One of the most pervasive questions in screenwriting forums and lectures is whether or not a script would benefit from the use of a flashback sequence. While this answer is extremely subjective based upon story structure and your storytelling method, there are a few guidelines you must follow to determine if this screenwriting technique would tell your story in an effective and engaging manner. Although the following information was gathered throughout my years of working in the entertainment industry, always keep in mind that screenwriting rules are not set in stone.
The use of flashbacks within a screenplay can either add dynamic drama and intrigue or completely take the audience out of the story. Before writing, ask yourself: should I use flashbacks?
When to Use Flashback Sequences
There is a specific style of storytelling in which flashbacks are essential. These are the stories where the character must relive past experiences in order to solve a present day objective or goal. Instead of using current time exposition, you must engage with dialogue that reflects on the experience while following up with flashbacks to support this exposition. The following are several tips to assist in this process:
Clarify Story Mysteries – Would the use of flashbacks help clarify specific story objectives or hurdles? Every screenplay must be rich with mystery in order to attract and maintain the attention of audiences. Before writing a flashback sequence, ask yourself whether or not this flashback is the best way to solve a script mystery.
Character Revelations – The use of flashbacks are quite effective when carried out with the purpose of revealing specific character traits and details. Sometimes, there are details that would best be revealed not through real-time storytelling, but through experiencing the history of a character. While not appropriate for every type of screenplay, when appropriate this method of storytelling fully engages audiences by requiring an emotional involvement.
Flashback Transitional Devices
If you’ve read some of my other articles regarding the use of flashback sequences, then you’ve likely come to the conclusion no flashback is appropriate without some sort of transitional device. If you’re considering the inclusion of flashbacks, then you must engage each scene with some sort of transitional device. That is, a tangible object that triggers a memory. While slightly more advanced than other screenwriting techniques, if you’re considering this type of element then you must utilize a transitional device such as an object, location, spoken phrase or anything else that is real and able to clearly be utilized for this purpose.