How To Write Flashbacks in Screenplays (With Examples!)

how to write flashbacks

If you’re looking to add some depth and backstory to your screenplay or indie movie, flashbacks are the way to go!

A large narrative component of my feature screenplay, Devil’s Shadow – which was named a Blood List finalist a few years back – was the use of flashbacks in order to both reveal new information and contrast the protagonist’s present situation with his tragic past.

What I didn’t want was to use flashbacks as just an exposition dump. Instead, in those times when they are warranted, I always strive to make them key to the plot and reveal just enough information so as to add layers to both the story and the characters.

How do I write a flashback in my screenplay?

  1. Make Sure They Are Necessary: Only include flashbacks that enhance the story.
  2. Trigger with Senses: Use sights or sounds to introduce the flashback naturally.
  3. Detail the Scene: Make the past event(s) clear and engaging.
  4. Dialogue: Let characters talk to reveal their backstory.
  5. Pick a Flashback Type:
    • Chronological: Events are shown in order.
    • Broken Sequence: Events shown out of sequence.
    • Within Dreams: Flashbacks occurring in dream sequences.
  6. Maintain Balance: Use flashbacks sparingly to complement the plot.
  7. Formatting: Clearly mark flashback start and end points.

In this article, we’ll discuss a screenplay flashback, how to write flashbacks in screenplays and give some great flashback examples from movies you’ll recognize.

By understanding how flashback scenes work and learning to use them in your writing, you’ll be able to create richer and more interesting stories for your readers!

What Are Flashbacks In a Script?

infographic defining flashbacks in movies

A flashback is a scene that takes the viewer back in time, often to provide crucial information about a character’s backstory or the plot from a specific character’s perspective. Flashbacks can fill in gaps in the story or provide a glimpse into a character’s memory.

When used effectively, a flashback sequence can add depth and meaning to a screenplay. However, flashbacks can also be jarring and confusing if they are not correctly set up. It is crucial to ensure that flashbacks are integrated seamlessly into the story and contribute to your script’s overall narrative.

How To Write Screenplay Flashbacks

infographic showing how to write a flashback

Tip 1: Begin with a trigger.

What sets off the memory? Is it a sound or a word? A smell? A touch? A taste? Or someone or something the character sees? Use one of the senses to begin the flashback.

Tip 2: Use specific and concrete details.

The more specific the details, the more real and vivid the flashback will be for the reader.

Tip 3: Use dialogue to further ground the scene.

Dialogue can help to establish time, place, and character relationships. It can also be used to reveal character development, motivation and backstory.

Tip 4: Use action lines to move the scene forward.

An action line briefly describes an action that moves the story forward. In a flashback, actions can help to orient the reader in time and space and provide a sense of forward momentum.

Tip 5: Use flashbacks sparingly.

When incorporating flashbacks into a story, it’s important to use them thoughtfully. Too many flashbacks can disrupt the story’s flow or come across as unnecessary filler. However, when used wisely, flashbacks can serve as a powerful tool to unveil character backstories and provide pivotal details about the plot.

Tip 6: Start with a strong opening image.

The first image in a flashback should be striking and memorable to grab the reader’s attention and set the tone for the scene.

Tip 7: Make sure the flashback serves a purpose.

Every element in a screenplay should serve a purpose and advance the story. Ask yourself what purpose the flashback serves before including it in your script.

Tip 8: Don’t info-dump in flashbacks.

Info-dumping is when a character reveals large chunks of exposition or backstory all at once, usually in an unnatural way. This can be frustrating for readers and should be avoided in flashbacks (and in general!).

Tip 9: Be careful with voice-over narration in flashbacks.

Voice-over narration can be a great tool for providing information about a character’s inner thoughts or feelings, but it should be used sparingly in flashbacks so as not to overwhelm the reader or break up the flow of the story.

Tip 10: End with a strong closing image.

The last image in a flashback should be just as strong as the first to leave a lasting impression on the reader.

Types of Flashbacks

what are the types of flashbacks in movies

A flashback is a scene or event from the past that is inserted into the present story. It can be used to provide background information about a character or to reveal something about the plot.

There are three main types of flashbacks: linear, nonlinear, and dream sequences.

  1. In a linear flashback, the events are presented in chronological order. This is the most straightforward type of flashback. It is often used to reveal information about the character’s backstory or details of the character’s past to illustrate their overall growth.
  1. In a nonlinear flashback, the events are presented out of order, which can create a feeling of disorientation for the reader. This type of flashback is often used to create tension or suspense in a story or to unravel a mystery.
  1. In a dream sequence flashback, the events are presented as if they are happening in a dream. This flashback can be used to reveal a character’s inner thoughts or feelings, either as a guarded desire or a deep-rooted fear.

No matter what type of screenplay flashback is used, it is essential to use it sparingly and carefully to avoid confusion or disruptions in the flow of the story.

black and silver camera on white table

Why Use Flashbacks in a Screenplay?

A flashback scene is a powerful tool that screenwriters can use to enhance their stories. By taking the audience back in time, flashbacks can provide information about past events in a character’s life or help establish the story’s conflict.

They can also add suspense or tension, providing glimpses of what is to come through foreshadowing and without giving away too much. A flashback sequence can be a powerful way to add depth and dimension to a screenplay.

“Flashbacks are a great way to give answers to the story.”

Sarah michelle gellar

What Is a Flashback Montage?

In filmmaking, a flashback montage is a technique used to compress time and show the passage of a span of time, such as days, months, or years, within a single scene. It’s often used in biopics or coming-of-age stories, where the main character, in the present, looks back on key events in their life.

A typical flashback montage will show the character growing up, featuring key milestones such as their first steps, first day at school, first kiss, etc. Each event is shown in quick succession, with a time jump of several months or years between each one. This creates a sense of nostalgia and helps summarize the character’s life story concisely.

While flashback montages can be very effective, they must be used judiciously. When used sparingly, however, they are be a powerful tool for evoking emotion and helping the audience connect with the characters on screen.

A great example is seen in Toy Story 2, where Jesse recounts her previous life as a treasured toy that is loved at first and, over time, forgotten and eventually discarded. It’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking, effectively melding music with a series of short scenes to tell a complete background story.

Tips for Avoiding Common Flashback Pitfalls

Flashbacks are a common storytelling device, but they can also be problematic if misused. Here are four tips for avoiding common flashback pitfalls:

  • Make sure the flashback serves a purpose. There should be an apparent reason for the character remembering this particular event at this particular time. Otherwise, it’ll feel like an arbitrary and unnecessary interruption to the story.
  • Avoid info dumps. A flashback should illuminate something about the character or the situation, but it shouldn’t be used to dump too much information all at once. Be judicious about what details are necessary for the audience to know.
  • Don’t overdo it! Use flashbacks sparingly, or else they’ll start to feel like a crutch or a gimmick. If every other scene is a flashback, it’s probably time to reevaluate your story structure.
  • Make sure the flashbacks are clearly delineated from the present-day story. Use visual cues, such as headings or italicized fonts, to help distinguish the flashbacks showing the past from the main narrative of the present.
movie clap board

How to Format Flashbacks in a Screenplay

A flashback is a scene that takes place in the past, often used to provide a backstory or to fill in gaps in the main story, which is set in the present.

In a screenplay, flashbacks are typically denoted by a Flashback heading, which appears before the scene, typically as “FLASHBACK” or “FLASH ON.” The heading should include the location and time period of the flashback, as well as a short description of what will be shown.

For example, this quick scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (italics added below for emphasis – otherwise, taken exactly from the original script):

FLASH ON

CU O-REN (11-years old), hiding under a bed, watching…

…her FATHER (dressed in the uniform of a sergeant for the American Army) fighting THREE YAKUZA GANGSTERS. He kills one with his bare hands. The other two slice him to death with samurai swords…

…and her MOTHER being raped by the same men. When they finish, they SHOOT her.

Little O-Ren watches, hidden from sight, with the eyes and face of a stone.

In this example, the flashback is used to provide exposition about O-Ren’s traumatic past involving her parents and Japanese gangsters. The use of a Flashback cue makes it clear to the reader that what follows is taking place in the past, and the specific details help to establish the time period and setting.

By providing this context, the reader can more fully understand the character’s motivations and actions later in the story.


Examples of Great Flashbacks in Popular Films

To illustrate how to write a flashback in a script, let’s look at some great flashback examples from movies!

Example 1: The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects is a 1995 mystery thriller film directed by Bryan Singer. The film tells the story of a group of criminals brought together by a mysterious figure called “Keyser Söze.”

The film uses several flashbacks to describe how the criminals became involved with Söze, as told from one character’s perspective – Verbal Kent. These flashbacks are expertly done, providing essential information about the characters and their relationships without feeling repetitive or heavy-handed.

Flashbacks also allow the story to be told out of sequence, adding to the film’s sense of mystery and suspense.

In short, The Usual Suspects is a masterclass in how to use flashbacks effectively, and its use of this storytelling device is one of the many reasons that the film is so memorable and successful.

Example 2: Iron Man

In the 2008 film Iron Man, director Jon Favreau uses well-done flashbacks to help develop the various characters and backstory.

The flashback begins with Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., being transported through a desert in a military convoy. Unknown forces ambush the convoy, and Tony is gravely injured. We are then propelled into the past using flashback scenes to establish Tony’s personality, how he came to be in this predicament, and the relationships he’s established with the supporting characters.

Once we are back in the present, we see that Tony has been captured by terrorists and is held captive in a cave. He was wounded by shrapnel from the missile strike and only survived by building an arc reactor and a crude suit of armor. We clearly understand the backstory and insight into Tony’s motivations when he decides to build a suit of armor to escape captivity and return home as a changed man.

The flashbacks in Iron Man provide essential information about the characters and set up the plot for the rest of the film.

Example 3: Ratatouille

In this 2007 Pixar classic, we see an extremely short and effective flashback at a critical moment in the film – the climax. Everything our heroes have gone through hinges on this moment – how will acclaimed food critic Anton Ego, notorious for giving bad reviews, rate the simple dish Remy has prepared for him?

Without a single word spoken, we are transported by the trigger of taste to his childhood. In one fell swoop, we see a previously impenetrable and cold character instantly humanized and become likable.

It also perfectly ties into one of the movie’s central themes: the best things often come from the unlikeliest and often overlooked sources.

Example 4: Fight Club

In this 1999 David Fincher thriller, flashbacks are used at a pivotal moment in the story’s plot to reveal new information about the main character, the Narrator, and his complex relationship with his closest friend, Tyler Durden.

Scenes that we have previously watched presenting Tyler and the Narrator as two separate people, with Tyler performing actions or saying words and the Narrator bearing witness, are thrown askew as the main character recalls through quick flashes that they are, in fact, the same person suffering a form of disassociative identity disorder.

Flashbacks are used here to present new information, not just to the main character but to the audience as well. They also show that this technique can be effective as a brief flash of information rather than as a complete scene or full retelling of an event.

Common Questions About Flashbacks in Screenplays

Should flashbacks be italicized?

This is often debated! In the end, it comes down to style. Some writers feel that italicizing flashbacks helps to set the flashback apart from the rest of the story and makes it easier for readers to follow. Others believe that flashbacks should blend in with the rest of the text and, therefore, should not be set apart with different formatting. Just make sure to be consistent, whichever way you choose!

What tense do you write a flashback in?

Screenplays should always be written in the present tense, and flashbacks are no exception. As long as they’re clearly labeled, there should be no confusion about when they are set. Remember, using the present tense can help create a sense of immediacy and increase the scene’s emotional impact, even when showing events from the past.

Can a movie start with a flashback?

Yes, a movie can start with a flashback, but it’s not always the best way to start a story. A flashback can disorient audiences, and it can be hard to establish the proper context for the events. When used sparingly, however, a flashback can provide information about a character’s history or set up the events of the present-day story.

For example, a movie might begin with a scene from the protagonist‘s childhood that helps to explain why he is struggling with some issues in the present. Or, a movie could start with a scene from the recent past that helps to establish the stakes of the story.

How do you indicate a flashback in a screenplay?

A flashback is indicated by adding the prefix “FLASHBACK TO” or “FLASH ON” before the scene description.

For example, you might write “FLASHBACK TO INT. KITCHEN – DAY” to signal that the following scene occurs in the past. Make sure to format your screenplay correctly by using screenwriting software.

What is a memory flashback?

A memory flashback is a vivid mental replay of a past event, often triggered by sensory cues or dreams. While usually harmless, frequent or intense flashbacks might suggest underlying issues like PTSD.

Why is it called a flashback?

A flashback is a scene in a story that refers back to an event that happened earlier. The term “flashback” comes from the idea of a scene or key moment that flashes in the character’s mind or illuminates something from the past. In a literal sense, it is like a memory that comes back to you all at once in a sudden flash.

how to write flashbacks

Final Thoughts: How To Write Flashbacks in Your Screenplay

Flashbacks can effectively fill in the backstory for your protagonist or show the audience how a character has changed over time. Plus, they can be fun to watch on-screen!

I hope I’ve been able to impart some tips for writing interesting flashbacks in this article. Happy writing!

Interested in learning more about screenwriting? Check out these helpful articles:

How to Write a Screenplay Synopsis: 7 Tips for Screenwriters

How to Write Dialogue in a Script: Tips for Screenwriters

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