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Use of flashbacks in features?

Hey there lockdown shooters! I'm writing a drama script with the story very much dependent on two timelines - the past and the present. So I'm using a lot of flashbacks. What are your thoughts on the use of flashbacks in a movie? And can anyone suggest movies that use them effectively, without drowning the narrative?
One that comes to mind which I love is Manchester by the Sea - I love how a story can be told in a fragmented way with each piece building a picture. Any other films you can think of?

  • Hi Patty,

    The consensus is often that flashbacks need to be an integral part of the storytelling technique and structure of the script. As opposed to as a way of getting out of a tricky narrative hole and consequently using the flashback as handy exposition to do so. The most effective flashbacks often feel the ones that form a considerable part of the narrative and have some kind of thematic purpose.

    We have two articles below that speak to your queries. How to use flashback meaningfully and examples of films that have done so.

    Hope they are helpful!

    3 months ago
    • Hey - thanks for those links! I'll check them out now :) Thanks for the response too, I agree, flashbacks should be used constructively, and that's why I wanted to pay some attention to how other movies do that. It's easy to fall into clichees or use them as easy expositional tools.

      3 months ago
  • A flashback is often classed as lazy writing, as used in bad US soap operas.

    But yours doesn't sound like a 'flash' back, it sounds like two different timelines/storylines intertwining, which is fine. Often those timelines converge and the past catches up with the present towards the end.

    I'm sure there are lots, but the one that comes to mind is Man on Wire, which is a documentary, yes, but it worked very well.


    3 months ago
    • That's exactly it - a past and a present storyline that interlink. I always assumed you'd call that a flashback. Thanks for the suggestion, I'll look it up :)

      3 months ago
  • Flashbacks themselves can be awful or they can be everything. Memento or Irreversible would be nothing without non-linear time. In fact I find straight linear timelines to sometimes be a little vanilla. Imagine "Gone Girl" as a chronological series of events, or any police/detective/heist movie?

    My 2p, use whatever serves the story best every time. If you know you're being lazy, stop yourself, if you are revealing important information for the story, fill your boots. I feel it works best when it is new information for one of the story characters, (not just new information for the audience,) so influences the story direction, not just painting over cracks :)

    3 months ago
    • Or be lazy in this draft and work out a better way later when you're more confident of what the story needs more than the flashback delivers :)

      3 months ago
    • @Stuart Wright yup, I agree - they can definitely be lazy but that's what a first draft is for - throw it all on there, step back and find what you need to keep later. I guess it's not the flashback, it's what you do with it that counts.

      3 months ago
  • Yes, those 3 films ^^
    The key word is 'flash'. If it's not actually a brief flash, then it's probably fine.

    3 months ago
  • The mention of MEMENTO makes me remember Bruce Snyder and his inexplicable hate for that film (which I thought was pretty good) in his famous book "Save the Cat".
    The Netflix series DARK plays with flashback and time quite effectively. It is strongly helped by casting actors who actually look like their older/younger selves (if you are going to that extent) and by effective costumes and especially set-dressing to depict the different time periods that are set in the same locations. That doesn't help you much if you are writing the script, but you might consider certain objects as being anchors in time (e.g. a specific watch or landmark, etc)
    I think in the context of a 120-min film, it's quite a challenge to keep a good structure (e.g. a 3-act structure) and play well with time. A worthwhile challenge though as it can be fantastic. DUNKIRK plays with time magnificently (not really flashbacks though - all 3 time streams run forward iirc).

    3 months ago
  • Tarantino describes his non-linear style of storytelling as the order in which he wants to tell the story... I think as long as the narrative in the present is being driven forward by what your dramaticising, it doesn't matter how much you flip flop your timeline around ... LITTLE WOMEN was exquisite in the use of flashback for story... The entire season of DAMAGES is a flashback that brings us closer and close to the present by the final episode and everyone has mentioned MEMENTO... I think the key and one I struggle with is the clever use of flashback to reveal new story info/character insight vs filling a story hole I've left empty... Have you watched DA 5 BLOODS on Netflix... I think this is vague enough to not be a spoiler - There's a moment where a character shows you their stomach & this triggers a flashback that completes a character's story arc superbly that might be worth a look. It's a vital piece of information about a character's life that is held onto to the point you forget you even need it and then boom, his actions the entire film make perfect sense...

    3 months ago
    • Cheers - another friend mentioned Little Women which I have seen and completely forgot about the interweaving of past and present. Evidently done well enough to not stand out! I have the script downloaded and will be giving that a read.

      3 months ago
  • The best film for me that has the best use of flashback is the shawshank redemption, Watch the film and read the script. Thank me later.

    3 months ago
  • For me, Flash backs can come across as cheap. I would recommend trying to be creative with it. Maybe even a flash back through someone telling a story. If you were working on a more comedic part, here is a really creative scene I love from Marvels 'Ant Man'.

    2 months ago