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.
 


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