I'm halfway through the 5th draft of a true story screenplay. It's not a story that occurs over a few consecutive sequences that are fairly close to each other in time, this is a story that has crucial and inciting events happening all over the temporal map. I always knew I needed flashbacks but found there's a real knack to employing them most effectively.

The problem with flashbacks is that they take away from the immediacy of the story's present by offering what is essentially old information, so you need to work twice as hard at making them count visually and viscerally.

Everybody seems to have different theories about flashbacks, including the one about never to use them, but I think they are just as valid as any other narrative technique. But the one thing I have finally understood, and yes, slap me for not coming to that particular table earlier, is to use them only at the very height of an emotional peak. These I have fondly dubbed flashback jump-off points.

In earlier drafts of the same screenplay I'm slaving over currently, I often committed that cardinal sin of using only a brief introductory scene to lead straight into a flashback. There's nothing to be learned here, and it's predictable and boring.
Consider this:

EXT - ARENA - DAY
Fou watches rider and horse circle the arena. Transfixed by the movement, he thinks of another time, another place.    

                                                                                                                                CUT TO:

EXT - MONGOLIA - FLASHBACK
Fou rides a horse across the steppe, the wind in his hair. He smiles. Cue music.

That's boring, cheesy and very telefilm. The first scene doesn't do anything other than give a visual trigger. I've done it loads myself, and cringe about it now.

How about this though (emotional can also mean physically emotional, i.e. effing painful)


EXT - ARENA - DAY
Fou gingerly slides his left foot into the stirrup – – swings his right leg over – – the flighty horse sidesteps – – he loses his balance, which sends the horse into a bucking frenzy. Fou flies through the air – – smashes into the wooden fence.

                                                                                                                                CUT TO:

EXT - MONGOLIA - FLASHBACK
CRUNCH! Fou smashes facedown into gravel – – edge of a lake – – lifts his shredded face – – his horse disappears over the nearest hill, galloping like it's being ridden by the devil himself. Fou stumbles to his feet.

                    FOU
           Fuuuuuuuuck!


Etc etc. That sort of works for me. At least a lot better I think. Tony Gilroy is very good at this stuff. The Bourne Identity is full of mini-flashbacks, almost like lightnings in Bourne's brain to show how he is trying to regain his memory.

EXT. HOTEL BRECKER -- NIGHT
BOURNE across the street. Staring at the hotel. Haunted.
As a POLICE SIREN edges closer through the empty streets --

FLASHBACK!
We are a POV -- a stake-out -- watching the HOTEL across
the way -- The POV checks its watch -- checks the perimeter, the street deserted, foreboding --

Etc etc. I even love the way Gilroy uses exclamation-marks!

Flashbacks are really a device to reveal character, and motivation, much less story. It is almost a present-time moment in the head of your protag. If you can feel what they are thinking and find that heightened moment, you can then quite organically allow the reader a glimpse into the past, or even the future, as it were.

So here are my 7 tips for effective flashbacks

  1. Always jump off at the highest emotional point possible
  2. Wait until you really really MUST reveal info. Hold off until at least a quarter into the script, or later still
  3. Show as little as possible, and quickly get out again
  4. No-one wants to see a movie because of the flashbacks. Keep them in check. Unless that actually IS your story, in which case, maybe rethink your approach.
  5. The longer you hold off, the more rewarding it'll be. The audience wants to know your secret, and once you've given them that, you're out of bargaining tools.
  6. Link a present problem with a past problem or solution, make it imperative, connect past and present.
  7. Do not simply plug a plot hole with a flashback, you need to move the story forward.
 
 
Most people I know swear a lot. Hell, I swear a lot. So why not use this to your advantage? Instead of dry terms like first, second or third act, you could try and use expletives.
       
Every story needs structure. When you watch a film or TV, a play or read a book, you want to be entertained, moved, shaken and stirred. For this to happen, the story needs momentum. It needs an engine to propel it forward. What's more, the best stories won't ever reveal that to you, they keep the structure hidden underneath a layer of physical and emotional action.
First this happened, then the other happened, and then, fucking hell, THAT happened. Can you believe this shit?

This, in simple terms is what you want to experience, and it's what you want to put into your story. The first time you attempt to tell a story you might not yet understand where its heart is, and where its head might go. So your structure might not ring true. It might feel off, like it has two heads and no guts. You'll think "I can't get my head around this story." And your story will invariably respond, "No fucking shit Sherlock, you've given me two heads and no guts." You'll have to re-look at it and figure out what the strongest lead-in moment could be, and how to concentrate on one head, and maybe save the other one for a different story. And the more stories you tell, the better your instincts will get for how to structure them.
        In terms of structure, let me just say, I'm not hung up on the number of acts I use in a feature film — although it's slightly more prescriptive in TV writing. I often use around 5 acts. The pedant would argue that that's me using 3 acts and subdividing the 2nd act into 3 shorter ones. And yes, Pedant, you might be on to something there, but frankly, who the fuck are you anyway?
        The above figure would loosely be a 3 act structure with an initial kick up the ass to get you going. And that's how I like to work, always always start with a bang.


Serve your story, not your structure

Don't start with structure. This is always tempting, and I've done that many times myself. But do that and you'll lose character, and story. Your structure serves your story, like it would serve the construction of a building. But you need to know what story you're trying to tell, and draw up the structure accordingly. A concert hall has the structure of the large area where the audience goes, high walls and ceilings for acoustics and a stage for the performers. In a thriller something bad has to happen, or the threat of it has to be present. Otherwise it's not a thriller. And to emphasize that in structure, you might play around with the beginning to really find the strongest and scariest lead-in possible.


Shut up, it's started!

This is what I call the James Bond moment. You hit the ground running fast, and let the reader find their feet until they catch up. Don't worry about losing them, they can go back and re-read if necessary. Better that than they are bored. The cleverest of these kick-up-the-ass openers are those that seem flashy and attention-seeking, only to be revealed later on as the head and heart of the story, or even the end for a circular structure. Ideally they're also the trigger that kicks off the story in the first place.
        Here's the credit sequence of the original Italian Job. It eases you in leisurely and then grabs you by the throat. Visual storytelling at its best, and not one word is spoken.

Shit!

This is the first inciting incident, the moment when you feel you're getting to know the characters and suddenly it all goes wrong.
        Michael Mann is a master not only at writing and directing his own stuff, but also producing and editing it — thus keeping creative control throughout. And HEAT will probably always be his masterpiece (IMHO anyway). The inciting incident here comes in the shape of a sequence, with a clear opening and closing bracket. This sequence follows on from the opening credit sequence, and all the action builds organically until the closing bracket of the inciting incident (the end of the clip below).
        The opening bracket happens when Wayngro joins the team. He jumps on the truck and the words "tight crew" are mentioned, of which he clearly isn't a part. Moments later, they go to work below:

The closing bracket of the inciting incident is the moment that Wayngro loses the plot and starts shooting people. This incident informs the whole rest of the film, and ties up Vincent's (Al Pacino) and Neil's (Robert De Niro) stories beautifully. Yep, Michael is the Mann.


Fuck!

In David O Russell's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK the Fuck! moment comes at the end of act 2 with the 'juju' scene. Pat is slowly getting himself together, has started to dance with Tiffany, and in an effort to bond with his dad has gone to watch the Eagles game with his brother, when everything goes wrong. The Eagles lose, and Pat Sr. loses a lot of money. The ensuing big family argument throws all the balls up in the air, allegiances shift and suddenly it's all to play for again, with stakes doubled. A masterfully emotional character scene.

Jesus Fucking Christ!

In Tom Hooper's THE KINGS SPEECH that cathartic Jesus Fucking Christ! moment comes as the climax of act 3. The King has to finally deliver that speech he's been working up to all movie. He's left alone in the room with his speech therapist Logue. The scene is a mini version of the complete film, structured as it is with a clear — stuttering — beginning, then starting to loosen up until the King manages to speak fairly freely, guided by Logue throughout. A very rewarding climax.

Phew!

Danny Boyle's 127 HOURS works up to the gruesome climax scene all the way from the start, as any good story should. A lot of films end on the climax or a few seconds after. HEAT does that.
        In 127 Hours though, the climax is too gruesome and dicey to really be fully rewarding in and by itself, so is followed by a classic Phew! sequence that eases us out of the ordeal and Aoron Ralston back to safety. It's cinematic as well as incredibly personal, and only a few words are spoken. We've been through the ordeal with him, so words are the last thing we need now.