Flashback scenes were once a popular device in Hollywood. Now they usually scream: amateur writer. Readers usually don’t like flashbacks. They can seem contrived. Flashbacks shatter the barrier between reader and writer and stop the forward momentum of the story.
One reason why flashbacks undercut screenplays is that beginning writers frequently use them as crutches, as a way of getting necessary information (exposition) across to the audience. Unless flashbacks advance the story or generate their own excitement, most experienced writers avoid them.
Of course, successful screenwriters do incorporate flashbacks into their stories – but they use flashbacks as a storytelling device, meaning the flashback itself is an integral part of how the story unfolds. The flashback has a valid purpose.
Ted Tally effectively uses flashbacks in his script, The Silence of the Lambs – for instance, when Clarice Starling runs into the parking lot after her initial meeting with Hannibal Lector, she flashes to a past memory of her father’s death (an integral part of the story, as well as Clarice’s character arc).
You can effectively use a flashback by putting the “backstory” scene or memory in forward motion. Instead of telling the audience what happened in the past, use the flashback to show the affect that the past experience has on the present situation.
Here are 3 steps to create an effective flashback scene.
Step 1: Insert or select an organic element in the present-day scene to use as a “trigger” for the character to remember the past experience - such as a couple kissing in a romantic bistro, a photograph of a soldier, a red dress hanging in a boutique display window.
Step 2: Use the flashback event as a means to “spark” a new thought or idea in the character’s mind in the present moment. The new thought or idea must support the character arc or story arc. This technique allows the reader to “see’” what the character is thinking in a visual way and connects the flashback (or memory) to the present.
Step 3: Use the character’s new thought, idea or knowledge (which was sparked by the memory) to generate the character’s next action, decision or choice. This technique allows the story to move forward in a cohesive way (even when the narrative is not presented chronologically) while continuing to serve the through-line.