Tired of trying to write a flashback scene that turns out confusing and out of place? Then this article is for you! This article is all about how to write an effective flashback scene. We are going to break down what a flashback is, some do’s and don'ts, and then finally how to properly format a flashback.
WHAT IS A FLASHBACK?
The definition of a flashback is pretty simple. It is a moment where the narrative flashes back in time from the present day to a point in the past. Sounds simple enough? But how does one write a flashback? The Professional Pen is at your service to break down all the do’s and don’ts when it comes to writing an effective flashback scene.
DO’S AND DON'TS
DO ensure that the flashback advances the story. A flashback scene, just like a scene in the present, should always advance the plot. What are we learning from the past that we could not learn from a character in the present? Be sure that your flashback scenes are purposeful and intentional and not just a narrative device.
DON’T have too many flashbacks. I use the word “don’t” fairly loosely here. Ultimately, it’s your screenplay and you can do whatever you want. However, as a general rule, more than two to three flashbacks in a screenplay could mean you are over relying on the narrative device. If you find that your screenplay is riddled with flashbacks, then re-evaluate its importance.
DO use flashbacks to showcase a character’s heightened emotions. Since we now already know that flashbacks should advance the story, try to insert them in moments that are crucial turning points or when your character is most vulnerable. This can be to reveal a past trauma, a surprising revelation, or even a moment of nostalgia like when a character thinks back to an important or emotional time in their past.
DON’T have an unmotivated flashback. Just as flashbacks should be purposeful, they should also be motivated. What triggers us in the current scene that causes us to jump into the past? If a flashback is unmotivated then this can feel disorienting to the reader ultimately causing them to lose interest in the read.
Now that we know some do’s and don'ts of writing flashbacks, let’s get to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: how to properly format flashbacks.
HOW TO FORMAT A FLASHBACK
There are several different types of flashbacks and they each have their own format. In this article, we are going to be focusing on how to format a full scene flashback.
The clearest way to indicate that we’re in a flashback scene is to add a modifier at the end of the slugline. For example:
EXT. ALLEYWAY – NIGHT (FLASHBACK)
Then add an END FLASHBACK, BACK TO SCENE or similar transition to reconnect the narrative back to the present day. This should be formatted as shots, justified left and in all caps.
You can also add FLASHBACK at the beginning of the slugline, for example:
FLASHBACK – EXT. ALLEYWAY – NIGHT
Here’s a third way to format a flashback: Some writers prefer to indicate a flashback by writing BEGIN FLASHBACK before the slugline and END FLASHBACK at the end of the scene.
Here’s an example from the 2010 film, GOING THE DISTANCE:
Note how they use BACK TO BAR to transition out of the flashback and back to the present day/scene.
READY? SET? READ!
So you’ve learned all about the do’s and don'ts of flashbacks and even how to properly format a flashback for a full scene, sooo… What's next? The best way to learn screenplay formatting is to read as many screenplays as possible. By reading screenplays you will learn first hand how some of your favorite movies were formatted. Be sure to head over to our Screenplay Vault to check out our arsenal of screenplays that are ready for you to read!
Want to learn more about screenplay formatting? Then check out our formatting workbook, “HTF Do I Format a Screenplay”, where you will learn the fundamentals of formatting a screenplay including formatting definitions, do's and don'ts and tricky formatting examples.
Written by TPP Story Expert Khadija Roane