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Visual Mindscape: Anchors, Triggers and Writing Flashbacks – Oh My!

A screenwriting tool that is often dismissed is the Flashback. I believe this is because many writers both established and new often ignore the fact that once you have stepped out of chronological order the reader and viewer need some clue that allows them to follow.

And no, the slugline doesn’t count as a clue. I will explain this in more detail later.

I refer to these clues or guideposts as Anchors and Triggers. Before I get into explaining what they are, I want to share with you a basic idiosyncrasy about screenplays.

Each scene within a screenplay has no indication of time, tense, or flow of location. It exists only in the absolute present moment with no perspective of the past or the future.

That is to say the action of your story takes place at the precise moment you write it and at the precise moment the reader reads it.

In linear storytelling this isn’t a problem. The order of the scenes advances the story in the proper order.

But when you choose to warp the chronology of your story with a nonlinear timeline, the reader needs some indication of how to reorient the scenes.

In the case of writing flashbacks and dream sequences the reader/viewer needs a prompt, a trigger that tells them that the scene is out of order.

An anchor is the clue that indicates to the reader/viewer that we are no longer in the flashback, dream sequence etc.

Anchors and triggers allow the reader/viewer the ability to reassemble the chronology of the story into its proper order.

Of course, where a flashback begins and ends is noted in the slugline:


Then in the Transition when it ends:


I can’t tell you how many times I have critiqued scripts where there is no indication or trigger that initiates a flashback other than the slugline. The problem with this is that the viewer never sees the slugline and becomes confused as to exactly what just happened. Even readers who tend to glance over sluglines can become confused.

In fact, now that I am on the subject I suggest that you write your narrative as if there were no sluglines. This way you will avoid glancing over crucial information in the narrative because you think you covered it in the slugline.

In the old days, these triggers were often a simple camera effect such as a swirly image.

Dates floating off a calendar or the change of seasons were often used to represent passage of time.

Without anchors such as the digital clock radio repeatedly changing from 5:59 am to 6:00 am as each new day begins in Groundhog Day, the reader/viewer would be easily confused.

Ground Hog Day

'Ground Hog Day'

Without the repetitive phone call from Manni to Lola in Run Lola Run, or the re-occurring scene of the assassination of the President in Vantage Point, these films would be at the very least challenging and at worst, incomprehensible to follow.


'Vantage Point'

Sometimes in films such as 21 Grams or Memento, we are left to drift for a several scenes until a familiar image reappears and we can again find our bearings in the story.

A screenplay needs to find a visual expression of these transitions of time and place. If it doesn’t, then the reader/viewer is lost.


In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, there is a scene in which Diana’s old girlfriend, who has recently moved out of the apartment, drops by to pick up some of her stuff. She looks about the room and sees a piano shaped ashtray on the coffee table. She declares that it is hers. Diana tells her to go ahead and take it. She does.


'Mulholland Drive' - The Ashtray

Several scenes later, a love scene plays out between Diana and Camille on the couch.

How do we know that this is neither a real-time event nor a fantasy of Diana’s?

The camera pans off to the coffee table onto the two girls as they make love. The piano ashtray is still there.

The ashtray signals that what we see is not simply a fantasy but that it actually took place.

But the ashtray also signals that it is a scene that is not taking place in the present moment because we know that the ashtray has already been removed.

Thank you, Christopher Nolan

In Christopher Nolan’sInception, he uses a device that he refers to as tokens to let both the characters and us, the viewer, know when we are in a dream (non-linear) scene or a reality (linear) scene.

He also uses what he calls kickers to extract the characters from the dream-state. In the final moment of the film, we watch as a token, a spinning top, promises to reveal if this last scene is a dream or reality, but the film ends before we can be sure.


'Inception' - The wobbly top

The spinning top is in fact an anchor and, without knowing what it is going to do, we are lost.

The kickers are similar to triggers except that a trigger announces that we are about to enter a flashback or dreamscape, while the kickers take the characters out of the dream. Yet they serve the same purpose which is to offer us and the characters our bearings.

Hopefully, the spinning top impresses how important it is for you to use anchors and triggers when breaking out of the chronology of your story.

Dream Sequences

Dream Sequences are a little more complicated than Flash Backs. The reason has nothing to do with chronology and everything to do with the lack of coherency in dreams themselves.

Most writers write dreams scenes in the same way they write any other scene. To them, it is just another scene, yet it isn’t. It involves nonsensical logic that seems to make sense in the dream until you wake up. Dreams ramble and the images are incoherent.

I have a story that is all about a boy seeking to win the affection of a girl totally out of his league, and he continues to fail miserably. If I write a dream sequence, and in it, I show my character seeking the affection of the girl who is totally out of his league and failing miserably, then the scene fails miserably as well.

We learn nothing new about the character. There is no incoherent logic that we need to decipher. Basically the dream sequence has no purpose.

But what if the character, as he seeks the girl of his dreams, discovers that he isn’t wearing any pants? Or the girl runs up the stairs to a huge church cathedral and enters, but she is locked out. Or she suddenly floats in and out of the sky like a kite coming closer, then disappearing high above him. I am sure psychologist could have a hay day with that and, within that incoherency, there is a basic truth or realization that the boy needs to address.

Possibly the best expression of a character’s dreams comes from the author Jo Nezo (check him out) who has written an amazing detective series based on the character Harry Hole. Harry carries many of his cases around in his head, and they come at him at night as nightmares. They are distorted, incoherent and misplaced images where some appear in stories they don’t belong in and others offer a different perspective to what really happened.

These are dreams the bring a chill to your core yet in trying to explain them you can’t. That is a dream.

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