Flashbacks are often a contentious subject in screenwriting. Should I use them? Why am I using them? What’s the point?
If done right, flashbacks can be a very effective device to use. But there are three types of flashbacks you should know about; one-off, reoccurring and subtle (scene nuance).
These should be used for them for ‘ah-ha’ moments for the audience, rather than for the sake of stylizing your scene. They must contain pertinent information that answers those inexplicable* questions. They must tie up those otherwise loose ends.
* Inexplicable being the key word here.
Example of a great one-off flashback:
(Note: if you took this out, this film really wouldn’t be effective.)
Example of a bad one-off flashback:
There is none. Because they get taken out before production… Or in post-production if the editor and director knows what they’re doing.
Now lets look at using flashbacks in a re-occurring style – it should be noted that this is completely separate from using one-off flashbacks and has a different set of rules.
If you introduce several timelines at the beginning of your script, the audience will accept the format and unique style you’re bringing to them.
Two great examples for this would be Arrow (TV Series) and Memento (Feature Film).
The reason they both work is because they are accepted as part of the storytellers world. The flashbacks are intrinsic within the structure; not used as a one-off device.
You’re at less risk of disengaging the audience for the very fact you have established more than one timeline in your narrative.
If your audience commit to a structure/reality at the start of your film, you can not change it halfway through; this rings true with many other writing devices too.
Using flashbacks effectively is all about how congruent you can make it in your screenplay – hence why one-off flashbacks are the hardest to pull off and they should only be there if your story REALLY calls for it.
Subtle Flashback (Scene Nuance)
The reason I like to mention this is a ‘scene nuance’ is because of the fact it can slip through and break the rules of the one-off flashback.
Scene nuances are used stylistically and are very subtle. So subtle in-fact, that the audience can’t possibly be taken out of your narrative when they’re used.
These can be incredibly effective if used correctly. However, to be effective they need context and they are still to be approached with caution.
Example of a great subtle flashback:
The protagonist, a South African thug with a painful past, flees the scene of a violent act and is taken back to a night from his childhood when he also chose to run (context).
Often as a beginner writer it’s far too tempting to use flashbacks when you need to give a situation more context for the audience. This is often the case with the use of voice overs as well and can be a sign of over-explaining or poorly developed backstories.
If you have written a one-off flashback and you’re still deliberating whether or not your story needs it, I have two simple diagnostic questions for you.
Does your flashback reveal crucial information?
Would your audience be confused without it?
If it’s a no to both of these, you probably don’t need it.
As far as reoccurring and subtle flashbacks go, unfortunately there are too many elements for me to consider for simple diagnostic questions.
If you’re struggling or want advice with another flashback, please get in contact with us and our script consultants will help you out!
How to Format a Flashback
Side note: A question I am often asked is ‘how do you format a flashback?’
There is no definitive way in the industry to format – writers have different styles, producers read scripts entirely differently, competitions and submission windows follow different guidelines – but in my opinion, as long as your formatting is consistent and legible, your story will shine through.
The cleanest, clearest and simplest way I can think of formatting a flashback is as follows: