Ask the Expert: All About Flashbacks

QUESTION:

Are there any special format rules for writing a flashback?

ANSWER:

Since the FLASHBACK is often abused by developing writers, make sure that your use of it pays off dramatically.  In terms of formatting, there are numerous correct methods.  The overriding principle is to be clear.

Method 1

In the example below, we label the flashback like we would a montage.

FLASHBACK – TRAIN ACCIDENT

Barry sees the train speeding toward him and leaps from the tracks, but his foot catches on a rail tie.

BACK TO PRESENT DAY

The above method is designed for short flashbacks that happen within a scene.  For longer flashbacks, consider one of the following methods.

Method 2

FLASHBACK – EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY

Method 3

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY – FLASHBACK

Or

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY (FLASHBACK)

If you use either of the above notations, then the next scene heading would follow the same pattern and look like this.

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY – BACK TO PRESENT DAY

Or

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY (BACK TO PRESENT DAY)

You can also use either of the above BACK TO PRESENT DAY notations for Method 2 as well.

If you wish, you may shorten the extension, as follows:

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY – PRESENT DAY

Or

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY (PRESENT DAY)

Alternate flashback endings for Methods 2 and 3

At the end of a flashback, you can use one of the following alternative methods to end the flashback.

END OF FLASHBACK

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY

It would also be correct to place the phrase END OF FLASHBACK flush to the right margin followed by a period, as follows:

END OF FLASHBACK.

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY

Flashbacks longer than one scene

If a flashback is more than one scene in length, you will use Method 2 or 3 for your first flashback scene heading.  Subsequent scene headings will be written as normal scene headings without the word FLASHBACK.  The reader will assume that each scene that follows that first flashback scene is part of the flashback until he sees END OF FLASHBACK or BACK TO PRESENT DAY in some form. Here’s an example.

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY – FLASHBACK

Barry sees the train speeding toward him and leaps from the tracks, but his foot catches on a rail tie.

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY

Barry lies on a gurney.  A doctor pulls a sheet over his head.

INT. OFFICE – DAY – BACK TO PRESENT DAY

Or:

INT. OFFICE – DAY – PRESENT DAY

If you wish, it’s perfectly correct to label each scene heading in a flashback sequence.  For example:

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY – FLASHBACK

Barry sees the train speeding toward him and leaps from the tracks, but his foot catches on a rail tie.

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY – FLASHBACK CONT’D

Barry lies on a gurney.  A doctor pulls a sheet over his head.

INT. OFFICE – DAY – PRESENT DAY

Method 4

An alternative method is to label the entire flashback comprised of more than one scene as a flashback sequence.

BEGIN FLASHBACK SEQUENCE

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY

And then write out all the scenes in sequence, just as you would normally write scenes, and then end the sequence with this:

END OF FLASHBACK SEQUENCE

INT. OFFICE – DAY

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