Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”
In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.
So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?
If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.
- You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense. A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
- A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
- A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.
Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:
- The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
- A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
- Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.
One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:
- Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
- The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
- The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.
The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.
Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
This past week my thesis for my screenwriting emphasis arrived in the mail. I opened the box and there, carefully wrapped inside was my thesis project bound in a hardback cover. I opened it up, and inside I found my analysis of screenwriting and my walk through the process, as well as my screenplay for Bonnie in script form. I can’t tell you what a sense of accomplishment that made me feel.
If you’re interested in my analysis or the screenwriting process, you can see the blog adapted version of those portions of my thesis in my four part series, The Making of a Screenplay: The Creative Process: Part 1 covers story origins and the tools used to shape an idea into a movie plot, Part 2 discusses the tools used to sell a screenplay, Part 3 covers the research that goes into writing a screenplay, and Part 4 talks about rewriting.
I turned in my thesis back in August, and there was a sense of accomplishment in doing that, but to see my script in print just about made me burst with pride. Glancing through it reminded me of what a really good script Bonnie is. Now I just have to figure out a way to get it in front of someone who will read it and fall in love with it as much as I am, and want to make it into a movie.
That’s the hard part. There’s some tough competition out there and it’s hard to get a foot in the door. Bonnie has commercial value and I need to get someone in the business to recognize it,There are those who claim it can’t be done unless you move to L.A. (“Hollywood Game Plan” Prepares Upcoming Screenwriters to Hit the Ground Running) Although I really want to sell Bonnie, and many other screenplays, I don’t see such a drastic move happening in the near future.
Most of the screenplay competitions are a bit more expensive to enter than my pocketbook can afford, so I have to be careful to pick the contest that are the best for my screenplay. In the literary community, you face the same challenge. You must determine which publisher is best to submit to, matching your work to a publisher, agent or writing contest.
The only way I know to solve the puzzle and match story or script to contest, or find a publisher or a producer who might be interested in your work, is good old fashioned research. These days it’s easier. Because of the Internet, we have the information at our fingertips now, where we didn’t thirty years ago. To find the right contest, or publisher, or producer today, we can sit down at the computer or pick up our phones and find out what kinds of work they are interested in to see if ours is a good fit, or check out their track record to gauge how successful they are. All it takes is a little time.
I’ve entered a short screenplay in a screenplay contest, and submitted a couple of my scripts to production companies, and I’ve collected a few rejection slips from them. I was almost ready to give up on the screenwriting and concentrate exclusively on my fiction. Even though I know rejection is expected in this business, and a lot of it, it doesn’t make the sting any less when it happens. On Jeff’s God Complex Wednesday, he offers some really good ideas that make sticking with it in the face of adversity much easier. I took it and felt refreshed when I sat back down in front of my laptop again.
Receiving that bound copy and seeing my thesis script reminded me of why I went for the second emphasis in my degree. I am just as passionate about my screenwriting as I am about my fiction. I know my work is good and it’s only a matter of time before I sell a script or a book. I’m currently negotiating a contract for my western novel, Delilah, so I’m not just being optimistic here. It’s is easier to move forward in my career when I have a real sense of accomplishment, and my bound thesis reminded me of that.
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