Flashbacks in a Script

by John Finnegan |

How to format a flashback in a script

I did a post a while back on the art of structuring flashbacks in a script, using The Imitation Game as a case study for how flashbacks should be treated like self-contained sub-plots in your bigger story, not just throw away flashes of exposition.

Today, I'd like to talk about how to actually present that flashback in the script. You've got the ideas, you've got the structure down, but you're wondering how it should actually be formatted on the page.

This is a fair question and one that comes up a lot because, like many formatting issues in screenwriting, there's no hard rule on how to do it.

So as always, let's see how the pros do it.

Examples of Flashback Formatting

Figure 1:

Girl with dragon tattoo script

The first thing to note in all of these examples is that the reference to the flashback (denoting whether we are in the past or present) is always included in the scene header or slug line. Given that the scene header is where we denote time in a script anyway, it makes sense to include notes about whether it's a flashback or a present-day scene in this same space.

Figure 1, an excerpt from Steve Zaillian's script for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't use the word flashback (a trend you'll notice through these examples). Instead, he gives the specific year that the flashback is set in and, when it's time to go back to the present, he uses 'present day'.

Notice also how, in the flashbacks, the scene headers not only include the year (1966) but the time of day (Dusk, Night, etc.) as well.

Figure 2:

the usual suspects script

The next example is from The Usual Suspects, a script that jumps back and forth between flashback and the present with rapid-fire speed. If you've seen The Usual Suspects, you'll know that these 'flashbacks' as I call them are not actually flashbacks, instead, they are an account of events from the perspective of our unreliable narrator, Verbal. It's worth noting here that Christopher McQuarrie doesn't use the word flashback either, he just treats the scenes as any other. However, he does make a point to include 'present day' when necessary to denote that we in-fact in the reliable present.

Figure 3:

tinker tailor soldier spy script

The final example (Figure 3) comes from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another film that shoots back and forth between past and present as it's gripping investigation unfolds before us.

Here there's no complication. They simply use 'past' and 'present' after their otherwise conventional scene headers. Interestingly, the writer chooses to place this text in bold and underline it for added impact. This is useful because it makes it clear to the reader that there is a shift taking place.

Other Approaches

Sometimes I come across writers, who are beginning their screenwriting education, placing the 'flashback' reference in the body of the scene itself, like so:



Jack returns home from work...

Personally, I think this is bad practice. I also see people putting the reference to 'flashback' or 'present' before the scene header on the line above. Again, I'd recommend against this.

Remember, the scene header is where the information about time is communicated, so place that same information here.

Final Thoughts

Should you say 'flashback' at all? After all, our examples above don't use this specific term. For me, it depends on the information you are willing to give out. In a recent project I wrote, the period that the flashback was set in was never explicitly clear. With this in mind, I just wrote 'flashback'. However, in another project, it was well known at that point in the story that the events from the past were happening in the year 2003. So, I wrote 2003 in the scene header. It depends on your script...

As always, happy writing!

John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247