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6 Benefits Of Employing A Screenplay Flashback

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
August 27, 2014 6 comments
screenplay flashback

Yes, we’re script readers. But we also notice how many writers come to us with tales of being told by previous script consultants or script readers not to put certain things in their script. At all costs. Which is just dumb.

In fact, there are certain devices that can greatly enhance your script — if you know how to use them properly.

The trouble is, many script readers tend to just wipe out some techniques and tell writers “Never” to use them. Which is, frankly, kind of depressing.

So, in the first of our series of Dumb Things Script Readers Say, we’re going to take a look at script writing flashbacks…

You may have been told by a reader “Don’t use a flashback in a screenplay if you can help it.” While this is true if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, it’s certainly not true for those writers who know how to implement flashback.

Or for those who have a script in which flashbacks could be a perfectly valid choice.

Let’s take a look at why “Don’t use a flashback in a script if you can help it” is a dumb thing for a script consultant to say and how Flashbacks can be used to great effect in your screenplay.

6 Benefits Of Employing A Script Flashback:

  • Through flashbacks an audience can relive a character’s past rather than just hearing them talk about it.
  • They can take us right inside a character’s mind.
  • They work equally well in all forms of genres.
  • They are set apart from other forms of storytelling, in that 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 Flashbacks make us wonder what has happened.
  • They are particularly useful when the story in the past is more important than the one in present. For example, in The Usual Suspects the story in the present is truncated and skeletal, as opposed to the flashback sequences.

Now, the reason why many script readers say it’s best not to use flashbacks in your screenplay if you can help it, is probably because many screenwriters abuse the technique and use them where a regular narrative would suffice.

So, it is important to remember that in order to justify the use of a flashback, it needs to fulfill a specific purpose.

Below are the 3 main categories of screenplay flashback script readers say you shouldn’t use. If you have a flashback in your script, but it’s not in one of the categories below, then it may be superfluous.

3 Main Categories Of Screenplay Flashback

1. The Script Flashback As Illustration

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

They only tell fragments of the story and they tell them out of sequence – often just to show their state of mind at that moment. i.e:

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.

Or:

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

2. The Script Flashback As A 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 until at the climax it appears in its shocking entirety, revealing the mysteries and motives of the protagonist.

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

3. The Autobiographical Script Flashback

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

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

See The End Of The Affair and There’s Something About Mary.

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Of course, there is much more to constructing a flashback driven film such as The Usual Suspects or Citizen Kane, such as making sure your plot points intersect at key moments in both the past and the present, but these are the three basic forms of screenplay flashback narrative.

Firstly you should decide if your script would benefit with use of flashback as Illustration, a Life Changing Incident or Autobiographical device.

Check which will best serve your writing purpose – i.e. either to make the story in the past more interesting than in present, or to embellish and give flavor to the one in the present.

In short, make sure your script writing flashback has a solid reason for being there, rather than just sticking a bunch in for the sake of it.

The Screenplay Flashback Can Be A Powerful Weapon

In other words, don’t listen to everything script readers say. Trust Your Gut.

What’s your opinion on screenplay flashbacks? Have you been told by script readers not to use them? Let us know in the comments section below!

6 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.

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