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Screenplay Formatting: Tips Archive > Format > How To Format Flashbacks

How To Format Flashbacks In A Screenplay                Start a Free Blog!

Elaine Radford


The purpose of flashbacks in a screenplay is to give the audience information that is  needed to move the story forward and to clarify the actions of the characters. They  should only be used when absolutely necessary.

When a character recalls an important event from his past, that memory can be shown in a  flashback. But the flashback should be a significant event, one that influenced the  character's actions in the present. This event should provide the audience with clues about  the character's motivation. The flashback can reveal a strong desire or recall a terrifying,  thrilling, shameful, or happy experience.

Techniques For Formatting a Flashback

To determine where a flashback is needed in the script, the screenwriter should decide when the audience needs to know something from the character's past. Getting into the flashback scene—transitioning—is just as important as the flashback scene itself. Transitions must be executed smoothly and seamlessly so that the audience is not jolted from the present to the past, and back again to the present.

To smoothly transition into a flashback from a present-time scene, you can use techniques that evoke the protagonist's memory. He can look at a photograph that carries him back in time. He can gaze at a lake or mountain that carries him back to a similar setting in his past. Or he can hear a melody that evokes a memory of a past time.

Here is an example of formatting a transition to a flashback and a flashback scene:


Kim gets up from the sofa. Crosses the room to the window. Gazes down at people
walking along the street. She stares at a mother and a young girl about her
own age.

                                                                                                       FLASHBACK TO:


Kim's mother is in a hospital bed. Kim is holding her hand, squeezing hard.

                          Mother, mother open your eyes.

Kim drops her mother's lifeless hand. She stares with unbelieving eyes.
A voice calls her name, "Kim! Kim!"


Kim turns away from the window. Steve is calling her name.

Kim! Kim! Are you okay?


You seemed far away when I called you.

In the above example, the present-time scene transitions into a flashback. Kim gazes out the window and sees a mother and daughter who evoke a memory of her own mother.

The words, FLASHBACK TO (all caps), appear at the right of the page, indicating that the next scene is a flashback. The flashback scene itself is formatted like any other scene. In this example, it is set in a Saigon hospital. We see Kim's memory of her dying mother. So the audience learns what happened to Kim's mother and how it affected her.

Notice how the flashback transitions back to the present-time scene. Kim hears a voice calling her name, calling her back to the present. The words, BACK TO PRESENT (all caps), appear on the left side of the page, indicating that we are leaving the flashback and returning to the present time. The transition is smooth because we see Kim turn away from the window where her memory was first evoked in a flashback. She turns away because a voice distracts her from her memory and makes her focus on the present time.

By reading screenplays with flashbacks, you'll learn how to transition into and out of them and when to use them effectively. They shouldn't be used indiscriminately. It's best to show action in present time and use flashback scenes only to give the audience information it can't get from present-time action.

To write a flashback scene, ask yourself several questions:

What does the audience need to know about the protagonist's past that cannot be shown
      in a present-time scene?

2.) Where does the flashback take place? Describe the geographic location.

3.) When does the flashback memory take place? Pinpoint the time period. Did the event
      take place in the character's childhood, several months ago, or many years ago?

4.) Who are the other characters in the flashback and why are they important?

5.) How is the character's memory evoked as a flashback? This is known as the transition
  into the flashback. Does a place, sound, picture, or present event trigger a memory?
     How does the character return (transition) to the present from his memory, or flashback?
     Does someone call his name, telephone him, tap him on the shoulder?

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The Last Victim
A Novel by
Elaine Bossik

Elaine Bossik writes screenwriting articles for under the pen name, Elaine Radford. Elaine's new novel, "The Last Victim," has been published and is now available in paperback.
Read more....

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