Screenwriting : The Dreaded Flashback in Spec Script by Howard Mahoney

Howard Mahoney

The Dreaded Flashback in Spec Script

I understand the stigma surrounding use of a flashback in a spec script (crutch for undeveloped writing, etc). My script opens with a flashback and I am trying to find an alternative. The flashback is still there as a placeholder because it shows the antagonist delivering a life-changing injury to the protagonist as children. Any advice on how to get around this?

Eric Gilmartin

Howard, In general (there are exceptions to this), I think it's better to create suspense about the piece, at first. It's better if another character asks your protagonist "how did we get here?" That feels more natural, like if we were asking the protagonist this question, as if we knew him or her. Perhaps you should write the flashback out, as if you were beginning the script with it. Figure out what it tells you that the rest of the story does not. Then, just discard the flashback, and have the protagonist explain what it described, as if recapping it for a colleague, friend, love interest, authority figure, etc. You should also consider the value of cannibalizing a flashback, a few seconds at a time, along the way,to create a growing suspense. Don't forget the value of making the audience want more, and doling it out to us, a piece at a time. That is what keeps us watching! On the other hand, maybe you have a good reason for beginning the flashback this way. Perhaps you could hook the viewer, by framing the flashback AS a description, after the fact, of these events; in other words, this is a scene in the present of one character answering questions about past events to a second character. Best of both worlds kind of thing, in other words. Hope this of value to you!

Pierre Langenegger

I don't see a problem with using a flashback if your story really needs it

Debbie Croysdale

I think Eric has a good point. Don't kick the script off with the flashback, but you can still have it in the first act. Eg. Build a tense scene in the present, such as a hot date, or police pull over. I'm not sure what the protagonists injuries are, but suppose severe injury of an arm......he/she could be in a restaurant with the woman/man of his/her dreams, the simple act of pouring the wine at the table turns into a catastrophe. Everything else goes a dream. The protagonist is in a universal situation the audience identifies with, we all go on dates restaurants, and when the flashback happens the audience already have built up emotion. The protagonist remembers their past , with the camera catching the reaction of their date sat opposite, and all the other diners around them. The waitress nearly cries feeling the pathos, and scurries about trying to soothe the situation, pouring the wine for them both. This shows the injury not only impacts the protagonist, but the whole world around them now, in a trench moment way. Just an example, to explain what I would do, although I understand in your story the facts are different. I just used the restaurant scene as a template. Sorry to ramble but I enjoy these type of questions.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, the conundrum for me when confronted with a flashback at the very beginning of a script is: Exactly what are we flashing back from if we haven't seen the present yet? Right? How can you open with a flashback? Sure, this is done often (too often), especially with non-linear storytelling, but even more so, it is not done effectively. Perhaps simply consider it the starting point of your story and continue on from there. Perhaps it is just a scene. Why call it a flashback? :)

Regina Lee

Howard, can I ask what the genre is to narrow down how one might advise?

Regina Lee

I think Beth is suggesting that you might be starting in present day, then "time cutting" ahead. For example, in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, the movie opens in "Present Day," which happens to be 1985. Prom Night. Ben Stiller zips his XXXX... "We gotta bleeder." Time cut to "Present Day," 1998.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, thank you, Regina, for further clarifying. Much appreciated. :) "Time cutting" or use of flashback and flash forward can be fantastic in storytelling—if done well. Loved it in Netflix's "Bloodline" and season one of "True Detective." When I commented above, I was thinking of a spec script that I had read recently and in it "flashback" appeared in the opening slugline. The script was loaded with so many flashbacks that I struggled to find an anchor to the present. What exactly am I to follow? What is the "throughline?"

Eric Gilmartin

Peter, Ah, yes, I see your problem; you're disagreeing with things I did not write ... I'll clarify them, in the hope of clearing up your confusion. For openers, "There's nothing about the nature of a flashback ... that prevents it from including suspense." Sure there is: the flashback can present the image and sound of what happened, while a dialogue-driven recreation can allow the viewer to fill in the blanks. Take "Jaws", for example; Quint's chilling remembrance of what happened to the U.S.S. Indianapolis in "Jaws" is one of the creepiest scenes in the film, and we don't see a thing, except the reactions Brody and Hooper have to what he's saying. "In other words, you would prefer dialogue rather than action." Those are definitely other words... yours, not mine! Another character can ASK him to tell the story, and he can tell it, in pieces, with the other character interjecting questions, as people would do, in that situation. It goes from present to past, and back again, and is a vivid demonstration of ACTION: two characters, interacting. _Nothing_ in this prevents the two speaking characters from doing their laundry, eating, playing handball, etc. while they converse. If anything, it seems, you disagreed with what _you thought_ I wrote. My apologies, for not having been more precise. Agree that a flashback should be an option, if you simply must use one at the start (as "Batman Begins" does, while he's in the prison camp, remembering how his father told him about how to cope with his fear of bats); I don't know who decided it can't _ever_ be used, but that's like a lot of "rules", more of a general one, if anything. I would try to avoid using it at the start myself, but YMMV.

Pierre Langenegger

National Treasure - Book of Secrets starts in the past (1865) in order to give some background to this chapter in the story before commencing with the present day.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

But if a screenplay starts off in the past then it's technically not a flashback because we have nothing to compare it to.

W. Keith Sewell

No it's actually backstory, that the writer feels is necessary to jumpstart the screen story without the need to draw it all out or explain it to the audience along the way. It's usually done in one long segment at the start, as in "Book of Secrets" or in bits and pieces along the way. It's all exposition, a way of giving the audience and characters information the writer deems is necessary to understand the story or character motives . Flashbacks are just one way of doing that, but not the most effective way. When used in the beginning, it tells the reader you really don't know where your screen story begins.

Preston Poulter

I use flashbacks. Wasn't aware there was a stigma.

Shawn Speake

THE VISUAL MINDSCAPE OF THE SCREENPLAY by BILL BOYLE has a terrific chapter on "ANCHORS, TRIGGERS, AND BOOKMARKS, along with some great advice on how to write stronger flashbacks.

John Garrett

I am with Beth on the timeline. If you start with something that happened, and then jump forward in time, that doesn't really mean flashback.

John Garrett

Just a side note, I watched American Ultra last night and it started with a flash back. I will not argue that this is a good or bad movie. Because my point is that it got made.

Owen Mowatt

Damn you lot for making me think! The Usual Suspects springs to mind. It has voice-over flashback within flashback wrapped up in a framing device! They almost got away with it too! Haha Like all tools and methods for telling your story in the best possible way, they can be used intelligently or lazily. When the hero comes across a memento or picture of a lost loved one, the sorrowful look in his eye, followed by the flashback of their relationship is a real groaner.

Stuart Wright

There are no rules

Brian Aldridge

Absolutely nothing wrong with flashbacks in my book. Isn't Sunset Boulevard one long flashback. Forrest Gump also has some great flashbacks. And like @owen mentioned, Usual Suspects is a great example too.

Rick Gates

The phrase "past is prologue" comes to mind. If you have to open with a flashback to give the audience a glimpse into your character then do so. I see nothing wrong with a flashback if that is the most effective way of telling your story. Lots of movies do it. The perceived stigma, in my opinion, comes from overuse or poor execution. If you're going to do it, just do it well.

Rui Gomes

Can you transform the flashback into your protagonist telling the scene to someone or the opposite, someone telling him and bringing back bad memories?

Howard Mahoney

Thank you all for the feedback. I realize now I was mistaken in thinking the flashback is to be avoided as a story-telling technique. I believe my confusion stems from caution against over-using flashback and montage as a substitute for developed story lines. In my case, I agree there is nothing to flashback to since first scene depicts antagonist and protagonist as children. I believe I simply incorporate PRESENT DAY into subsequent scene heading. Much appreciated!

Dan Guardino

I don't use flashbacks unless the story calls for it. The story is what dictates what I write not some rule someone else said I should follow.

John Watson

I don't think it would qualify as a flashback if you begin with that? I would just follow it by fast forwarding to the present.

Dylan Zim

+1 to John's comment. You could also add a V.O. from a present-day voice to give it a "flashback feel" so the reader/audience understand it's from aa previous time. But ideally the scene will be compelling by itself, then the audience can be briefly surprised to discover the story takes place later.

Dylan Zim

(oops, I'm new to this site and I only noticed the last few comments. I didn't realize it had a been hashed out.)

Dan Guardino

I agree with John. If it is your opening scene I don't see how it would be considered a flashback.

Chanel Ashley

"Stigma" surrounding use of a flashback? Since when? I love my flashbacks, done well it can enhance a story and add another layer - I agree with both John and Dan, it wouldn't be considered a flashback in an opening scene - do not fear flashbacks, just concentrate on writing them well and relevant to your story, cheers.

Max Adams

That's not a flashback. That's a preamble or prologue.

Dylan Zim

So I just downloaded the Trainwreck script and it starts with a flashback! Check it out: http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Trainwreck.pdf

John Watson

Yeah, I get it. It is a tool, but I sort of doubt that that was a spec script. What I understand about spec writers is that we've got to abide by certain guidelines in script writing. A guy who is a Hollywood insider could get away with that but a spec writer, I assume, would be frowned upon if he started out writing FLASHBACK. You have to be in the present tense to recall something. I don't know for sure but didn't Amy Schumer write and direct it too? You can write what you want when it is your film.

John Watson

No, it was Judd Apatow. But Amy was the star. I am sure they were lax when it came to how the script was written.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, TRAINWRECK does not need "flashback" at the beginning given the script starts in the present time of Amy's childhood, then "time cuts" to the present time of here and now. Clearly that little opening is a prelude or prologue or preamble or whatever you wish to call it. To me, "flashback" is just a wrong choice of word, or definition, or way of handling the very first slugline. But, who cares! That script was written for an approved project already in development—no need to appease any picky readers or go through some approval process. Lol! Amy Schumer was asked to write a script by Judd Apatow, something loosely based upon her life, which then the script was heavily influenced by director/producer Mr. Apatow. They developed the story together. She jokes a lot about how she had no idea how to write a screenplay, but loved doing it and hopes to do more. Plus, a lot of the film is improvised. Regardless, it's a great, funny, sweet movie. I just loved Bill Hader. :)

John Watson

Yeah, that is a funny guy.

Richard Willett

I've always heard that the trick with flashbacks is that by the time they occur the audience should be DYING to know what the hell happened back then. I thought suddenly of IN COLD BLOOD, which saves the flashback to the murders till near the end. Some films do open with flashbacks. (Not perhaps the finest high-art example, but a favorite old movie of mine, HUSH . . . HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE comes to mind. The ax murder in the heroine's youth sets up the whole movie. "Time cutting" as Regina and Beth said.) SOPHIE'S CHOICE embeds a lengthy concentration camp flashback in the middle of its Brooklyn love/friendship story, and was criticized for that, but I thought it was very powerful. Totally different genre, but the flashback in UP in justifiably famous. Other recent great examples are THE IMITATION GAME, THE TREE OF LIFE, THE READER, ATONEMENT. There are many examples of very effective flashbacks, so I wouldn't give up on it too soon.

Michael Wearing

I'm a little confused... How can the opening scene be a flashback? It may be in the past from the main thrust of the story, but if we haven't seen anything else yet it can't be a flashback because there's nothing to go back from....

Jorge J Prieto

Michael, makes an excellent point. I agree.

John Watson

This is for the moderator, isn't putting a screenplay in a proper format only necessary when you are writing a spec script? Like you said about Trainwreak the star was asked to write that script so she doesnt have to abide by any such standards, right?

John Watson

I was wondering if the moderator could respond to my question.

Dan Guardino

John. If you are writing for hire or for your own project you can do whatever you want. Personally I always follow proper formatting no matter what I am writing because it makes it easier for people working on the script after I am finished writing it.

Beth Fox Heisinger

John, sorry, I missed your question. :) As Dan said, when writing for hire or for yourself you can do whatever you or those who hired you want — which was my point about Trainwreck. From my understanding, Judd Apatow knew of Amy Schumer and after listening to her on some radio talk show interview he thought it would be great to base a movie upon her/her life. So, he approached her. As they developed their project I'm sure "proper format" was the least of their worries. However, for you and I, as aspiring screenwriters writing spec scripts, proper formatting certainly helps and would appear more professional. But, worrying or obsessing about proper format is rather a superficial concern, yes? There are much much larger issues to consider, like how to tell and craft a great story. :)

Regina Lee

To Chad D's point, sorry if I mischaracterized the opening of THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. I didn't recall the shrink as the device. I didn't re-watch the movie. Still, I'm glad everyone got the point despite what is apparently my mistake. Thanks for correcting the record, Chad!

John Watson

Thanks, Beth, for the response. I was curious as to why this topic has everyone so fired up. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

You're welcome, John. :) To everyone's great points, there are no rules only tools and devices. What I find so interesting are the various interpretations, opinions and uses of such tools.

Dan Guardino

@ Bruce. I had to laugh because I am rewriting a cop story we've all seen a thousand times. Hopefully movie goers will want to see just one more.

Jorge J Prieto

This is weird or perhaps causality, I just watched this movie, "Philomena" great bio staring Judy Dench and in the first ten minutes they're at least 6 flashbacks and many others through our the film, all very effectively done. They all worked for me, so there you have it.

John Watson

I'm just going to add one more thing and let it go. Everyone should be on the safe side and do what Beth suggested. Act like you care about formatting when sending out your spec script. Don't try to sell a prospect on a format that is foreign to him or her. That person just might look at that opening flashback and say, "Flashback from what? PASS."

Beth Fox Heisinger

No, I did not say "act like you care" because I care very much. Truly. I try to put my best foot forward no matter what. I certainly DO NOT think someone would pass on a script just because the writer chose to write "flashback" in an opening... There are far more important factors to consider than that! Just saying there are other ways to consider handling a prelude in writing, how to construct a scene on the page—as did many others within this thread. Plus, every story and all writers are different—so is the intent and what works best for any given script. John, these are only general statements or opinions about flashbacks and formatting. Nothing more. Let's just keep it to that. :)

Elaine Haygood

Just remember Pixar's "Up" starts with what? A flashback sequence that was over 5 minutes long? It was necessary to establish the situation of the main character and especially to show the how he became the person we saw in the present. I sat through the whole thing in the theater with both my sons and didn't make or hear a single groan out of anyone. I just said this earlier today to someone else, but, this is clearly a matter of execution. do it right, and no one will fault you and if they do, maybe they're not the right person for your project.

C. D-Broughton

That wasn't a flashback in Up, but the story of how the couple met and grew old together. It's incredibly moving and a short in its own right. Actually, it was my favourite part of the whole film. And I can't believe the O.P.'s opinion of a flashback in the first place! A crutch for poor writing? Really? If utilised properly, a flashback helps move a story forwards quicker than anything, whilst giving it some much needed depth. Perhaps the problem here isn't the use of a flashback, but the poor use of one? I can't say because I've not read the script, but to dismiss such a great storytelling tool because a lot of (amateur) writers don't know how to use it properly, is folly. Sigh. This is like saying that a narration is shite to be avoided. Some scripts just need it and work so much better for it, whereas others suffer. Take your pick - it's your story and whatever works works... though really, you should always be trying to find whatever works best.

Tony DiSibio

I think if it's something you feel passionate about and you truly feel is essential to your story, then don't worry about the "stigma" surrounding an opening flashback, just work on making it a great. Edit it and go over it again and again and again until you feel it is perfect (along with the rest of your story). If you start worrying about what "Hollywood" is looking for in screenplays, it could prevent you from creating something great that everyone enjoys. Good luck!

William Martell

Nothing wrong with a flashback as long as it moves the story forward and increases the conflict in present time. It's those flashbacks that only exist to drop in a steaming pile of exposition that give them a bad name.

Diana McIntyre

It is very important as memory is how we start. Either start at the beginning. We need to love this character, to even care. The average viewer decides in the first five minutes, to watch or leave. Whatever its a flashback so funny or so traumatic or so powerful you go my heart. I can not leave this story.

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

Hello Howard, IMO, - if your opening image/setup occurs in the past, this is not a flashback because that respects the chronology. The audience don't know that your main story is set in the future (E.G. Up). This is just the beginning, maybe the inciting incident followed by a long ellipse that drives you to the main time of your story. Just indicate the time lapse in the headlines, and possibly place a "Super" that gives the time of the action (only if necessary). Except if you have some special reason (element of mystery, special structure ...), this is better to begin your story like that than to insert a flashback later (imagine if the setup of Up were told later in the movie). - If your opening image is in the main time of your story and then you make a flashback to give the setup, you just need a good reason to do that. If you have no good reason, if that's just aesthetic, this will look artificial and this will deconnect the audience from the plot. if so, change either your opening image or your flashback. Good reasons why to open your movie in the main time of the action then return to the past are innumerable (introduce the lead as an adult then tell their backstory, tell the inciting incident, make a loop...) and movies structured like that too (Inception, Cityzen Kane, The Snows Of Kilimanjaro...) Best. :o)

F. Aaron Franklin

Go with what feels right. If you base your style off what "they say," then it ultimately takes the passion out of the art.

Thomas J. Herring

In my horror story, that's all my protagonist sees is flashbacks because some entity is messing with his brain or maybe it's the medication he's on that's doing it. Usually I don't write flashback or dream sequences that much but this story has to have it.

Jorge J Prieto

@Thomas. Go with your instincts, if your story has to have it, like you say, brother, it has to have it.

Zach Rosenau

Film is a medium that has always explored time. Flashback are not allowed - they are encouraged! Toy Story 2 - 'nough said!

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

Hi Howard, Rereading this post today, I notice that in Citizen Kane and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, the main time of the action is in the flashback(s) and the present time is only a way to make a character telling the story. Movies running this way are also innumerable (The Bridges Of Madison County, American beauty...). Some open on a double flashback. E.G.: - The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) opens on a narrator telling about a second narrator who tells the story, - Out Of Africa (1985) opens on the narrator in Denmark telling her story in Africa years earlier, then in Denmark even earlier, then back in the main time of the story in Africa and finishes with the narrator ending to tell her story later in Denmark again. .. - Even more, Out Of Africa is 160 minutes long and the pace is rather slow ("Natives dislike speed, as we dislike noise..." Karen Blixen). - Even-even more, these two movies use what nitpickers also don’t like at all: Voice Over. - And even-even-even more, The Grand Budapest Hotel uses a non conventional structure (setup + 5 acts + epilogue). .. If these movies were still to be made: - There is no doubt that these two scripts would be rejected by every nitpicking readers/doctors/execs ("Out of Africa suffers from excessive length and glacial pacing" http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/out_of_africa/ ... ). - However, there is no doubt that they would win every GOOD contest (whatever the importance) they’d be submitted to... just because these are GREAT scripts: .. - The Grand Budapest Hotel: nominated for over 160 awards and winning over 50, including 13 nominations and 5 win for best original screenplay. Rotten Tomatoes 86% like, ROI 690%. - Out Of Africa: 11 AA nominations and 7 win including Best Adapted Screenplay. 3 Golden Globes win. AFI 2002 100 Years... 100 Passions #13, 2005 100 Years of Film Scores #15. Rotten Tomatoes 83% like, ROI 460%. .. NB: RottenTomatoes was founded in 1998, 13 years after the release of Out Of Africa.

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

Hi Dan, I was thinking the same not so far in the past. However I've changed my mind after some considerations: - 99% of scripts are poor-to-basic in literary value and poor-to-standard in narrative technique (structure, etc.). - This doesn't mean that you can't make a poor to basic movie: 80% of every movie made are poor to basic and 90% of them are made from poor to basic scripts. - But less than 5% of poor to basic scripts become movies. - And most of these 5% are written by guys who ALREADY ARE Industry Insiders. - A bunch of scripts is optionned or sold and never shot, and a bunch of shot scripts is never released (Eric Roberts is renowned for having played in many movies that were never released). NB: no need to argue about the figure, it's only rough but realistic. .. This means that competition is hundred times fiercer between poor to basic scripts than between great scripts, not to add that great scripts don't play in the same category. So IMO, the best way to have your screenplays turned into movies is to make them GREAT whatever the narrative technique you choose, and EVEN MORE if you're not an industry insider. .. BTW: - Out of Africa was written by an unknown American newspaper reporter (Kurt Luedtke) from the memories of a Danish writer of the early 20th century (Karen Blixen) from whom quite nobody read anything anywhere in the world even in her time. - The first feature movie written and directed by Wes Anderson was Bottle Rocket, which was cheap but not so bad. It was made from a previous short by him of the same title. Wes Anderson coproduced all his films and he made a lot of commercials. This is what allowed him to enter the Industry and to have his own scripts shot (not one was shot by anybody else). .. So 1. I repeat my first advice: If you want your script having a chance to becone a movie, whatever the narrative technique, MAKE IT GREAT. 2. I add a second advice: If you want to be SURE your script will be shot, PRODUCE IT and SHOOT IT YOURSELF. And if you want to be sure it will be released, MAKE IT GREAT again and previously BECOME AN INDUSTRY INSIDER. 3. I add a third advice: Don't limit your goal as a writer at SELLING a screenplay. Your goal MUST BE to have it RELEASED even if you don't want to produce or shoot it yourself. Otherwise, you'll never have the gut of making it GREAT.

Christopher Binder

Why do you have to go back and show the antagonist perform the actual act? Just show the results of it in the present.

William Martell

Flashbacks move the story forward.

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat
  1. Flashbacks, Voice Over, loops, multiple plots, low pace, non conventional structures, no dialogue or long monologue, etc etc... everything different, are wonderful tools to make stories unique, fascinating and great, provided they are used in a meaningful way. 2. Totally conventional scripts can also be great, provided they have a high literary value.
Cherie Grant

My comedy opens with a flashback and there are a couple more later on. They are meant to be funny and to show where the characters have come from. Their journey to where they are now and if they've changed or not. one has one hasn't. And they are funny so I think ti's fine.

Dan Guardino

I am glad you understand the stigma surrounding use of a flashback in spec screenplays because I sure don't. The reason people think they are bad is because most the gurus say you shouldn't use them. Maybe if some of those gurus used flashbacks they would be writing hit movies instead of those how to books for a living.

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

Hi there, I went over 20 of 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards nominee (Carol, The Martian) and winner movies I found the scripts: 2016: (88th) - Spotlight (Best Original Screenplay) - The Revenant - Bridge of Spies - The Big Short - The Danish Girl - Room - Ex Machina - Inside Out - Son of Saul - Carol - The Martian, 2015: (87th) - Birdman (Best Original Screenplay)- The Grand Budapest Hotel - Whiplash - The Imitation Game (Best Adapted Screenplay) - American Sniper - Boyhood - Interstellar - The Theory of Everything - Still Alice, Searching for the use of some “non conventional” and “highly discouraged” patterns. Here are the figures: - Using V.O. 14 - (70%) - V.O. opening 5 - (25%) - Using Flashbacks/Flashforwards 11 - (55%) - Flashbacks/ Flashforwards opening 5 - (25%) - Using Long descriptions (without dialogue, >= 1 page) 15 - (75%) - Long description opening (>= 1 page) 6 - (30%) - Using Long monologues (>1/2 page) 12 - (60%) - Using Long scenes (>= 3 pages) 20 - (100%) - Using “Non Standard“ structure (3 acts, linearity,...) 5 - (25%) - Long descriptions extend up to 9 ½ pages (The Martian) - Long scenes extend up to 8 pages (Birdman, Room) - V.O. or Long description opening are used 11 times (55%) - Combining Flashback/flashforward opening with V.O. or Long Description opening is used 5 times (25%) -- Non conventional structures are used at least in: - Inside Out (superimposed universes) - Interstellar (loop, superimposed and out of sync times of the same universe) - Son Of Saul (5 acts) - The Grand Budapest Hotel (5 acts + prologue and epilogue) - Boyhood (5 acts) As a matter of fact, things occurring more than 50% of time are usually considered as "standard"; and things occurring at least 25% of time are not considered as "non conventional". And my opinion is that NOBODY serious should stigmatize their use.

Jody Ellis

I don't necessarily see anything "wrong" with flashbacks but they are probably one of the most-often misused tools for beginning writers. That's why they usually aren't recommended. And I don't think it's relevant to quote academy award nominated movies as a good reason to use flashbacks, mainly because those movies are written by seasoned writers who know what they're doing and have a resume that enables them to break the "rules".

Pierre Langenegger

This thread is about spec scripts. How many of those Academy nominated scripts started as spec scripts? When you're hired to write a studio script, you can write it any way you like but it basically comes down to the fact that you should use what works for your story. A well told story will succeed with or without flashbacks.

David Taylor

If it opens with it, don't make it a flashback. Write it straight, then 'sixteen years later' or whatever the number is - and don't go back.

William Martell

Nothing wrong with flashbacks as long as they are used correctly - the problem is that so many new writers use them incorrectly (to fill in backstory or story info they forgot to mention earlier). A flashback moves the story forward. It escalates the conflict. So in RESERVOIR DOGS a bunch of armed robbers meet in a warehouse after a robbery goes wrong and they realize one of them had to tell the cops what was going down, because it was an ambush. Mr. Orange has been gutshot and is bleeding out on the floor as everyone else points guns at each other and accuses them of being the rat. Now we get Orange's flashback: he's an undercover cop! When we come out of the flashback, the information has escalated the conflict because now the one man who can not defend himself is the "rat", and if any of the others discover this, they'll kill him. Now when Mr. Blonde shows up with that cop in the trunk, we worry that the cop will identify Mr. Orange. Everything has become worse after we come out of that flashback, because of that info. So, flashbacks need to move the story forward and escalate the conflict. Do that, and no one cares.

Lorenzo L. Johnson, Jr

Funny, my story is a series of flashbacks. However, they connect the dots a lot like the movie Vantage Point. (I think that's the name)

Doug Nelson

Howard, I don't see any stigma to using flashbacks as long as they enhance the story. It's the use of them as a cheap backstory infill that's frowned upon. Watch a film called The Bridges of Madison County to see how the writer used flashbacks and even a flashback within a flashback to enhance the story. I don't think you “get around” it – just deal with it. I'm working on a story right now that follows a girl's growth from 5 years, 10 years, 15 years with a conclusion at 20 or 25 years. It's a linear story that's based on flashbacks. Watch “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

1° - What makes a script good IS NOT the fact it’s a spec or not, but how good and well told is its story, - and there are multiple ways to break through the gates, - and your best chance to have it done is to make it the BEST. 2° - Just as it comes to my mind: - Absence of Malice (AA best original screenplay nominee 1981) was the first spec by Kurt Luedke, - Out Of Africa (AA best adapted screenplay 1985) was his second spec - Andrea Berloff (Staight Outta Compton) wrote World Trade Center (2006)as a spec. - etc. Which is totally of no importance because... 3° - ... Arguing about the sampling is totally irrelevant as: - These figures are almost the same for every movies released. - NO reps' or execs' professional readers and coverage services worry about the use of these tools as long as it makes your story better, as well as good contests. 4° - Although: - Nobody tells you about the 4 years, the whole writing team and the dozen of rewrites, till an almost failure, it took to Pete Docter to make Inside Out the masterpiece it is, trying to find the right backstory (Riley, hockey, relocation...), the right characters (Sadness instead of Fear,...), etc; etc. - Nobody tells you how Woody Allen kept the script of The Purple Rose Of Cairo on a shelf for years before he found the right ending, - etc. etc. 5°- The truth is that: - Unless you entered the business through another gate and you found your way in making bad to dull movies, - bad scripts fall down in trash, - good scripts also fall down in trash, - some great scripts also fall down in trash, - because there are less movies to be made than great scripts available. - Writing a great script is a long-long journey full of pitfalls, and TIME, WORK and EXTENDED WRITING SKILLS are the best help a writer can use to overcome these traps. The more basic your writing is, the less chance you have to succeed. -- 6° - Using properly these tools is SKILLS. Read great scripts to understand how these tools work and make use of all of them as soon as possible, even if you're a novice writer, because: a) a couple of them are always as NECESSARY as the use of subtext to add some spice/depth in any good screenplay. b) EVERYBODY will pretend knowing the how to but as you can see, NOBODY will be able to teach it to you. c) ... so you'll have to learn it by yourself, fixing your mistakes one at a time... d) ...and you'll have AGAIN to learn it by yourself, fixing your mistakes one at a time... c) etc.

Laurie Ashbourne

Bravo, David. It makes me crazy when I'm given a script and the first scene is identified as a flashback. You can't flashback from fade in. Play it straight then identify how much time has lapsed in the next scene.

Jody Ellis

@Laurie yes. One of m my scripts starts in 1976, then goes to "Super - 1986", keeping it linear while jumping ahead in time. Unfortunately flashbacks are often seen as a lazy way to tell the story, which is quite often true. I think flashbacks can be a great tool, as any other methods can be, when used properly. @Jean-Marie, sorry but a spec script from 1981 isn't a great example. The market has changed completely since then and spec scripts simply aren't being bought like they were in the 80s and 90s (or early 2000s for that matter). While I agree the most important thing is that the story and writing are good, they must also be executed in a way that is not off-putting to the reader (i.e.; those who may actually purchase your script).

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

@Jody As I said above, this is of no importance because at the moment, NO reps' or execs' professional readers and coverage services worry about the use of these tools as long as it makes your story better.

Jody Ellis

@Patricia I think your situation might be a bit different in that you are co-producing and your scripts are, at this point, shooting scripts?

Dan Guardino

Patricia. It is impossible for first scene to be a flashback.

Jody Ellis

One of my scripts is exactly the same, first scene is 10 years earlier. But that isn't a flashback. Yes, I had to show it was 1976 in first scene, then in transition to the era of the rest of the script, I headed it with SUPER - 1986.

Jody Ellis

My point Patricia, is what you are describing is not a flashback.

Doug Nelson

Patricia – your script must be written in present tense so that everything the audience sees is what's happening in the here and now on the screen. Technically I don't see how you can open with an historical “flashback”. I'm working on a story right now that starts with a 5 year old disabled protagonist that covers her growth/development through 10, 15 and 20 year phases, but the entire story is presented in present tense. I don't need to start with her story as an accomplished writer (you'd recognize her name) today and look backward. Generally, I think a linear story line works best, so yeah I'm anti flashback but I do recognize their usefulness in certain situations – kind of like weaving the “A” and “B” story around the same character. My story an I'm sticken to it.

C. D-Broughton

So, um, how do I stop getting e-mails every time somebody replies to this thread?

Beth Fox Heisinger

If you'd like to change your email notifications click the "gear" icon found in the upper right corner, scroll down to "notifications" and set your preferred email settings. :)

Doug Nelson

Patricia, you and I are in complete agreement on this topic – we must have gone to the same school; I'm preaching what you know and you're preaching what I know. So the conversation between you and I is pointless: However, I find that newbie writers often misuse flashbacks so that I sincerely that they gain some knowledge. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

@ Dan, There are innumerable ways (and reasons) to use a "technically real" flashback in the opening of a script... E.G. : Indiana Jones (x episodes), The Revenant, Interstellar... @ Patricia: I like the way you work with flashbacks. Smart. Make me think to The Grand Budapest Hotel beginning and ending. BTW, writers tend more and more to make linearity breaches smoother (depending on the effect needed of course) and there are also lots of ways to do so (narration: memories, cascade, etc... technique: V.O. from one time over action from another time, reversal sequences, etc...) There are also many sorts of prologue, the use of flashback being only one of those. Prologue/epilogue are narrative techniques, flashback is a tool.

John Watson

I think it's been said before. We should kick our story off with a preamble that leads to the meat of the story which is in the present tense. Preamble; Philadelphia , 1992, to present tense, the main content of the story, Los Angeles, 2016.

John Watson

How can you go back from the beginning?

Dan MaxXx

Im curious how do you write the Opening flashback around Titles(credits?)? the script is just paper. There is no 'real' footage yet.

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

About the relevant use of flashbacks and other tools: The cascades of flashbacks and flash-forwards at the beginning an the ending of The Grand Budapest Hotel are a great way to raise the story to a more poetic level. By doing this, Anderson has us in this world out of time and reality at the beginning in some way, then brings us back to reality at the end, leaving us with dreamy memories. What Moustafa expresses in his last line of dialogue: -- "MR. MOUSTAFA To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it -- but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!"

Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat

@DanM, @John: Whatever is written in a script can be shot and shown on a screen (even if sometimes it falls on the floor of the editing room). Read the scripts and watch the movies.

Laurie Ashbourne

The bottom line is, you don't write: FADE IN: EXT. MAIN STREET - DAY (FLASHBACK) Because you cannot flashback from fade in. Instead: FADE IN: EXT. MAIN STREET - DAY Amazing scene that happened in the past that leads to a wonderful segue of EXT. MAIN STREET - DAY SUPER: 29 YEARS LATER OR your first scene has SUPER: 1976 and the present scene is identified in some way to depice whatever time period the present day of your story is. It really is that simple.

Dan Guardino

Patricia I get what you are saying and I am glad your co-producer loves your beginning but that doesn't mean it is a Flashback. Flashback is when a segment of film breaks chronological order by shifting directly to a time past. You did not have a normal chronological order to shift from if this was your first scene. When the main part of the story takes place really has nothing whatsoever to do with this. This is really a minor thing anyway so it really doesn't even matter. Also, just because someone produces film doesn't mean they know more than a screenwriter when it come to writing screenplays.

Dan Guardino

Patricia. What you are doing is fine but it is not considered a Flashback. If anything you are going to Flash forward or just go to present sometime after your first scene.

Charlie Frazier

Simply start your story, leave off the words, "FLASHBACK" (to a time in the past) and there is no problem. Everyone expects a story to move forward, so if you need to express a different time that is much further in the future, in the next scene or wherever, then you can post your present date to let your audience know why your characters have aged.

William Martell

Nothing wrong with a flashback if it moves the story forward and escalates the conflict. If the story starts with a "flashback" it's not really a flashback (just a shift in time to "Ten Years Later" or whatever). A zillion movies do this, from action flicks like FACE/OFF to rom-coms to science fiction to... Just don't bore us. You need to grab us in those first pages and not let go.

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