There's an age-old debate about whether the use of flashbacks add to — or subtract from — a story. For me, it's a double-edged sword. I think flashbacks can be a great storytelling tool and weapon in a writers' arsenal, but they can also be a crutch for writers who don't know how to express what they need to in a scene.
Do flashbacks make a writer seem lazy or amateurish? I don't think so — as long as they are used correctly and sparingly. So here's what you need to know to make sure they are helping, and not hurting, your story.
As you all know, a flashback is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point the story has reached. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened earlier or fill in crucial back story about a character or relationship. Using a flashback (or even a flashforward) can add suspense to a story or give us a greater understanding of what is going through a character's head at a given time.
Flashbacks need to reveal or illuminate something we need to know or something that pulls the story all together or progresses it forward. Flashbacks should reveal WHY an event happened or HOW it happened and not just THAT it happened. Yes, it's more interesting to watch something play out in front of us than just watch your character tell us about it, but you need to make sure that what we are watching play out is necessary.
Don't just show us a flashback of a character's childhood because you think it develops a back story or a character trait like the reason why your character likes puppies — you can bring that back story or trait out in other ways and save the page count. It has to be absolutely germane to the story. Sometimes, just showing a character react to a picture (say, of a lost loved one) can tell us just as much as a two-page flashback montage showing the relationship that character had with the person in that picture.
Often a flashback is used as a real turning point — a moment of clarity — for a character. For example, Memento uses flashbacks in a brilliant way because they actually put us in the mind of the main character experiencing them. The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense flashback to things we’ve already seen in the final reveal to help put everything together and give audiences that huge OMG moment.
But sometimes, as stated above, the screenwriter uses a flashback to show something about a character that could be better stated in dialogue, and, in that case, the flashback only draws attention to itself, becomes intrusive, and will make you seem like a lazy or weak writer.
Make sure the flashbacks don't confuse us, take us out of the story or interrupt our focus, but enhance it. When inserting a flashback, tell us in your scene heading. It should be a separate line:
INSERT — FLASHBACK:
INT. LOCATION OF FLASHBACK — DAY
A flashback should not be more than 3-4 pages in length if possible. If you spend too much time in a flashback, audiences will start to forget the main story. Or, you run the risk of your flashbacks being better or more interesting than your current storyline and the audience might realize you're concentrating on the wrong aspects of your story.
Flashbacks where you need to use a different actor to portray the character because of age differences can be tricky and take us out of the story. Try not to flashback to too many different age points. Using one additional actor to be the child or teen version of your protagonist is perfectly fine, but using 5 different actors to portray him throughout a 50 year life is distracting.
A character can't flashback to something he or she was not present for. It has to be something that exists in his mind. Flashbacks shouldn't be a lie — they need to reveal the truth — UNLESS a second character's POV of that scene is shown to reveal what actually happened. This is different from flashing to an "alternate reality" of something that could happen like in It's A Wonderful Life or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
While it's been used since the beginning of storytelling, Citizen Kane was the movie that actually started the flashback craze in film. The "flashback bookend" structure is now often used to tell a story, like in Titanic, The Sandlot, Milk or Flags of our Fathers, where you start in the present but most of the story is told as a flashback to another time. Then you come back to the present in the end. This can be a nice storytelling tool, but depending on your genre, it may ruin the mystery of who lives and who dies, who is okay in the end, who winds up together, etc.
The use of flashbacks, and the camera techniques and effects used to visually separate them from current reality, have changed over the years. Directors used to simply employ a slow dissolve or the use of wavy lines (jokingly used in Wayne's World), but now it's more flashes of light and quick visual cues or a difference in color schemes that distinguish a flashback and cutting from the present story.
As has been said many times, screenwriters should not include much camera direction in their script. However if there is a specific way you want to transition to (or from) a flashback scene — a FLASH, a CUT, a DISSOLVE — or a special thematic color (perhaps black and white) you want to use in your flashback, that's okay.
Many films portray flashbacks through jarring, quick cuts rather than long pronounced scenes. While it may occasionally be distracting, it is actually closer to the way people think. If I flashback to a childhood memory, I don't play out every detail and line in my mind — I just have quick flashes of memory of the important details that stand out and help recall that time period. Films like Bourne Identity use these flashes of memory and back story to add thrills and pieces of the story that actually helps connect to the character’s arc.
The flashback can be a great help, but beware not to over use it or use it at the wrong times as it could also make a reader wish they were flashing back to a time before they picked up your script.
Get More of Danny's Advice in his On Demand Webinar "What the Heck Are Executives Thinking? Looking at Your Script from the Exec’s Point of View"
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