A flashback, according to Syd Field, noted author of books about screenplay writing, “is a technique that bridges time, place, and action to reveal information about the character or move the story forward.” Contrary to its name, the literary device does more than just look back; writers can flash forward to the future or laterally to other present realities as well. Flashbacks show up in films, television, plays, fiction, and nonfiction.
Flashbacks are an engaging way to impart information the audience needs. Sometimes exposition in prose or dialogue feels clunky or unnatural or slows the story. Always have a solid reason to use a flashback. Examples of good uses for flashbacks include:
- Revealing a past emotional event that shaped the character
- Showing how or why an event happened
- Contrasting a character’s behavior in the past to present behavior
- Illustrating a pattern of behavior
- Revealing a crucial past decision that led to a character’s current situation
Just as you need a solid reason for using a flashback, you also need a solid reason for where to place it in the narrative. Arbitrary placement of flashbacks may confuse the audience. In general, place them as late in the narrative as you can, at the last possible moment before the audience needs that information to make sense of what comes next. Place it too early, and you kill the suspense and momentum. Tie the flashback to something the character feels at a given moment. For example, imagine your protagonist lying on the ground, bleeding. A flashback could tie to one of many triggers, including: a memory of something else happening in this same spot, a memory of being in this much pain before, or the crucial decision in the past that led the protagonist to this outcome.
In fiction or nonfiction, a common tip is to write the flashback as a complete scene. In screenplays, flashbacks are often truly just flashes—quick, visual representations of what the character feels or remembers. Be sure to orient the audience in time and place by showing when and where the flashback takes place and which people matter in it.
Shifts in verb tense usually signal the beginning and end of a flashback. If the rest of the piece is in past tense, then use past-perfect for the flashback. (If the flashback is long, then past-perfect may become cumbersome. Create a consistent rule for yourself, such as: the first paragraph and the last paragraph of the flashback are in past perfect, while everything in between is in past.) If the rest of the piece is in the present tense, then write in simple past tense for the flashback.
With these tips in mind, your flashbacks will light up the sky to guide the audience through your story.