blog

How to Write a Flashback in a Script Like a Pro Screenwriter.

Forget the advice to "never use flashbacks in a script." Here's how to do it the RIGHT way.

Featured In
by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Scene
October 7, 2020 13 comments
how to write a flashback in a script

How to Write a Flashback in a Script. 

Wanna know how to write a flashback in a script the right way? Great, because some of the most memorable moments in cinema history have been flashbacks.

From Alvy’s iconic “seems like old times” montage at the end of Annie Hall, to Cheryl’s painful memories of her past in Wild, flashbacks can be a very powerful screenwriting device.

So forget any advice you may have heard to “never use flashbacks.” (More on this later.)

In this post, we’re going to show you how to write a flashback in a script that deviates from the linear storyline yet keeps the audience “in the moment.”

Below, we’ll break down:

What is a “flashback”?

The “never use flashbacks” myth

The two biggest mistakes aspiring writers make with flashbacks

Emotion: the 3 main emotions associated with flashbacks

Style: the 3 main flashback stylistic choices

Intent: why use a flashback?

Screenplay format and the flashback

And, throughout, we’ll go over the screenplay flashback examples that got it right, so that your script will too.

Click to tweet this post. 

What is a Flashback?

Put simply, a flashback is a moment in which the narrative flashes back in time—from the present day to some point in the near or distant past.

It’s a scene that took place in the past but is inserted into the present narrative in order to advance the story, characters and theme.

Typically, a flashback appears during a moment of trauma for a character in the present, triggering a memory of the past.

This can be a brief flash, a singular scene, or an extended sequence.

Ultimately, a flashback’s goal is to help the audience understand the motives and actions of characters.

The two main flashback categories.

Broadly speaking, there are only two categories of screenplay flashback:

Occasional. We deviate occasionally from an otherwise linear narrative as a character remembers a moment (or moments) from the past. This is by far the most common type of flashback in spec scripts and movies alike. It’s a simple, brief return to the past to illustrate something significant while developing the story and characters, before returning back to the present narrative.

Structural. We remain in the past for most of the narrative, or for extended sequences, as a character knowingly explains the story. This sometimes involves trying to figure out a mystery (The Usual Suspects). Or is sometimes autobiographical (The Notebook). Or sometimes both (Citizen Kane).

Many famous movies fall into category #2 and here are some flashback examples from movies built around or heavily featuring past events:

(500) Days of Summer

Double Indemnity

Memento

Saving Private Ryan

Titanic

However, in this post, we’ll only be discussing category #1: occasional illustrative flashbacks in an otherwise linear narrative.

Crafting a non-linear movie using structural flashbacks is quite a complex subject and one that we’ll definitely tackle in a later blog post.

The “never use flashbacks” myth.

First, like to address the elephant in the room…

No doubt you’ve probably heard some screenwriting “gurus” out there say “never use flashbacks if you can help it.”

Whenever you hear someone say you “must not do XYZ” regarding screenwriting, it’s usually a good indicator that they don’t know what they’re talking about. And flashbacks are no exception.

If you know how to write a flashback in a script and properly implement it so that it enhances rather than detracts from the narrative, then you should definitely do so.

There are many reasons why a flashback can be a very powerful device in a story.

5 great things about flashbacks.

1. Flashbacks can vividly bring a character’s past to life, rather than just hear about it through dialogue.

2. Flashbacks can take us right inside a character’s mind.

3. Flashbacks work equally well in all forms of genres.

4. Flashbacks are set apart from other forms of storytelling, in that they are concerned with memories and the impact of the past on the present.

5. Normally, stories are designed to make the audience wonder what will happen, but flashbacks make us wonder what has happened.

The reason why may have heard people say “don’t use flashbacks” is probably because they’ve read many bad scripts containing many bad flashbacks.

But that’s not a good enough reason to avoid flashbacks altogether. A better approach is to learn how to write a flashback in a script the right way.

How to Write a Flashback in a Script

The two biggest mistakes writers make when writing flashbacks.

However, below you’ll find the two most common mistakes writers make when writing flashbacks and why you’ll hear some “gurus” claim you shouldn’t use them.

Avoid these two mistakes, however, and you’re on your way to mastering how to write a flashback in a script.

Mistake #1. Writing flashbacks that don’t have a purpose.

Perhaps the biggest reason for flashbacks getting a bad rap is that aspiring writers often include them for no apparent reason.

Imagine if Get Out opened on Chris and Rose driving to her parents’ house, before cutting to a flashback of how they met.

Or if midway through Knives Out, Marta had a flashback of being offered the job as Harlan’s caretaker.

Or if in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy gets thrown into the snake pit only to have a flashback of him being bitten by a snake as a kid.

These flashbacks would feel superfluous because they’d suck the energy out of the present moment while also failing to serve a specific purpose.

If a flashback doesn’t raise the stakes in some way, advance the story, and/or reveal character and theme then it has no place in the script.

Don’t break form simply for the sake of it i.e. if you think the film is getting a tad boring. A badly placed flashback, or a flashback for the sake of it, will stand out and be nonsensical.

Mistake #2. Adding too many flashbacks.

Spec screenplays by aspiring writers often contain five, six or more flashbacks, scattered haphazardly throughout the narrative.

But, especially if no new information is revealed, a flashback will only slow down the pacing.

Continually taking the reader out of the moment like this usually results in confusing and ultimately losing them.

As a general rule, if your script contains more than two or three flashbacks, it may mean you’re over-relying on them as a narrative device. So look at each one in depth and re-evaluate its importance.

Remember, flashbacks often occur at crucial turning points, like act breaks and the scenes leading up to and following them.

A flashback when characters are in their most vulnerable state will be more effective than if they’re determined and proactive.

This emotional component will impact the audience’s emotions as well— providing empathy, hope, or fear, depending on the genre.

Overall, use flashbacks sparingly—as key moments you want to highlight in the past, rather than frivolous time-jumps back to the past—and you’ll be ahead of 90 percent of aspiring writers.

Click to tweet this post. 

How to write a flashback in a script: Emotion.

A flashback should generally only be used when a character experiences a heightened emotion in the present and you want to show the root cause of that emotion in the past.

Think of a flashback as a device to accentuate emotion in a character (and audience) by visually showing what happened, rather than have them explain it through dialogue.

When you’re writing a flashback, consider if it falls into one of the three types below.

Screenplay flashback type #1: Past trauma.

This type of flashback returns to the past to reveal a defining moment (or moments) of distress that’s behind so much trauma in the character’s present.

It’s usually concerned with revealing character, as we get to see their painful central flaw—the reason they’re in the fix they’re in now, in the present moment.

Past trauma flashback examples in movies:

In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy remembers his failed attempts at losing his virginity and a woman tells him he’s terrible in bed and should give up forever.

In John Wick, John is tortured by flashbacks of the happy and not-so-happy times spent with his wife before she died.

In The Waterboy, a football player spits in Bobby’s water cooler and he remembers the same thing happening to him when he was a kid.

Screenplay flashback type #2: Startling revelation.

This kind of flashback is most often used to illustrate a character’s highly emotional reaction to a startling plot development in the present.

Sometimes it’s a stand-alone, illustrative scene. Other times it’s a flashback montage.

Or the last in a series of flashback fragments that have occurred incrementally throughout the movie before being finally revealed at the climax.

Startling revelation flashback examples in movies:

In Parasite, Ki Taek sneaks back into the rich family’s home at the end of the movie while narrating his actions to his shocked son.

In Ratatouille, Anton Ego’s eyes pop as he takes his first bite of Remy’s ratatouille and is transported back to being a kid, savoring his mother’s cooking.

In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm remembers getting shot and is shocked to discover that he’s been dead the entire movie.

Flashback type #3: Nostalgia.

The most gentle of the three types of flashback is when a character wistfully thinks back to an important or happy time in their past.

It’s worth noting, though, that the character is still grappling with some profound problem and this trip down memory lane shows us how it’s affecting them.

Nostalgia flashback examples in movies:

In Airplane!, Ted bores an elderly lady on the plane by describing the night he met Elaine in a seedy bar.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Dolores thinks back to jogging on the beach with Judah when their affair was fresh and exciting.

In Silence of the Lambs, a shaken Clarice leaves a meeting with Hannibal and her mind flashes back to being a child, rushing to greet her policeman father.

Bear in mind that these flashback types aren’t set in stone. Their interpretations can be fluid and/or overlap as you see fit.

Think of them more as a general guide to help you approach how to write a flashback in a script, and bend the “rules” accordingly to suit your needs.

How to Write a Flashback in a Script

How to write a flashback in a script: Style.

Now that we’ve covered the emotion behind each type of flashback, it’s time to look at how to write a flashback in a screenplay stylistically.

While some of this will ultimately be decided by the director, it’s up to you to communicate how you envisage the interlude playing out on screen.

Style #1: The memory hit flashback.

A memory hit (or “quick flash” as it’s also known), is used to show a character’s emotional reaction to a past event in the form of a brief flash or series of flashes.

Sometimes there’s another piece to a puzzle that they’re trying to work out in the present. Or simply a vivid recollection of a memorable incident. Often there’s no dialogue involved.

Memory hit flashback examples in films:

In Ordinary People, we quickly flash back and forth between Calvin sitting on a train, thinking, and his two sons playfully arguing when they were boys.

In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Neal waits in the departure lounge and—with a quick flash of Del’s face—recognizes the man who stole his cab.

In X2: X-Men United, Wolverine experiences a series of memory hits as he explores the laboratory, remembering being tortured and escaping.

Style #2: The flashback montage.

A flashback can also traverse different times or locations within the same scene in the form of a montage or series of shots. It can jump around different times of the same day or move around the same location.

Again, this is treated in the exact same way as a regular montage or series of shots—it just so happens to have occurred in the past.

Flashback montage examples in films:

In Casablanca, Rick daydreams about his love affair with Isla, remembering the romantic times they shared together around Paris.

In Good Time, Ray narrates the story to Connie behind how his face got messed up, as we intercut between the present and a montage of his crazy antics.

In Inception, Cobb tells Ariadne about experimenting with the dream-sharing technology, as we see him with Mal in various locations while in limbo.

Style #3: The full-scene flashback.

A full scene that’s a flashback is typically used to give the audience a more detailed account of what happened in the past and/or a deeper psychological insight into the characters.

This style can range from half a page in length to two or more, move into a new scene that’s also set in the past, and almost always contains dialogue.

If you find yourself writing a flashback in a script that then continues on in the past to another flashback scene, and another, you have a flashback sequence on your hands.

You might choose to remain in the past for an extended period of time, moving from full scene to full scene, but this is usually found in flashback-structured screenplays.

The extended flashback sequences in Manchester by the Sea, for example, indicate that we’re in a flashback-structured movie, not a linear one containing the occasional dip into the past.

Manchester by the Sea spends so long in the past for a reason: to represent Lee’s inability to escape his past.

Full-scene flashback examples in films:

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel’s flashback to Clem not recognizing him in the bookstore lasts around forty seconds and takes up half a page in the screenplay.

In Pulp Fiction, Butch dreams about Captain Koons’ golden watch story, told to him when he was a kid—an all-dialogue scene that lasts four minutes.

In Shutter Island, Edward returns home to discover that his wife has tragically drowned their three children in a scene that lasts a full six minutes.

There are no “rules.”

Again, these categories aren’t immutable categories that can’t be played around with. 

In Ocean’s Twelve, for example, when Isabel thinks back nostalgically to how she met Rusty, we see a memory hit within a flashback that morphs into a flashback montage.

If you want to write something similarly unconventional, by all means, go for it!

How to write a flashback in a script: Intent.

Although a flashback reveals moments in the past, the use of a flashback should always be with an intention of raising the stakes, advancing the story and/or revealing character.

In other words, just like a regular scene.

We have a ton of information on how to write a scene in a script, and it all comes back to this:

Every single scene in a screenplay must raise the stakes by either advancing the story, revealing character or revealing theme. Preferably all three.

If it doesn’t, it has no place in the story. And the exact same thing is true for flashbacks.

There is not necessarily the “perfect timing” of a flashback. Before you answer the “when,” focus on the “why.”

Here are the three main reasons for including a flashback in a script:

Reason #1: To advance the story.

It may seem contradictory that flashbacks can move a story forward. Yet, a well-placed flashback can change the entire scope of the narrative.

These types of flashbacks typically support act breaks, at the midpoint, in act three or at the climax.

In The Bourne Identity, we see a series of jagged cuts between the present and the past as Bourne’s memory of being sent to kill Wombosi comes back to him.

In Fight Club, The Narrator realizes through a series of quick flashes back to moments already shown in the movie, that he is actually Tyler Durden.

In The Tall Man, Mrs. Johnson thinks back and relays the story of how she spotted her lost son in the window of a house in the woods.

Reason #2: To reveal character.

Sometimes, questions of character motivation can get left unanswered. Flashbacks can be helpful in fixing that by giving insight into how they got to a certain point.

A judiciously placed flashback to the past can be a great way to show what’s causing a character’s distress and motivations in the present.

They can also help the pacing of a story by breaking up the action where needed and are often cued by a trigger—either audio or visual.

In First Blood, we get an insight into Rambo’s crazed behavior when he breaks out of the police station via flashbacks of him being tortured by the Viet Cong.

In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat’s flashback of coming home to find Nikki in the shower with another man gives us a deep understanding of why he went off the rails.

In Wild, we are introduced to Cheryl at the start of her hike, but don’t know why she’s on it. All is revealed through flashbacks, showing us another glimpse each time of her difficult past.

Reason #3: To reveal the theme.

Just like in every scene you write, every flashback you write should also explore the theme in some way.

The theme should reflect what your story’s really about—not your protagonist’s “A-story” outer goal, but their “B-story” inner goal: the insight that you want them to learn in order to grow and, by association, the audience as well.

You can read more on how to express a theme in a script here and this applies in exactly the same way to a flashback too.

In Casablanca, Rick’s flashback to his romance with Isla in Paris visually shows us what he must ultimately give up for “the greater good.”

In The Truman Show, Truman’s flashback about his fake father “drowning” in the ocean shows the crux of his character’s trauma and the main theme: reality is fake.

In Spider-Man 2, Peter considers giving up his superpowers and thinks back to Uncle Ben’s thematically-charged words: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Screenplay format and the flashback.

Now let’s briefly go over how to indicate a flashback in a screenplay so that they’re clear, concise and effective.

Here are some general guidelines:

How to format a memory hit flashback.

This can be formatted with a mini-slugline as, most likely, there is no dialogue involved. 

Start with either a mini-slugline such as:

MEMORY HIT
FLASH TO
QUICK FLASHES

Then enter the series of flashes, listed by dashes, followed by an indicator that we’ve ended the action, such as:

END QUICK FLASH
BACK TO SCENE
BACK TO PRESENT

Here’s an example from The 40-Year-Old Virgin:

how to write a flashback in a script

How to format a flashback montage.

Format as you would a regular montage except add the modifier FLASHBACK somewhere in or before the slugline.

This can mean writing out the full slugline with each new location, or simply adding em dashes or CUT TOs for each new moment.

Here’s an example from Wanted:

How to Write a Flashback in a Script

How to format a full-scene flashback.

The clearest way indicate that we’re in a flashback scene is to add a modifier at the end of the slugline. For example:

EXT. ALLEYWAY – NIGHT (FLASHBACK)

Then add an END FLASHBACK, BACK TO SCENE or similar transition to reconnect the narrative back to the present day.

Some writers prefer other methods such as adding FLASHBACK at the beginning of the slugline, like so:

FLASHBACK – EXT. ALLEYWAY – NIGHT

Others prefer to indicate a flashback in a screenplay by writing BEGIN FLASHBACK before the slugline and END FLASHBACK at the end of the scene.

Here’s an example from Going the Distance:

how to write a flashback in a script

If you want to write a full-scene flashback that continues into another scene, you can write FLASHBACK or FLASHBACK SEQUENCE at the start of first scene.

Or the time period that this sequence takes place, i.e. INT. RECORDING STUDIO – DAY (10 YEARS EARLIER)

However, for each subsequent slugline, you don’t need to indicate that we’re still in the past.

Simply confirm that the flashback sequence has ended by either including END FLASHBACK SEQUENCE or a modifier in the present day scene, i.e. INT. OFFICE – DAY (BACK TO PRESENT).

For more info on how to indicate a flashback in a screenplay we recommend checking out these resources:

The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley

The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier

Master Screenplay Format by Script Reader Pro

A note on that “flashback” scene at the start of a movie.

Sometimes films start with what appears to be a flashback. After the scene or sequence, we then jump ahead to properly start the narrative in the present.

In Ted, John receives Ted as a Christmas gift as a boy and makes a wish that inadvertently causes the bear to come alive.

In Up, Carl’s entire relationship with Ellie plays out in one long flashback montage—from meeting her as a kid, to saying goodbye when she dies.

In You Can Count on Me, Sammy and Terry’s parents are both killed in an automobile accident.

But are these really flashbacks? Can you flash back to the past when we haven’t been in the present?

A better way to think of these scenes is purely as the inciting incident to the movie—the spark that had to be lit in order for the story to exist.

But it doesn’t really matter whether you think of this opening hook as a flashback or not. Just don’t label it as one.

Instead, make it clear once we’re in the present that we’ve skipped ahead in time with a “super” and/or through description.

An alternative opening scene, popular in Action/Adventure and Thriller movies, is the one that jumps back in time when it’s done to start the narrative in the past, before catching up to the same moment later in the film.

For example, in Iron Man we open on Tony Stark getting kidnapped by Islamic terrorists before we jump back to “Las Vegas, 36 hours earlier.”

So technically the opening scene is in the present and only becomes a flashback once the narrative has caught up with it. But the same rule applies: it’s simply an inciting incident. A hook to grab the audience and kick-start the story.

Conclusion.

Ultimately, the very best way to learn how to write a flashback in a script is by reading and studying the screenplays that utilize them.

Here are some resources where you can download and read screenplays for free:

50 Best Screenplays to Read

20 Best Drama Screenplays to Read

20 Best Comedy Screenplays to Read

Also, take note of flashbacks as they occur in movies as you watch them.

Was the flashback triggered in a character by an audio or visual cue? Or was it placed objectively into the narrative by the filmmakers?

How does the flashback advance the story, character or theme and raise the stakes?

What happens before and after the flashback? How do these scenes impact the flashback, and how does the flashback impact them?

This research will give you a well-rounded idea about when, why, and how to use flashbacks.

And finally, practice is everything. Ultimately, it’s all up to you and how much you write.

###

Has this post helped in your understanding of how to write a flashback in a script? If so, how? We’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.

If you want to get into comedy screenwriting, you must make reading funny scripts part of your weekly routine. Absorb as much as you can and put it into your own comedy screenplay. Good luck.

How to Write a Flashback in a Script

Enjoyed this post? Read more on how to write a flashback in a script…

35 Quick Edits to Improve Your Script’s Writing Style In 24 Hours Or Less

8 Out of 10 Writers Have Been Told How to Write a Scene the Wrong Way

8 Keys to Writing a Scene That Pops Off the Page and Grabs the Reader

[© Photo credits: Unsplash, Wikipedia]

13 Comments
  1. Tangya Achayi says:

    Thanks for this and weldon, it’s really helpful. Is it possible to start with a flashback and still have another flashback?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Do you mean start the script with a flashback? As we say in the post, that first scene isn’t really a flashback since we’re not flashing back from anything. But yes you can follow one flashback with another, but then you’re in the territory of a flashback sequence.

  2. Hoojan says:

    Great notes!
    Thank you!
    Can we be hopeful to receive another article dealing with the flashback-structured screenplays?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s in the pipeline Hoojan – thanks!

  3. Clinton emscent says:

    This is great! Thanks for sharing,given me some ideas

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Clinton!

  4. Candyce Petersen says:

    Hi, Oscar,
    Great article! Thanks.
    I have a situation where my protagonist sees a painting of an historical event and is pulled into it for a moment to observe and understand. Should I write this up as a vision, flashback or something else?

  5. Mark Lindstrom says:

    Thanks for this. My script starts as a dream and i wasn’t sure how to format such.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You can format a dream the same way as a flashback – thanks again, Mark!

  6. Carolyna Lovely says:

    Thant was an excellent read. Very helpful.
    Thanks!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Carolyna – glad you found it helpful 🙂

  7. oscar julian lopez rincon says:

    great-job, guys!!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot, Oscar!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *