Ahoy screenwriters. To flash or not to flash. You decide. Just don’t get arrested. What was the question? Ah yes. The miracle of flashbacks in your screenplay.
Flashbacks are a stylistic device easily misused to deliver chunks of exposition and cover up lazy writing. Beware! The screenwriting police will find you and sentence you to screenwriter prison with hard labor.
So keep your writing clean and use flashbacks to relive exposition in the present. Flashbacks have been integral to storytelling since Homer (the Greek, not Simpson).
They began in since humanity began recreating stories either through paintings on cave walls or through verbalization.
Why use flashbacks in your film script?
Flashbacks give us a snapshot of our past to help us understand how we got to where we are today. An insight into our conflicts and how to resolve them. They reveal contrasts in our lives past and present. A comparison of how we envisaged the present and how it turned out.
Screenwriters also flashforwards to give us a glimpse into our futures, but that’s another post. The term “flash” suggests an immediate transportation of your character to another time and place. In the days of yore, film makers called flashbacks “retrospects” and “switch backs”. These terms indicate their intention.
Flashbacks can be “subjective” or “objective” to a character’s point of view. Ideally, they must illustrate something in the past that affects the character’s actions in the present. Used correctly, they add a clever structural gimmick to your script because the story isn’t told in a linear fashion. They add intrigue, explanation or complication to your story. Manipulate your audience.
Consider “Slumdog Millionaire” with its delightful and effective use of non-linear, flashback structure. It would have been a very different film if the story was executed linearly chronicling the life of Jamal’s childhood through to winning the grand prize and reconnecting with the love of his life.
The general protocol is to drip feed flashbacks into your story in a linear fashion, so information about your character’s past is revealed when the audience needs it. However, you can pull a David Lynch to depict
However, you can pull a David Lynch to depict nightmarish, fragmented subconsciousness and execute your flashbacks randomly, or even nonsensically to titillate or alienate your audience.
And let’s not forget “Memento” who’s tightly structured plot unravels via looped reverse flashback format. An innovative execution of a standard plot.
So go forth and flash!
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