A flashback is meant to move a story forward by going back to the past. If this sounds like a contradiction of terms, that partially explains why flashbacks are so dangerous to use. When used poorly, flashbacks bring your story to a screeching halt. So how do you use flashbacks correctly?
The worst example of flashbacks I’ve ever seen was a movie called “Ghost Story.” The movie was based on one of the most terrifying novels I’d ever read by Peter Straub. When I read “Ghost Story,” I remember my palms were sweating so much that they smeared the ink on the cover of the book. So when I saw the film version of “Ghost Story,” I couldn’t believe how badly the film version sucked.
The biggest problem in the film version of “Ghost Story was its use of a flashback. First, the story starts out with all the main characters as old men. Just as you get involved in their lives, the movie flashes back to when all of these main characters were young men. Just as you get used to these young characters, the movie suddenly drops you back into the present so now you don’t feel connected to either the young or old versions of the heroes.
To see how to use flashbacks correctly, watch “Casablanca” or “The Terminator.” In “Casablanca,” there’s actually a huge flashback scene where we see Humphrey Bogart initially as a cynical, bitter man. As we gradually learn, Humphrey Bogart is bitter because of his past affair with Ingrid Bergman.
If the movie never used a flashback, we wouldn’t directly experience the pain of separation and feeling of betrayal that Humphrey Bogart felt when Ingrid Bergman refuses to leave with him.
How can we experience and understand Humphrey Bogart’s cynicism and bitterness without experiencing the event that set him off? We can’t, and that’s why the flashback in “Casablanca” works.
In the 1984 “The Terminator,” we also see several flashbacks. There are two reasons for the use of flashbacks in this movie. First of all, if the hero (Kyle) simply told us that he’s from the future, we would doubt his sanity. However, by showing us a flashback, we experience Kyle’s hellish life in the future so we fully understand that Arnold is a robotic killing machine. Without this understanding, we wouldn’t root for Kyle as much. However, when we know he’s telling the truth without a doubt, then it’s easy to root for our hero.
A second reason why flashbacks work with “The Terminator” is because early in the movie, we see Kyle tossing a hand grenade into the treads of a killing machine, blowing it up. This foreshadows the scene where Kyle shoves a pipe bomb into the Terminator’s gut and cuts it in half at the end.
Without this flashback showing us Kyle knowing how to handle explosives, we wouldn’t believe he could shove a pipe bomb into the Terminator at the end. Just like in “Casablanca,” the flashback in “The Terminator” lets us experience an emotion so we’ll root for the hero because we know what the hero has gone through, plus we understand how the hero can succeed at the end.
So if you want to use a flashback effectively, make sure your flashbacks allow the audience to experience an emotion that drives the hero, which can’t be explained to the audience any other way. Second, make sure your flashback sets up the future payoff of your story. “The Terminator” used a flashback to show us Kyle being handy with explosives. “Casablanca”’s flashback showed us Humphrey Bogart leaving without Ingrid Bergman and feeling betrayed. At the end of “Casablanca” we’re left wondering if Humphrey Bogart will leave once more empty-handed or not.
Allow us to feel emotions and set up the end of your story, those are two valid uses for a flashback. If you can avoid a flashback and tell your story by staying in the present, try that technique instead since flashbacks jolt us out of the story and put us in another story. But if you must use flashbacks, at least use them wisely, make them reveal an emotion that we couldn’t experience otherwise, and set us up for the payoff later in your story.