15 Brilliant Flashback Examples That Show How to Best Use It
It’s almost hard to think of a modern film that doesn’t have a flashback example somewhere within it. Of course, that’s not strictly true. But it is true that flashbacks are a key part of a screenwriting arsenal.
As audiences, we can usually tell when a flashback feels contrived or when it feels genuine and effective.
For a screenwriter, using flashbacks can be a very tempting way of making a screenplay more dynamic. But it’s important to hone in on why you are using a flashback.
- Don’t use a flashback to just remind the audience of something they have already seen.
- Or if you do this proceed with caution.
- Know that you could frustrate your audience by patronising them, assuming they won’t be able to remember information and that you need to remind them of it.
- Use a flashback to add to the story rather than to run along side it.
In this article, we’re not going to look necessarily at movies that are entirely built around flashbacks or told from the perspective of a flashback (like Memento, Forest Gump or Titanic for example). Instead, we will look at flashback examples that feature briefly or intermittently throughout a screenplay.
They might just feature once, or they might crop up a couple of times. Furthermore, what flashback examples are innovative in how they use flashback?
Overall, we’ll demonstrate how best to use flashbacks to add to and accentuate your story.
Flashback Example #1 – Ratatouille
Our hero chef’s ratatouille transports the cynical and skeptical Anton Ego back to his childhood. One taste of the dish takes us to a flashback of his childhood. His mother’s cooking comforts him after he comes home in tears.
- This immediately fleshes out a previously unlikeable and impenetrable character.
- This is all done with a flashback containing no dialogue.
- Furthermore, there is no dialogue to explain this revelation after the flashback ends. We understand what it means without dialogue.
This tiny flashback encapsulates the movie’s themes in a brilliantly efficient way. It unlocks a previously closed off character and therefore unlocks a theme.
#2 – The Godfather Part II
This flashback example brilliantly shows how flashbacks can compare and contrast the past with the present. The Godfather Part II shows the downfall of the Corleone family by contrasting it with its origins.
Flashbacks to the young Vito Corleone establishing himself in New York in the dawn of the 20th Century help give context to the Corleone family story. This helps bolster the themes of immigration, American capitalism and family at the core of The Godfather series.
Furthermore, a flashback at the very end of the movie helps give a devastating conclusion to the story. We see the family in happier times. Well, times where they are all together at least.
- In the present, the family has disbanded for many various reasons (betrayal, death, divorce).
- Seeing the family before such tragedies tore them apart creates pathos.
- We know the fates of these characters. And so to see the origins of these fates is tragically powerful.
Moreover, we get a sense of the rifts that will ultimately tear the family apart.
- Michael demonstrates his independence in wanting to join the army.
- He is alone at the dinner table as the rest of the family rush to wish their father a happy birthday.
- This image mirrors that of the present day, where Michael stands alone, isolated by the way in which he has run the family.
This flashback ending exemplifies how to show the root cause of the conflicts that make up the story.
We see the same tensions and conflicts were always there. The very same that define the story we have just seen in the preceding two and a half hours.
#3 – Manchester By The Sea
Right from the start of Manchester by the Sea, flashback examples permeate the narrative. This feels almost disorientating at first. We’re not quite sure where we are initially, characters the same but different in different scenes.
The films gives a gradual picture of the protagonist‘s state through small pictures of his life at various points.
- The effect is one of fluidity.
- It’s a brilliant evocation of living with tragedy and grief.
- There isn’t necessarily a distinct past and present, a before and after.
- Rather, the past always lives with the present.
Flashbacks in this film don’t just explain the narrative but paint a complete picture of the protagonist‘s state of mind.
- Emotion often dictates why and where we flashback to. This is a common thread in flashbacks throughout movies and TV.
- However, here the film doesn’t signal the switches clearly. Or make any distinction.
The film isn’t interested in holding the audience’s hand. It is interested in painting a realistic picture of grief.
#4 – Good Time
- Ray tells a story of how he ended up in jail.
- As he tells this story, we see the action play out through flashback.
It’s a brilliant break in the action, taking us on a whirlwind journey through one man’s story.
- The fast pace of the flashback mirrors Ray’s fast talking.
- And his retelling of his own story says something about the way in which people tells the stories of their own lives.
This is a flashback that sits at odds with the rest of the narrative, which doesn’t feature any other flashbacks. However, it makes sense as it is completely wrapped up in who this character, Ray, is.
It’s a style unique to him. This demonstrates how flashback can accentuate characterisation. It provides backstory but also hammers home a style that is unique and distinctive to that particular character.
#5 – Fight Club
Flashbacks feature in Fight Club most memorably in the movie’s devastating third act reveal. In explaining the film’s main premise, that the Narrator (Edward Norton) is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), flashbacks help ram this point home.
Often flashbacks to previous points in a movie feel patronising. They can feature as a way of triggering the audience’s memory, just in case they can’t put the pieces together on their own.
However, here in Fight Club, the flashbacks aren’t strictly callbacks.
- Instead, we do see something new in seeing these previously seen scenes again.
- We see that what we saw previously was a lie. The Narrator wasn’t with Tyler, he was just with himself.
These scenes are effective because they prove we’ve been tricked. They also seem disturbing, seeing The Narrator in full blown psychosis, inventing an imaginary friend and playing out this fantasy in the real world.
#6 – Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
Flashbacks are almost taken to a whole new level of meaning in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
- The protagonist, Joel, is taking a tour of his subconscious as he embarks on a procedure to have memories of his ex-girlfriend removed.
- These are flashbacks in a very literal sense.
- We’re not just seeing visions of the past, we’re seeing Joel interact with these visions of the past.
The film’s concept is a brilliant way of exploring how we interact with our own memories.
- These flashbacks give us a sense of what Joel and Clementine’s relationship was.
- But they also show us Joel’s relationship with these memories, what they mean to him, whether happy or painful.
Many films centred around a romance flash back and forward to show a contrast in the relationship at hand. However, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, flashbacks have a whole new meaning and purpose. Their very conception as memories is interrogated.
#7 – Oldboy
Oldboy provides a flashback as a window into a character’s past trauma. This trauma will imminently prove to be their ultimate downfall.
Haunted by the traumatising image of letting a girlfriend fall to her death, Lee Woo-jin proceeds to kill himself in an elevator. It’s not the only reason he makes this decision. But seeing the flashback at this moment proves how defining it has been for him in his life.
- There is a dynamic fluidity to how this flashback plays out on screen.
- We see both young Lee Woo-jin and present Lee Woo-jin within the flashback.
- This demonstrates how he can’t escape the trauma of this moment. It speaks to the idea that that our past and present are entwined.
Often in movies and TV, past and present versions of a character seem vastly different.
This flashback breaks down that myth. A flickering between past and present versions of Lee Woo-jin shows there isn’t necessarily a before and after, but instead always a present.
#8 – The Crown
Flashbacks in The Crown almost feel necessary in exploring the vast history and backstory of the British Royal family.
Whilst we’re always with the Queen as time progresses linearly throughout the 20th Century, flashbacks prove vital in providing context and exposition.
- They range from showing us how history in the present came to be, to showing us a hidden aspect of a character.
Perhaps the most effective flashbacks are ones that illustrate Prince Phillip’s backstory.
- The writers know this a rich vein to plunder. Ties to the Nazis, to Greece, to a family tragedy in the form of an airline crash – these all go a long way in painting a vivid portrait of history.
The flashbacks in The Crown are a great example of how flashbacks can illustrate context.
- Context always deserves to be vivid.
- How did we get here?
- How do these characters connect to the world around and them and to history?
Flashbacks help convey the vast, rich context that the Royal family exist and existed in. Even if it seems they live in an isolated world, illustrated context proves that to not be true.
#9 – Money Heist
The titular heist is launched into in the first episode. After initially hearing it will take months to plan, this is at first a little disorienting. But soon we realise that this heist won’t be over anytime soon.
- Gradually, piece by piece we get the full picture of what the crew planned.
- We also get a full picture of the relationships and dynamics between the crew of eight.
- This is all done via flashbacks. The heist is the main narrative but is broken up by flashbacks.
The flashbacks in this show are primarily a great way of elongating a story. A heist that could take place over the course of an episode or two (or a feature) is instead extended to a whole series. This proves to be an effective way of making each episode tense and nourishing.
A more linear approach might have audiences less engaged throughout, perhaps feeling that the excitement and tension of the heist can’t come soon enough.
This non-linear approach, utilising flashbacks, is in part what makes the show such so compelling and bingeworthy. There’s a balance in each episode, one that we can’t resist returning to again and again.
#10 – Kill Bill Vol. 1
Kill Bill features a number of flashbacks. But perhaps none is a more memorable flashback example than O-Ren’s backstory.
Tarantino gives character exposition in a flashback rendered not in live action but in cartoon. This is an ode to the Japanese Anime inspirations for the film. But it’s also a brilliantly dynamic and different way of providing context and character backstory.
We’ve seen our fair share of action and violence already in the film. And we’re about to see a lot more imminently. By presenting action in a different way (via cartoon) Tarantino gives some much needed variety.
Most of all, however, in writing terms this is a compellingly told story. It’s full of myth, tragedy, violence and revenge.
- It almost serves as an encapsulation of the story we are watching as a whole.
- It’s kind of a mini version of Kill Bill told in a few minutes, with the main theme at the heart of the overall narrative present- revenge.
#11 – Marriage Story
Flashbacks only feature once in Marriage Story. However, when it rains it pours.
- The opening sequence is all made up of snippets of Charlie and Nicole’s relationship.
- These come in the form of separate monologues from each of them about why they love each other.
We don’t know these are strictly flashbacks until suddenly we find ourselves in the present.
- Charlie and Nicole sit in a divorce mediation session.
- Their monologues were in fact letters they were asked to write about why they love each other.
- Now in the present, they can’t bring themselves to read them aloud.
This reveal is a touching jolt into the present. The flashbacks paint a picture of Charlie and Nicole’s relationship, one largely happy and affectionate and full of love. But now they’re getting divorced.
The sadness of this journey out of their relationship hits home immediately. We know what has been lost straight away.
There is an innovation to this opening sequence that is very effective. It’s a dynamic way of providing exposition and illustrating the story world. But it also sets up the stakes very well.
Less than ten minutes have passed but almost everything has been set up. Now we can spend the rest of the film analysing what went wrong and how/if they can move forward. Moreover, we can really let the emotion of the situation sink in.
#12 – Gilmore Girls 3.13
Throughout Gilmore Girls, Lorelai’s young pregnancy and Rory’s birth is not much more than folklore. It’s the distant past. After all, by the time we meet Rory and Lorelai, Rory is sixteen. Her birth is a footnote to their story.
However, suddenly midway through season 3, the writers provide us with insight into the defining moment of Lorelai’s life. Fans of the show can revel in this moment. This moment is almost mythic in the Gilmore lore.
It’s a flashback that wouldn’t have been nearly as rewarding if done earlier in the series, where we don’t know the Gilmores so intimately.
Moreover, the flashbacks are subtly inserted into this episode. It’s not as if Lorelai is directly talking about this moment. Instead, we’re given insight into Lorelai’s mind, triggered as it is by another birth.
- These scenes demonstrate how flashbacks can be effective when used in an abstract way.
- There needn’t always be a direct and clear signalling to the audience as to what flashbacks mean and why we’re seeing them.
- Instead, encourage the audience to make the connections.
This episode ends on a touching moment of connection between Lorelai and her mother, Emily.
- We see this shortly after a flashback to when Emily discovered her 18 year old daughter had run away from home with newly born Rory.
- We can infer Lorelai has been thinking about this moment and decided to reach out to her mother to in some way atone.
However, this isn’t explicit. It might be right, it might be not. The writers give just enough ambiguity for the audience to do the work themselves.
#13 – Toy Story 2
A flashback example that probably haunts many children of a certain generation. In Toy Story 2, Jessie recounts how her former owner grew out of playing with her.
This is a devastating concept in and of itself. But the efficiency of the execution makes it all the more powerful.
- There is no dialogue. Instead, a song conveys the changing emotion in Jessie’s journey from being a girl’s favourite toy to discarded and forgotten about.
The song is obviously hugely responsible for making this a powerful montage. But there is also an efficiency with the imagery that makes this scene powerful and effective. Every image conveys a great deal.
- The girl yanks a pillow from behind Jessie causing her to fall beneath the bed.
- A telephone cord pulls its receiver along the ground incessantly.
- Jessie lies forgotten underneath the bed.
All these images do a lot with a little. We don’t need much exposition to explain the situation. We can read between the lines.
Not only are these effective flashbacks but it’s a very effective montage overall. It shows how each image within a montage needs to be carefully curated to have the best effect possible as a whole.
#14 – Wild
Wild features flashbacks in quite a traditional and well-tread way.
As Cheryl walks the Pacific Trail, there are clues into her past. These are clues as to what has led Cheryl to this point. What is she walking this trail for? What is she running away from or what is she seeking resolve for?
However, the familiarity of how these flashbacks manifest doesn’t make them any less effective. Moreover, the way these flashbacks feature show how to dynamically convey characterisation when there is a limitation to the action and settings
- Cheryl does meet people and encounter action on her trail.
- But we can probably all agree that a straight picture of her mostly walking the trail would feel boring pretty quickly.
- Instead, clues into what is going on in Cheryl’s head, what she’s wrestling with, help break up the action.
This flashback example again (similar to Money Heist) shows how to elongate tension in a narrative. Dips into her past prolong Cheryl’s journey.
Therefore, her journey overall feels more complete and consistently nourishing for the audience.
#15 –The Social Network
In The Social Network, flashbacks are key in bringing court proceedings to life. Whilst there is drama present within the court proceedings themselves, realisations of what is being described make the story more watchable.
Two hours of action restricted to one court room couldn’t possibly lend itself to the dynamism that The Social Network ultimately does.
- Jumps back in time give us a full picture of what happened.
- Whilst they also lend themselves to exciting cinematic rendering in the hands of David Fincher.
- Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay has a lot of dialogue. But in varying the time and place, the story has more fluidity than it would do if restricted to one or only a handful of locations.
Furthermore, flashbacks help illustrate all sides of the story.
- In a story focused around many people’s different perceptions of the same situation, this is essential.
- We get an objective view of the story via flashbacks into what ‘really happened’.
However, even this reality is ambiguous. By making it clear that we are seeing different perspectives, the point that the truth means different things to different people resonates.
Who are these flashbacks from the perspective of? Whose flashbacks are more trustworthy than others? These questions are mired in ambiguity because of the balance in the variety of flashbacks we see.