Flashbacks are useful tools in scripts for a multitude of reasons. Whether it’s to explain a plot point, give character background, or twist the current point in the story, a flashback can be extremely useful for a script.
However, as useful as a flashback can be, there’s an equal amount of pressure to make sure you utilize flashbacks properly. Overusing or misusing flashbacks will only hurt your script and is a perfect example of why most professional screenwriters will only use flashbacks sparingly.
In fact, some screenwriters will go as far as to say you should never use flashbacks. Highlighting how flashbacks essentially spoon-feed the audience and don’t add anything to the script’s current state moving forward.
The primary issue with this way of thinking is everyone has a different writing style. Suppose flashbacks work in any successful film or television series. In that case, you can obviously utilize them in your script, no matter how you plan to use them.
Imagine Forrest Gump without flashbacks; the vast majority of that film wouldn’t exist without the use of flashbacks. Nevertheless, let’s discuss a few tips on writing flashbacks in your script and how you can execute them properly.
Still from 'Forrest Gump'. Photo credit: Film Affinity
Don’t Overuse Flashbacks
As touched upon earlier, make sure you don’t overuse flashbacks in your story. As great as flashbacks might seem for your story, it’s never a good idea to have your story filled with them, especially if it doesn’t add or do anything significant for the story.
Rather than use flashbacks to explain something in your story, it should only be done if it adds something new to the story. For example, suppose a character is continually mentioning their sibling. In that case, a flashback can be the key to why they’re always mentioning them.
At this point, the flashback can be the sibling dying, the sibling fighting with the character who is having the flashback, or it turns the sibling never existed in the first place. All of these routes add something to the story.
As for the flashback execution, make sure it’s amazingly simple and straightforward unless it’s a giant makeup of the story. Using Forrest Gump as an example, the primary makeup of that story is a flashback done in that way.
Still, the story makes sure to go back into the present setting, so as an audience, we continue to know it’s a flashback. Plus, Forrest’s narration helps us know he’s telling someone on a bench a story expressed through the visual means in the film.
Ask Yourself if your Script Needs a Flashback
An excellent way to judge if you need a flashback or not is to ask yourself what it adds to the story. For example, if it’s something as simple as showing someone losing their parent, check if you can do this through a simple dialogue exchange.
Of course, you have the iconic flashback in Batman, where Bruce Wayne loses his parents, but this is a monumental point of the story. If you can figure out a way to limit your flashbacks, it’ll benefit your story moving forward.
Basically, come up with a plan of what you hope to tell and what can be shown throughout your flashbacks. If you have a story with multiple holes that need to rely on flashbacks, you should figure out a way to re-write this entirely.
No script should heavily rely on flashbacks, especially if it’s a part of the story that isn’t needed or necessary. This is a complicated matter to figure out, but if you can manage to do it, you’ll be on the right way to developing a better story.
Have Readers Know When a Flashback Occurs
As far as writing flashbacks go, you need to make sure that whoever reads your script knows when a flashback is happening. Don’t begin the scene with a standard INT. or EXT. and scene but know what needs to go beforehand.
A simple BEGIN FLASHBACK: before the scene heading is an excellent method to begin a flashback that most people have an easy way to follow. Or you can have it say FLASHBACK TO: as another way to express your flashback is beginning.
Have Readers Know When a Flashback is Over
Other than letting your readers know when a flashback begins, you need them to know when it’s over. Similar to how you start a flashback, a simple END FLASHBACK. can come right as the flashback is ending.
While you’re in the flashback, make sure you know how long it’ll be. If it goes over multiple scenes, ask yourself if it needs to carry on that long and the purpose it serves to the story. On top of that, make sure you highlight any time or character changes, so readers understand what’s going on.