The use of flashbacks in screenwriting can add another layer of drama and intrigue; however, very few writers understand the rules of integrating flashbacks into the story. While these screenwriting elements have a profound effect on how the story may be told and perceived, if done improperly they add nothing but confusion and magnify the amateurish nature of your writing. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to utilize flashbacks is to clarify mysteries set forth in the script.
Screenplay mysteries are essential to keep the audience intrigued. Solving mysteries through the use of flashbacks is engaging and provides a unique storytelling medium.
Establishing the Mystery
In order for this screenwriting technique to be successful, the screenwriter must first establish the mystery that is to be clarified. There are many different ways this process can be accomplished. My personal favorite mystery-establishing method follows the several guidelines:
Scene Timing – The most successful screenplays with flashbacks as a means of story clarification understand when the best time to pick up a scene is. For example, start the scene years after a monumental event happened within a characters life. Spend the story deconstructing this mystery through flashbacks.
Mysterious Language – Allow the characters to speak with the full knowledge of the mystery without giving away the contents of this mysterious event. While the dialogue may not be completely understood by the audience, through the use of flashbacks, puzzle pieces will slowly come together.
Satisfy the Audience – While it’s sometimes a good idea to leave some mysteries unsolved, always make sure you satisfy the audience by uncovering the main root for the primary mystery.
Clarification Through Flashbacks
Now that you’ve established the mystery within your screenplay, you must then solve the mystery through the use of flashbacks. It’s important to first clarify the following:
Flashback Quantity – The number of flashbacks will determine how your story is told. Is the primary story revealed through the past (cutting to flashbacks) or are these flashbacks rare and only reveal certain story clues? Before delving into this screenwriting method you must determine the quantity, or frequency, of flashbacks.
Flashback Information – What information is revealed during the flashbacks? Do flashbacks provide the mystery while the present-day scenes reveal the answers?
Flashback Relevancy – Are your flashback scenes relevant to the story? Do they push the story forward in a succinct and engaging manner? Far too many screenwriters utilize flashback sequences because they feel it adds an “indie” feel to them. While true, it can also be detrimental to the success of your script. Always make sure flashbacks are not only relevant to the topic they cover, but also to the script as a whole. Never create flashbacks simply for the sake of being edgy or artistic.