When I hear the term “flashback” my mind immediately goes to “Wayne’s World,” where Wayne and Garth wiggle their fingers and go, “diddle-iddle-um, diddle-iddle-um” and we dissolve into the past. If only all flashbacks could be that easy and fun! If you’ve been wondering about how to write flashbacks in a traditional screenplay, both in terms of format, and how to introduce them, then here are some tips I’ve come across that might help!
Make sure your flashback has a purpose
Flashbacks should only be employed when there’s no other way to move us forward in the script without revealing or telling us something important about a character. It should reveal and clarify the motivations behind a character’s actions or choices. Before using a flashback, ask yourself if this is the best way to deliver this information. You don’t want unnecessary flashbacks that aren’t bringing much to the table, and you don’t want to overuse the device.
Pay attention to the transitions
The transition into a flashback, as well as the transition back to the present time, are just as important as the flashback itself. You want to go into and get out of a flashback in a way that feels smooth and isn’t jarring to the audience.
A common way to transition into a flashback is to invoke the character’s memory. You can accomplish this by having your character see something that resonates with them, having them look at a photo, or having them hear a song that reminds them of another time. For example, a family is laughing at dinner, then flashback to the character’s own family dinner, which reveals an important piece of information in the story.
Ways to transition back from a flashback could be a voice calling your character in both the past and the present or maybe have the character recreate their actions from the past in the present (ex. as a kid Jimmy dropped a cup, in the present Adult Jimmy drops what he’s holding).
You can format a flashback by using a slugline and writing “BEGIN FLASHBACK:” and then when the flashback is over, throw in another slugline that says “END FLASHBACK.”
You could also put the FLASHBACK directly into your scene heading. You want to show that the flashback is over in the same way so you'd put BACK TO PRESENT DAY in the next scene heading.
Another way I’ve seen it done is by introducing the flashback as a transition line.
I’ve also seen this done with a slugline to get out of the flashback, sparing you from writing that scene heading again.
As you can see there are a bunch of ways to format a flashback; however you choose to do it, make sure you format it in the same way consistently throughout your screenplay!
For me, the most important questions I ask myself when doing a flashback are, “Is this the best way to convey this information? How am I going to transition in and out of the flashback (is this the best place for it in the script)? When and where is this taking place?”
In my examples, I wasn’t clear on time and location; in your actual scripts, you want to make sure that you include both of those!
Hopefully, this gives you some things to consider next time when you’re writing a flashback.
Now flashback to now, and get writing!