I often get asked about writing flashbacks in screenplays. I know that, for some people, writing flashbacks can be seen as the lazy way out of telling a story. Surely there must be a more interesting way of giving the audience this information in the present, right? Well, a lot of time, restricting yourself to the present forces you to write equally lazy expository information to compensate for the lack of 'time-travel' (for lack of a better word) in your story.
The answer I give to students when I am asked about this is simple; write all the flashbacks you want, just remember to write them in proportion to the present day story (meaning, don't take the focus away from the main story) and make sure that there is more than one flashback scene. Finally, make sure these scenes string together to tell their own substory in the film.
If you want to learn how to write flashbacks, watch The Imitation Game. The Imitation Game tells the story of the great Alan Turing as he is partnered up with a group of code breakers during the second world war. He builds a computer, the first of its kind, and helps in the fight to decode the Nazi war machine. Throughout the film, we are given a window into Turing's earlier life at a boarding school, where he meets a young boy named Christopher Morcom. Morcom introduces Turing to the subject of decoding and it is clear from these windows into the past that Turing had romantic feelings for Morcom. Sadly, Morcom's untimely death leads a grief-stricken Turing to turn inward and become introverted and anti-social.
In The Imitation Game, we are presented with a very unlikable and complicated protagonist in the form of Turing. He is obsessed with his computer and trying to crack the Nazi code. However, through the flashbacks, we come to see another side to Turing and we grow sympathetic to his personal situation.
These flashbacks serve a clear function: they are adding layers of depth to the character that we wouldn't see otherwise. Not only that, the various scenes of the flashback are timed for dramatic purpose. We realise by the end that this computer that Turing is so obsessed with is an attempt to continue the legacy of his lost love. There is a personal and emotional investment in the present objective which ties in beautifully to the past. One story thread could not exist without the other.
So, when considering whether or not to include a flashback mechanism into your story, think about the function it will have and how many scenes it will use from the story. Also, think about how it serves the present; not just to give information, but to provide an extra dimension to what is happening in the present and who inhabits it.
The Imitation Game is one of the strongest examples I can think of in recent mainstream cinema that incorporates the flashback into its contemporary story so powerfully. Take a page out this script and understand why it was so deserving of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2015.
(Image copyright: The Weinstein Company)