The 10 commandments of screenplay format (#8)

Did you know that a "poor" screenplay format is one of the Top 7 Deadly Mistakes of a Bad Screenplay?

No wonder that Formatville's motto is:
"Live by its 10 commandments or" - like Donnie Brasco would say - "Fuhgeddaboudit"

So if you want YOUR screenplay to be read and not tossed, apply these script formatting guidelines. Today the eighth commandment.

Screenplay Format Commandment #8: Thou shalt use flashback responsibly

#8: "Thou Shalt Use Flashback Responsibly"

We asked our screenplay format expert, Matt, aka Formatman, to lead us through the 10 formatting commandments.

If you missed the introduction to this series of articles, you may want to check it out first.
Here is the link to Part 1, where it all started.

In this article, full of screenplay extracts and videos, you'll discover everything you need to write a powerful flashback. You will know:

-- what a flashback is,

-- the 7 key components of a flashback,

-- the controversy around flashback,

-- when to use flashback,

-- how to test ride your flashback, and

-- the screenplay format of a flashback.

Flashback - What It Is

In terms of screenplay format, a Flashback is a technique used to reveal backstory.

It is a scene (or a series of scenes) that takes place at an earlier time (a week, a month, x years ago) than the time when the main story happens.

It usually gets triggered by a picture, a scent, a word, that brings the character - in a flash - back to a particular moment in the past.

The screenwriter Waldo Salt, who won an Academy Award for Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, saw a flashback as a "flashpresent," because the visual image we're seeing is what the character is thinking and feeling at that present moment, whether a memory, or fantasy, or event; a flashpresent being anything that illuminates a character's point of view.

Flashback in Action - An Example

This video extract from The Bourne Identity, screenplay written by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron, shows an example of an effective flashback.
Bourne Identity - Flashback

Flashback - 7 Key Components

There are 7 elements which need to be present to make a flashback effective:


    In other words, a flashback should not compensate a problem in your screenplay, a lack of imagination or writing skills.

  2. It has a powerful TRIGGER.

    In this case, the confrontation between Jason Bourne and his boss Conklin and the evocation of Wombosi boat trigger the memory back of why Jason Bourne did not fulfill his assignment

  3. There is a SEAMLESS TRANSITION between the present and the past and again back to the present.

    In our example, and although the flashbacks are short, we have no problem following the story and knowing when we are in the present and when we are in the past.

    The process is smooth.

    We start with Jason Bourne, go to his past, get back to Jason Bourne. The focus remains on the character having the flashback.


    In our example, it explains why Jason Bourne was found floating half dead on the ocean and it "illuminates his point of view" (like Waldo Salt would say) and revals his human side when he declares that he does not want to be an assassin anymore.

  5. It is usually SHORT (unless the story is a long flashback, like in The Reader).

  6. It shows each event in a CHRONOLOGICAL manner.

    In our example, we first see the boat, then the gun on Wombosi's head, then the view of the child, then Jason Bourne being shot).

    Imagine how complicated it would be for the audience if we were first to start with Bourne being shot, then the view of the child, then the gun, etc.

    This would have us definitely break the 3rd commandment of screenplay format, Thou Shalt Not Slow Down The Reader.


    There is no ambiguity about when the scene takes place. See below for the screenplay formatting guidelines.

Flashback - The Controversy

Many people will tell you NOT to use any flashback in your screenplay for a number of reasons:

  • A flashback is about backstory.

    And one of the "guidelines" of writing skilfully is to have the backstory in the background and not in the foreground, as this becomes the case with a flashback.

  • A flashback interrupts the flow of the story.

    It requires the reader / audience to make an additional effort to understand your story. When this is not done effectively, you get to slow down the reader and have him be out of the story.

  • Flashbacks are often predictable.

    How many times did you see a movie director zoom on the face of the hero and you told yourself "And off we go to Memory Lane".

    When you see that happening, you are no more in the story, you are in your thoughts.

    You don't want this to happen to YOUR audience.

  • Last but not least, readers are usually "allergic" to flashbacks as they have seen too many new writers using this device ineffectively.

    More than often they have seen flashbacks that were not NECESSARY and only a compensation for something lacking in the story telling.

    As a result, their alarm bell goes off as soon as they read the word Flashback in your screenplay.

Flashback - When To Use It

We have now reached the 64.000 dollars question.

When should you use flashback?

The generally accepted answer is: NEVER!

What? Never?

Yes, unless a flashback can be justified by

a. the story telling, like in:

-- The Bourne Identity,
-- Annie Hall,
-- The Reader
-- Slumdog Millionaire),


b. the structure of the story, like in:

--Memento, that gets told "backwards".
-- About Time

How Not To Flashback - That Is The Question

Compare these 2 videos.

Both regard a memory of the war.

The treatment of the event is different but the audience is left with the same result.

The first one is explicit and uses flashback images. It is from The Pacific.

The Pacific - Flashback

The second one doest not use any flashback images and creates the same result with sounds. It is from The Legend of Bagger Vance, screenplay written by Jeremy Leven

The Legend of Bagger Vance - Flashback

7 Questions to Test Ride Your Flashback

You wrote a flashback scene anyway?

These 7 questions will help you determine if you should keep it or look for an alternative.

Our recommendation? Be brutal with yourself and tell the truth.

  1. Is this flashback absolutely necessary? Really? Are you sure? 1000%?

  2. Does your flashback include the 7 key components we mentioned above?

  3. What would happen to your story if you were to leave this flashback out?

  4. Is this flashback original or have we seen this scene already 100 times?

  5. Is this flashback the result of a lack of planning at an earlier stage when you wrote your story? i.e. you missed an element and this flashback provides you now with a quick fix.

  6. Could you replace this flashback with dialogue or subtext?

  7. Could you replace this flashback by showing the behavior of your character?
Discover 21 Screenwriting Tips
to Max Out Your Reading of a Screenplay

BONUS: Get our FREE UPDATES straight in your mailbox.

Flashback - How to Write it

In terms of screenplay format a flashback often starts with a line announcing the flashback.

-- This line is either spoken by the character, like in Fight Club, screenplay written by Jim Uhls: "I already knew the story before he told it to me."

-- or it is included in the action part, like in The Silence of the Lambs, screenplay written by Ted Tally: "She is seeing, in her mind's eye -"

As often in screenplay format, there are a few ways to write a flashback scene:

  1. The word "FLASHBACK" comes at the end of the master scene heading.
    This is an example from Vanilla Skye, written by Cameron Crowe.
               MCCABE           Tell me. What's happiness for            you?              INT. JULIANNA GIANNI'S CAR - DAWN - FLASHBACK            JULIANNA           What's happiness to you, David?            INT. PRISON PSYCHIATRIC UNIT - NIGHT - BACK TO PRESENT            DAVID           How about another question           	
  2. Another way is illustrated in the screenplay "The Bourne Ultimatum", written by Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi. In this case Flashback is treated as a montage.
         INT. NIGHT. PHARMACY BATHROOM -- MOSCOW                             BOURNE finishing up -- splashes water on his face -- he     seems a man on a mission. He looks up --                                                                         A MIRROR.         His face...      FLASHBACK -- JUMBLED STREAKY IMAGES:                                    "415" written on a building.         Bourne Identity - Flashback                              DISEMBODIED VOICE (HIRSCH)                    Welcome to the program...         POV Bourne walks down a corridor (corridor #1).      INT. NIGHT PHARMACY -- MOSCOW                                      

Talking about montage, you see sometimes in movies the memory of the hero being triggered and the next scene shows you an old movie. How does this get done in terms of screenplay format?

This is an example from the screenplay "The Game", written by John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris.

      He looks out his window, watching the street roll past...        FLASHBACK/GRAINY HOME MOVIES -- 1960'S -- DAY       SILENT, HOME MOVIE-ISH IMAGES as before: YOUNG NICHOLAS, 10,      peers out from a LIMOUSINE,         The Game - Flashback        watching his neighborhood      pass... PERIOD FASHIONS, PERIOD CARS and HOUSES...       BACK TO SCENE, IN THE BENTLEY      

How about a series of flashbacks? one after the other. How do you write that in terms of screenplay format?

There are again different ways to do that.

  • This is an example from the screenplay "Anna Karenina", written by Tom Stoppard.
             INT. ANNA'S BOUDOIR, KARENIN HOUSE, SAME TIME--DAY                                   It is early in the day. Anna's maid, Annushka, has been          dressing Anna. Annushka is young, loyal, modest.                                   Anna is at her dressing-table-bureau, which is host to          at least two photographs of a small boy (Serozha) and          a child's unframed drawing of "Maman." As she starts          reading the letter, Anna's eyes frown.                                                             FLASH BACK, VERY SHORT, ALMOST SUBLIMINAL--                                   INT. (LINEN CLOSET)--DAY                                   Oblonsky and Mlle. Roland in a passionate embrace,          vertical, clothed.                                                             BACK TO SCENE                                   Anna turns the page, reads on, concerned.                                                             FLASH BACK-- SHORT, A BEAT OR TWO--                                   INT. LINEN CLOSET, OBLONSKY HOUSE--DAY                                   Still kissing, Oblonsky hoists up her skirts.                                                             BACK TO SCENE                                   Anna turns to the second page.          

  • And this an example from the Game again, when flashback is used as series of insert
                                    CHRISTINE                     Check your accounts.  That night in                     your office, when we were there...       FLASHBACK -- NICHOLAS' OFFICE -- THAT NIGHT       Christine runs her finger down Nicholas' TELEPHONE.  She      looks to see Nicholas is preoccupied, lifts the receiver...       Reads the PHONE NUMBER underneath.  She turns, looks down...       There's a NUMBER written on the PHONE JACK on the wall: #C4.                                 CHRISTINE                     I got the number to your private line                     and modem.  I gave C.R.S. remote                     access to your computer...        FLASHBACK -- VARIOUS INSERTS       NICHOLAS' C.R.S. TESTING: Nicholas' hand scribbles his      SIGNATURE... fills out a FINANCIAL QUESTIONNAIRE.  A TAPE      RECORDER'S REEL SPINS... a PENCIL blackens TEST BLOCKS...                                 CHRISTINE                     You already gave them everything                     else.  Handwriting, voice samples,                     psych-info.  They used it all to                     figure out your passwords.       FLASHBACK: ON A MONITOR, combinations of LETTERS and NUMBERS      SCROLL BY, multiplying, too quickly for the eye to see...                                 CHRISTINE                     From there, they only had to keep you                     distracted while they broke into the                     network and transferred your holdings                     to dummy accounts.       FLASHBACK: FIGURES appear on a COMPUTER SCREEN; HIGH NUMBERS      flying down to 000,000,000's.  More NUMBERS, falling.                                 CHRISTINE                     Remember Jim Feingold, the guy who                     signed you up?  He did five years for                     hacking Citibank in eighty-four...       FLASHBACK: PAN UP from deft fingers at a keyboard to JIM      FEINGOLD, lit by cold COMPUTER SCREEN GLOW.       BACK TO SCENE IN BENTLEY 

How to end a flashback scene in terms of screenplay format?

As we saw in above examples there are different ways to do that:

  • in Vanilla Skye "BACK TO PRESENT" is used at the end of the a master scene heading (i.e. INT. PRISON PSYCHIATRIC UNIT - NIGHT - BACK TO PRESENT)

  • in The Game and Anna Karenina "BACK TO SCENE" is used as a secondary scene heading

  • and in the Bourne Ultimatum, the screenwriters ended the flashback scene with a master scene heading and omitted the "BACK TO SCENE" as they considered it obvious.

The point is, however you choose to do it based on the specific flashback you write, make sure it is clear to the reader that we are back to the present time.

Is it possible in screenplay format to write a flashback without mentioning the name "flashback"?

Yes. I'll give you two examples from The Reader.

In the first example, the screenwriter David Hare mentions the year when the events take place, going back and forth between the present time of the story and the past.

               INT. MICHAEL'S APARTMENT. BERLIN. DAY.                       1995. A modern apartment, all cool and glass. MICHAEL BERG is           preparing breakfast, laying the table for two...                      Michael goes to the window and looks out. A yellow            U-Bahn goes by.            The Reader - Flashback           INT. TRAM. DAY.                      December 1958. MICHAEL, now 15, is sitting on a tram.             The Reader - Flashback           He is in a well-cut suit he's inherited, ill-fitting, with two-           tone shoes and tangled mop of hair. Sweat breaks out all over his           face. A WOMAN is staring at him. He's plainly feeling ill.                      INT. MICHAEL'S APARTMENT. DAY                      1995. MICHAEL stands at the window, looking out.            The Reader - Flashback                      INT. TRAM. DAY                      1958. Impulsively MICHAEL gets up, rings the bell and gets           off at the next stop.             The Reader - Flashback                      INT. MICHAEL'S APARTMENT. DAY                      1995. MICHAEL closes the window.            The Reader - Flashback                      EXT. BANHOFSTRASSE. DAY                      SUPER: "Neustadt West Germany 1958"                      It has come on to rain. MICHAEL is walking along the           street, looking more and more sickly.            The Reader - Flashback 			    

On the last picture you can see the use of SUPER (abbreviation for superimpose) with the date of 1958.

This screenplay format is used to show the time we flash back to when the movie is a long flashback.

At the end of the flashback one returns to PRESENT DAY (or in this case 1995).

What is the second example of screenplay format when there is a flashback without mentioning it?

It is when the screenwriter David Hare mentions that the main character has thoughts while having dinner.

           INT. DINING ROOM. BERG APARTMENT. NIGHT                      The family is half-way through their meal. MICHAEL is sitting           watching them eat, thinking about his lovemaking with HANNA.           
The Reader - Flashback The Reader - Flashback The Reader - Flashback The Reader - Flashback

In this case, we have actually a rare case of a flashback within a flashback. And what is even more rare, both flashbacks work.

This concludes our interview on this eight formatting commandment "Thou shalt use flashback responsibly". Thank you, Formatman.

May the Format be with you!

Liked this article? Then, don't plead the 5th!

Leave us a comment!

Whatascript Comments

The 10 commandments of screenplay format -
Find out about the other commandments:



Pictures and screenplay extracts:

-- "Annie Hall", Woody Allen (director), Gordon Willis (director of photography), Woody Allen (Alvy), Jonathan Munk (Alvy age 9), Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman (screenplay)

-- "The Bourne Identity", Doug Liman (director), Oliver Wood (director of photography), Matt Damon (Bourne), Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron (screenplay)

-- The Legend of Bagger Vance, Robert Redford (director), Michael Ballhaus (director of photography), Matt Damon (Rannulph Junuh), Will Smith (Bagger Vance), Jeremy Leven (screenplay)

-- "Vanilla Skye", Cameron Crowe (screenplay)

-- "The Bourne Ultimatum", Paul Greengrass (director), Oliver Wood (director of photography), Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi (screenplay)

-- "The Game", David Fincher (director), Harris Savides (director of photography), Scott Hunter McGuire (young Nicholas), John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris.

-- "Anna Karenina", Tom Stoppard (screenplay)

-- "The Reader", Stephen Daldry (director), Roger Deakins and Chris Menges (director of photography), Ralph Fiennes (Michael Berg), David Kross (young Michael Berg), Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz), David Hare (screenplay)

I'd like to stay close to home now, if it's all right.*:

Go from Screenplay Format to Whatascript! Home page

* The Godfather (2), screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo

Daily Movie Quote

Hook the Reader

and get your screenplay read, not tossed!

Just enter your email address and access our FREE updates.

Don't miss out and start increasing your writing skills TODAY.

We hate spam, and don't do it. We will never sell, rent, or spam your email.

   Copyright © 2016 - All Rights reserved -

   |   All images are Copyright © of their respective owners |   Design: OS Templates & Whatascript.