flashback is necessary to explore these feelings.
Why you put them There?
Create maximum impact
This scene in the final act of Girl on the Train works on many levels and has perfect placement. We get to experience her life-changing epiphanies in the moment as she is having them.
GIRL ON THE TRAIN CLIP
If the flashbacks come before or after this point, we feel like detached observers. Because they mirror her internal process and epiphanies, we experience them as empathy and catharsis. They align the audience with the character.
A flashback that is well-placed and visually integrated can unify or accentuate story, character, and theme.
How to write a montage
Now that we've covered how to write flashbacks in a script, you may have noticed that many of these scenes and sequences are also montages. While there are some similarities between "how to write a flashback in a screenplay" and "how to write a montage," there are a few key differences you should know. In this follow-up post, we'll dive into the formatting and techniques used by professional screenwriters when crafting a montage.