Research: Flashbacks

The narrative of my short film is nearly completely told through flashbacks. Therefore, I am going to research the use and benefits of flashbacks as a plot device in film, in order to help myself understand how to use them effectively in my own work.

First of all, there are subjective and objective flashbacks. Subjective flashbacks offer a chance for the audience to see the thoughts and personal memories of a character. In ‘Citizen Kane’ for example, five characters tell their version of the story of the main character through separate flashbacks. These flashbacks are subjective because each character’s flashbacks are told through personal memory.

When entering via an object or if it is not visibly clear to the audience that the memory of a character has been entered, it is an objective flashback. These flashbacks return to earlier events to show their relationship to the present. An example of this, is from the tv series ‘Lost’. The flashbacks presented in this series are objective, as no character is telling the story, yet the audience is still being shown scenes from a different timeline.

Furthermore, flashbacks can be distinguished into being internal and external. Internal flashbacks are shown within the timeframe of the film. They draw the attention of the audience to a previous scene to remind them of what has already happened or which now reveal parts of the story due to new information told to us as the narrative unfolds. In ‘A Beautiful Mind’, the main character learns that he has schizophrenia and his ‘best friend’ has been an figment of his imagination throughout the entire movie. Upon learning about his mental illness, earlier scenes are shown but this time, with the absence of his best friend to emphasise the severity of his illness. We instantly know these flashbacks are internal because we have already seen the scenes presented earlier on in the film.

External flashbacks happen before the timeframe of a film. These are often used to give depth to a character by introducing a back story, as well as revealing information about events not present to us throughout the timeframe of a film. An excellent example of this would be ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ that follows the highschool life of a boy called Charlie. Throughout the film, glimpses of his past are shown in the form of flashbacks. These flashbacks are external as they happened before the initial timeframe of the film. However, later on during the film, there is a well edited sequence that incorporates internal and external flashbacks revealing that Charlie was sexually abused by his aunt, which has had an effect on his current mental health. This sequence proves that films can contain not just one, but many different forms of flashbacks.

Although, flashbacks tend to be predominantly visual, they are not limited to visuals only. Occasionally, flashbacks can be a mix of visual and oral; and sometimes even entirely oral. For example, in the film ‘Kon-Tiki’, the main character is drawn back to a childhood memory of nearly drowning as he presently gets knocked back by reoccurring waves underwater. This flashback is solely oral. The visuals depict the character in the present nearly drowning, whilst the audio is entirely from a past memory.

The majority of flashbacks in my short film will be visual, subjective and external. If possible, I would like to include at least one non-visual and subjective flashback, as I believe they take more planning and skill to execute.

Now that I have researched the different types of flashbacks and the ways that they can be visually or orally represented in films, I need to ask myself: what are the challenges in including flashbacks and what makes a good flashback?

The first challenge is to ensure that the audience is aware that the flashback is in fact a flashback. If the flashback has not been presented correctly, it could leave the audience confused and unaware of the progression in narrative. The key way to avoid confusion is by thinking about the order of scenes and the best way to arrange them, in order to avoid disrupting the flow of the film. Clearly presenting a flashback can also be achieved by using a colour overlay in post production. For example, overlaying end burns or light leaks can be brilliant transitional element for flashbacks. In ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’, one of the characters experiences a flashback with many light overlays. However, the flashback also included one technique that I found very interesting. The editor had layered several audio tracks on top of each other, such as dialogue, people chanting the characters name and many sound effects. I believe this was to create the feeling of the character experiencing an emotional overload.

This research has helped me to understand and be able to achieve flashbacks as a storytelling medium in filmmaking. It has also allowed me the chance to study numerous examples of flashbacks, something that I believe has helped to shape the narrative and progression of my own project. Throughout the course of studying different types of flashbacks, I have been able to decide on what type of flashback I would like to implement into my film and how I would like to represent it. In conclusion, this research has significantly helped me to expand my cinematic knowledge, as well as being extremely important to the decision making process and evolution of my short film’s narrative.



What are the challenges of including a flashback in a film? Making people aware that it’s a flashback – colour overlay or different methods. Memento – film backwards, Irreversible.

Ensuring that the flow of the film isn’t disrupted by the flashback – you could talk about order of scenes etc. in one specific example.

Pose new questions, even if they’re rhetorical, or potential further areas of research.

Conclude on how this has helped you.


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