There are a few different ways to reveal a plot twist into a story. It could be a sensational revelation, a solved mystery, a character showing his true colors or (and it’s the focus of this post) a flashback.
A flashback is a scene or a sequence that “stops” the story to show a certain event that occurred in the past.
The flashback scene is not there just to… be there. It should always bring new pieces of information into the narrative.
Take this scene from Now you see me as an example of how not to write a plot twist:
We’ve had Morgan Freeman’s character express his doubts, Mark Ruffalo’s character has had a little monologue about ego and confessing his involvement.
But don’t worry, we know that the audience needs visual proof to believe a plot twist. So here’s a series of flashbacks where we see him interact with the horsemen for the first time.
Believe it now? Do we need to repeat that point a third time? I mean, Ruffalo already TOLD you what happened, but we thought that we also needed to SHOW you what happened in order for you to understand completely.
How to reveal a plot twist through a flashback
You can find multiple examples in movies and TV shows of flashbacks being used to reveal a secret or simply to explain what happened.
In Scooby Doo the “unmasking” of the villain has become an iconic moment. The gang explains how the bad guy carried out his plans in a voice over while we see a flashback of the bad guy in action.
M. Night Shyamalan’s movie uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in a pretty unusual way.
First of all a little recap:
David, after becoming the sole survivor of a train wreck, finds out that he has possessed special powers his whole life. He is contacted by Elijah, a man who spent most of his life collecting and studying comic books and has developed a theory around them.
He thinks that comic books are just a slight exaggeration of reality in ancient times. The modern man uses art to “remember” the extraordinary powers he used to have.
Elijah pushes David to discover his powers and to not be afraid of using them. One of those powers is an “instinct” that tells David when someone has done or is about to do something wrong. The movie presents this instinct through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards.
The reveal of the plot twist happens at the end. When David shakes Elijah’s hand, and by doing so, he finds out that he orchestrated 3 major incidents that killed many people in order to find someone who possesses supernatural powers.
Flashbacks in the movie
In a flashback there are often visual elements that help the viewer understand that what they are watching is not a continuation of the narrative but a separate story.
Most of the times, movies use various effects to visually separate the flashback from the main narrative (like black and white, blur, or any I
In Unbreakable, both flashbacks and flashforwards use these effects:
- an abrupt “wooshing” sound before the scene starts
- a flash right before the cut
- an effect that highlights a particular color that the protagonist of the scene is wearing
Because of those effects the audience knows that this is a flashback.
The logic of the story
In order to reveal a plot twist the right way, you must make sure that it follows the logic of the story.
The screenplay manages to make us gradually understand and get used to David’s power.
He uses it a few times, and it takes him a while to fully comprehend it: first when he pats down Shyamalan’s cameo because he thinks that he is selling drugs inside the stadium; then at the station when he is experimenting.
What if we (the audience) weren’t told that David possesses this power until the last minute? We would probably have thought: “What? He was just a strong guy before but now he is also a medium?”
Unbreakable manages to establish David’s power through a classic sequence of Set Up-Reminder-Payoff. And this is the reason why when the story has to reveal a plot twist it doesn’t feel stupid, unbelievable or made up: the revelation follows the direction of the story.
How to not ruin the story
As I said before, a flashback has to reveal important information that relates to the story.
This definition makes it seem easy: all you need to do is hide the information that is crucial to the plot twist and reveal it through the flashback.
But things are not so straight forward.
First of all, the crucial information in question is linked to the past: either before the beginning of the story or before a certain point in the story.
This means that whatever the plot twist is, its effects have affected each event that takes place and each decision that the characters have made.
To give you an example:
You cannot write a story about an orphan who is looking for the people who killed his family only to reveal through a flashback that his family is actually alive and well. That is just confusing and nonsensical.
In Unbreakable, the big revelation that Elijah has not only affected the story, but caused the inciting incident.
Basically, Shyamalan’s screenplay has only told us 50% of what we needed to know (Elijah wants David to become a hero) and kept the other 50% for the ending (Elijah’s desire is so intense that he is willing to kill for it).
In the end, to reveal a plot twist you don’t need magic, you just need a clever writer.