An important plot device explained...in a flash.
What’s a writer to do when he or she absolutely must explain something critical to a story that just so happened to take place before the story started?
Easy! Just use a Flashback.
These plot devices are all over the place in movies and TV, so chances are you know generally what they are. However, let's dig a little deeper into how they work, what different types there are, and how you can use them in your own stories. Before we do that, lemme flash back and explain what a plot device is in the first place.
What Is a Plot Device?
Plot devices are storytelling techniques writers can use to impact the plot or narrative structure of their story.
Gotta love it when the definition of the word is really just the word itself.
A Flashback is when you flash back to the past during the course of a story. See?
In all seriousness though, Flashbacks are pretty much exactly what they seem to be — a scene (or sequence of scenes) that deviates from the main story to show something that happened before the events of the primary storyline.
It’s the moment in Ratatouille when grouchy critic Anton Ego tastes Remy’s signature dish and is suddenly back in his mother’s kitchen as a boy, eating the very same dish.
Flashbacks are a plot device writers can use to provide important backstory, content, or thematic meaning for the primary story. They can be used only once or many times over, can be triggered by something in the story itself (like the ratatouille), or appear completely unprompted.
Using Flashbacks can be tricky though, because even though they sound simple on the page, in the reality of a movie or TV show, they can get messy.
For the most part, Flashbacks can be categorized in one of two ways:
Occasional Flashbacks are just that — occasional. They might happen once or twice throughout the course of a movie, but they’re not woven into the underlying structure of the story.
Despicable Me is a great example of a movie with Occasional Flashbacks. We jump to Gru’s childhood several times to see where his fascination with the moon comes from and contextualize his complicated relationship with his mother, but nothing more. These are quick, go-to-the-concession-stand-and-you’ll-definitely-miss-them scenes and then we return to the main storyline with the minions, fluffy unicorns, and shrink rays.
Without the content of an Occasional Flashback, a story might make sense, but it probably won’t be as meaningful.
Writers can use Occasional Flashbacks when they need to provide crucial backstory or context in the middle of a story, or at the very beginning of a story.
Many popular movies begin with a Flashback and then jump forward in time to the main storyline.
Sweet Home Alabama does this by starting with a scene that shows young Melanie and Jake’s first kiss on the beach when they are 10 years old. It then skips ahead to “present day,” when Melanie is a grown woman living in New York City.
I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of movies and TV episodes that employ this technique — they start with a short scene to establish the characters, setting, or plot in some way and then jump ahead to the main storyline (usually with the words “X Years Later” appearing on screen for a few seconds to orient the audience).
The opposite of an Occasional Flashback is a Structural Flashback — Flashbacks that are critical to the structure of a story.
In these stories, the Flashbacks function in the same way as load-bearing walls. Without the Flashbacks, the whole building (or, the whole story) falls apart.
Think of how Titanic is set up: it’s framed as an 80-year-old woman telling her story to a team of researchers. But nobody walks away from Titanic talking about that part because we can’t get over the meat of the story — what happens on the boat! All the star-crossed romance and tragedy is the bulk of the story, though it’s technically a Flashback from the “present” storyline where Rose tells her story.
Titanic is a pretty straightforward example of a Structural Flashback using a Framing Device to introduce the main story. But there are a few other common ways Flashbacks can be integral to a story’s structure.
In a Flashback B-Story, the writer tells two interwoven stories, the second of which takes place in Flashback to the first.
In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, two storylines move forward separately throughout the film — telling two parallel but connected narratives.
The “present” storyline sees Sophie grappling with her grief over her mother Donna’s death while preparing for the big reopening of the Greek hotel she inherited. And the Flashback B-Story follows a young Donna as she follows her destiny, has several love affairs along the way, and ends up putting down roots on the Greek island where she raises her daughter.
Sophie and young Donna don’t interact — their stories play out separately — but they are connected on a deeper level.
Another common Structural Flashback is the In Media Res Story, also known as the “How We Got Here” Flashback Story.
Movies and TV shows that use this structure start in media res, meaning that the story opens in the middle or near the end and then goes back to illustrate “how we got here.”
Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard uses this kind of Structural Flashback by starting with the image of a body floating in a celebrity’s pool and then going back to tell Joe’s story from the beginning. And Forrest Gump features a version of the “How We Got Here” Flashback Story by having Forrest relay various parts of his story to each stranger who sits on the bench next to him.
The key with “How We Got Here” Flashback Stories is that the story continues past the starting point, even if it’s just a little bit!
Sunset Boulevard returns to Joe’s body in the pool and then continues forward to show how faded actress Norma Desmond reacts to the police at her house. It’s not much continuation, but it’s just enough to fully resolve the story.
Why Flashbacks Work
Internal memory is the real-life equivalent of the cinematic Flashback. As we go through our daily lives, we are constantly remembering things that have happened to us in varying degrees of depth.
Sometimes, like the term infers, it’s just a flash. Other times, we ruminate on an event or scene from our past for an extended period of time.
Audiences understand Flashbacks because it’s something we do every day.
So when there are Flashbacks in a movie or television series, the audience inherently understands that the character is not traveling back in time and literally reliving their past. It’s more like a memory.
What If It's The Future, Not The Past?
Well, if you’re jumping ahead to the future, that’s a flashforward. And if you’re hopping over to an alternate reality or otherwise separate timeline, that’s a flash-sideways.
While stories that feature a flashforward or flash-sideways may seem fundamentally different than those with Flashbacks, as plot devices, the three techniques function in essentially the same way.
Phew! Now that you’re a Flashback fanatic, let’s analyze a few examples from well-known movies and shows.
The Occasional Flashback in Casablanca
First and foremost, Casablanca is a love story. But when Ilsa Lund arrives at Rick’s Café Americain, the audience doesn’t quite understand why Rick is so affected by her.
Then, about halfway through the movie, after Rick has spent an evening getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself, we get an extended Flashback sequence to explain everything.
In this sequence, we see that Rick and Ilsa fell in love when they lived in Paris. When the Nazis invaded France and took over the capitol, they made plans to flee. But Ilsa never showed up at the train station, leaving Rick heartbroken and confused.
This is the only Flashback sequence in the movie and it serves a very specific purpose: to provide backstory and contextualize the main story.
Everything makes much more sense after we see the Paris Flashback sequence; we understand Rick’s motivation and can comprehend what’s at stake for him in a completely new way. And the Flashback’s ability to establish stakes is ultimately important because of the ending.
If the Flashback hadn’t shown how important Ilsa is to Rick, we wouldn’t feel as gutted when he ultimately sacrifices his own happiness and puts her on that plane (and Casablanca probably wouldn’t have gone down in history as one of the best movies of all time, but I digress…).
The Structural Flashbacks in (500) Days of Summer
This off-beat romantic comedy tells a nonlinear love story, features an omniscient narrator, and includes some of the best use of split-screen I’ve ever seen.
(500) Days of Summer also uses Structural Flashbacks in a really fun way by hopping around a single storyline and showing different days along the course of the main character’s romantic relationship with the titular Summer.
The movie starts on Day 488, then goes all the way back to Day 1, jumps ahead to Day 290, goes back to Days 1 to 4, then up to Day 154, and so on and so on.
The love story is presented in bits and pieces, completely out of order, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Altogether the larger narrative tells the complete story of a man who rediscovers himself thanks to a girl he once loved.
More Examples of Flashbacks
In Media Res / “How We Got Here” Flashback Stories — American Beauty; Bohemian Rhapsody; the pilot episode of Breaking Bad; The Emperor’s New Groove; Fight Club; The Greatest Showman; basically every season of How To Get Away with Murder; Iron Man; Moulin Rouge!; Thor
When to Use Flashbacks in Your Story
Writers who want to use Flashbacks are often met with the same advice: “Never use Flashbacks.”
Given that so many movies and TV shows make good use of Flashbacks, I’d say that advice is total bunk. But it does serve as a good warning for novice writers.
Flashbacks should not be used willy-nilly as a crutch for thin storytelling.
So before you sign on the dotted line and commit to using a Flashback of some kind in your story, ask yourself a few questions:
- Is the Flashback Occasional or Structural?
- What exactly does the Flashback add to the story?
- Could you convey the same backstory, context, or thematic material in a way that doesn’t require a Flashback?
If you’re using a Flashback, there has to be a damn good reason. Otherwise, audiences are going to see right through this plot device and leave the theater cursing your name.
So, consider what the Flashback brings to the table and why it’s absolutely essential it be included in the meal.
Internal vs. External
Another important question to ask yourself is: Who can see the Flashback?
Is the Flashback for the audience’s purpose only? Or is the character experiencing the Flashback memory too?
Again, no time travel here, but sometimes Flashbacks can be experienced by the characters in a story. In Silver Linings Playbook, there are brief Flashbacks to the day that Pat discovered his wife was cheating on him.
These Flashbacks are internal, meaning they occur in the narrative — Pat himself is remembering what happened, but the audience is getting a glimpse into the past through that memory.
On the other hand, if the Flashback really only exists for the audience, it’s external. Basically, it’s part of the story for the audience but not for the character.
External Flashbacks are often shown with accompanying voiceover while a character recalls an event from their past because it’s more interesting for the audience to watch a scene than it is to watch someone telling a story.
Think about it… what would be more engaging in Inception? Watching Cob tell Ariadne how his wife died? Or watching Mal play forebodingly with a knife and retract bit by bit from her life until she lets herself fall from a building while a distraught Cob watches?
Consider the Tone
Finally, before committing to a Flashback, you have to consider how it will affect the overall tone of your story.
Flashbacks are considerably easier in literature because novels can get right inside a character’s head in a way that film simply can’t. A character’s internal life — thoughts, emotions, memories, all that jazz — is fair game in books. Not so much in film.
Writing FLASHBACK in a slug line is also fairly easy, but remember, the audience won’t be reading your screenplay, they’ll be watching it on screen. So you must visualize how the Flashback will appear on-screen before you write it, whether it’s superimposed text, a change in color or aspect ratio, or some other visual or auditory sign.
Not all stories can handle the tonal shift that comes along with jumping away from the main storyline. This is partly why the standard advice surrounding Flashbacks is “Never use them” — if your story can be told chronologically without deviating from the main storyline, that’s probably the best way to go.
Flashbacks are a useful and often misunderstood plot device. They’re easy to get wrong and quite difficult to pull off, but if your story calls for a Flashback, it’ll undoubtedly be better for it.
Check out our other plot device breakdowns from this series here!
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.