Monday, October 21, 2013


In today's Screenwriter Carnival, I'm challenging my cohorts to think of one screenwriting myth they would love to correct.

My pick: Flashbacks.

New writers hear it all the time: Don't use your screenplay. It's the death knell. NEVER EVER DO IT OR YOU WILL BE DESTROYED.

Balderdash, I say.

As an action writer, I love to start things in medias res, which is a literary term for starting right in the middle of the action. I don't usually do that "Three weeks earlier" thing made popular by Alias, but I do like to skip the boring shit and start with guns ablazin. The downside of that is that at some point I'm going to have to fill in the story I skipped over in order to start here. Flashbacks are excellent in that capacity.

I didn't set out to use flashback in every screenplay, but it has happened. My last three specs have all used them because I had to.

And there's the trick, really. Use them if you have to. Use them if they give us something we can't get from the linear storyline. It takes skill and practice to use them right, and that's why new writers are told not to use them. If you don't know what you're doing, just don't do it.

So how do you use flashbacks correctly? Let's go to my favorite example, In Bruges.


The film starts off as a comedy. We don't know why Ray is in Bruges, but we know he did something stupid and now he's hiding out until the shit blows over. Ray is hilarious because he's an asshole, an asshole we can kind of relate to, but an asshole nonetheless.

Then, halfway through the film, we flash back to what Ray did. We learn that in the middle of completing a job he was paid to do, he also killed a little boy. And when we come out of that flashback, we're in a different film. Suddenly we realize that all this time, what we thought was funny asshole behavior was really Ray coping with what he did. And from this point on, the story is much more serious. We take his suicidal behavior not as a joke, but as a real possibility. We feel sad for him now, where before we felt humor.

That one flashback added information to our story. It told us something that completely changed our view of this world and our character. It changed the tone and the meaning of everything that had come before. Without that flashback, we'd be missing information.

So if you want to use flashbacks in your story, make them mean something. Make them more than just a cute little expositiony scene with information we could have gotten some other way. Make your flashback count for something. Make it necessary.

But don't go around your elbow to get to your thumb just because some guru somewhere said not to use flashbacks. Flashbacks can be awesome if you use them with care.

Participating blogs:
Red Right Hand


  1. Great post, I actually made a comment out loud concerning flashbacks, recently. My wife does not like it when I do this and gives me that look. And since we both enjoyed the show we were watching (and not, as usual, one of us applying marital politics) I should have shut up.

    What was I talking about? ... Oh, yeah; Orange Is The New Black uses flashbacks beautifully. You don't even notice them most of the time; the plot keeps skipping ahead and the flashback actually seems to be timely to the story and then you merge back into current time all the better for it. It was actually fun to watch how they were stitched together.



    1. I've only seen a few episodes of that, but I do remember the flashbacks doing a great job at surprising us with new information. Good example.

  2. Good point! Martin McDonagh is kind of spoiled for me, though, ever since I directed "The Pillowman." It's such an amazing play that it's hard for me to not compare other things he does to it. I still *like* In Bruges, just wish it were more like The Pillowman.

    Most of my favorite movies break famous "rules"--Brazil uses dream sequences better than almost any movie I know of, Eternal Sunshine is almost entirely flashback--except, of course, that he found a way to make them forward moving as well. (Charlie Kaufman, you magnificent bastard.) Community did an entire show that was nothing but flashbacks--though they were flashbacks to scenes we'd never seen before.

  3. Great post! Now I have to go watch In Bruges again...


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