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Screenplay Flashback: The 3 Different Types and How to Use Them

Forget the Advice to "Never Use Flashbacks" Here's the Secret to Using Them Effectively in a Screenplay

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Screenplay
August 27, 2014 8 comments
screenplay flashback

Screenplay Flashback: The 3 Different Types and How to Use Them

Aspiring writers are constantly told by screenwriting “gurus” to never employ certain devices in their scripts. Nine times out of ten, this is just dumb advice.

One of the most popular refrains you may have heard is “never use a screenplay flashback.” In fact, flashbacks can greatly enhance your script—if you know how to use them properly.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at how flashbacks can be used to great effect in your screenplay so you can prove all the naysayers wrong.

Overall Benefits of Employing a Screenplay Flashback

♦  Through flashbacks in a script, an audience can relive a character’s past rather than just hearing them talk about it.

♦  A script flashback can take us right inside a character’s mind.

♦  It can work equally well in all forms of genres.

♦  Screenplay flashbacks are set apart from other forms of storytelling. They are concerned with memories and the impact of the past on the present.

♦  Normally, stories are designed to make the audience wonder what will happen, but a screenplay flashback can make us wonder what has happened.

♦  They are particularly useful when the story in the past is more important than the one in present. In The Usual Suspects, the story in the present is truncated and skeletal, as opposed to the flashback sequences.

A Screenplay Flashback MUST Have a Purpose

The reason why many gurus say it’s best not to use flashbacks in your screenplay, is because many writers abuse the technique and employ them unecessarily.

It’s important to remember that in order to justify the use of a screenplay flashback, it needs to fulfill a specific purpose.

Below are the three main categories of screenplay flashback used by professional screenwriters. If you have a flashback in your script, but it’s not in one of the categories below, then it may need to be cut.

screenplay flashback

Screenplay Flashback #1: The Brief but Urgent Reminder

This is a device to make a character’s dilemma in the present more urgent by flashing back briefly to their past actions.

Script flashbacks of this kind only tell fragments of the story and they tell them out of sequence. Often just to show their state of mind at that moment.

Here Are a Couple of Examples:

♦  A suspect in detective film is being interrogated by the cops and tells his/her version of what happened, and we see what happened in flashback.

♦  In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah remembers his affair with the woman he’s just had killed by his hitman brother.

Screenplay Flashback #2: The Life-Changing Incident

Another device used for showing a characters’ state of mind in a particular moment. This usually plays out like this:

One ominous, incomplete screenplay flashback occurs incrementally throughout the film. Then, at the climax the truth is revealed in its shocking entirety. The mysteries and motives of the protagonist are finally laid bare.

This kind of script flashback appears at moments of trauma for the protagonist, i.e. in Catch 22, Jacob’s Ladder, Once Upon a Time in the West.

Screenplay Flashback #3: The Autobiographical Voiceover

Here a character, usually the protagonist, becomes the narrator and initiates a flashback narrative about their life.

This can be especially effective in comedy and drama genres as it enables the viewer to really get inside the protagonist’s head. We can then see things purely from their perspective.

It’s been used in countless films, from The End Of The Affair to There’s Something About Mary.

Screenplay Flashbacks: Conclusion

Of course, there is much more to constructing a flashback-driven film such as The Usual Suspects or Citizen Kane. You need to make sure your plot points intersect at key moments in both the past and the present, for example.

But we’ve covered the three basic forms of screenplay flashback narrative that you should consider first.

Before embarking on a script, decide if it would benefit from the use of a screenplay flashback or two. Maybe an Urgent Illustration, a Life-Changing Incident or Autobiographical device?

Check which will best serve your writing purpose. Will they make the story in the past more interesting than in present? Or will they embellish and give flavor to the one in the present?

Overall, make sure each script flashback has a solid reason for being there. It should never just be there for the sake of it. In other words, don’t listen to everything the so-called gurus say.

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What’s your opinion on adding a screenplay flashback? Do you think they’re overused in movies? Have you been told by people not to use them? Let us know in the comments section below.

screenplay flashback

[© Photo credits: Unsplash]

8 Comments
  1. Christina Georgiou says:

    Couldn’t agree more!! If used correctly, flashbacks can be one of the most exciting storytelling techniques available to screenwriters. It can transmit what might have been, as well as what was. It works equally well for comedy as for drama.

    1. SRP says:

      Thanks Christina!

  2. Christina Georgiou says:

    Totally agree! If used correctly, flashbacks can be one of the most exciting storytelling techniques available to screenwriters.

    1. SRP says:

      Thanks Christina!

  3. Richard Moss says:

    To lay own rules is always fraught with danger, but to deny flashback as an important tool in script writing is insane. They ( whoever they are ) might just as well say No love interest, No antagonist, or no bildungsroman. Flashback does not take one out of the story, it rather strengthens the basis of the story.

  4. C.J. Gelfand says:

    Do not ever let anyone tell you to restrict to restrict the use of anything in your work. It will repress your best impulses and turn you into a boring hack. You can always remove or redo anything that’s too much or wrong for the scene, but you can’t create great work by restricting your best impulses.

  5. Maynard Tervort says:

    WONDERFUL I needed this info on screenplay flashback. Thanku.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, glad you found it useful!

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