© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Astronomical Society.Flat slab subduction has been ascribed to a variety of causes, including subduction of buoyant ridges/plateaus and forced trench retreat. The former, however, has irregular spatial correlations with flat slabs, while the latter has required external forcing in geodynamic subduction models, which might be insufficient or absent in nature. In this paper, we present buoyancy-driven numerical geodynamic models and aim to investigate flat slab subduction in the absence of external forcing as well as test the influence of overriding plate strength, subducting plate thickness, inclusion/exclusion of an oceanic plateau and lower mantle viscosity on flat slab formation and its evolution. Flat slab subduction is reproduced during normal oceanic subduction in the absence of ridge/plateau subduction and without externally forced plate motion. Subduction of a plateau-like feature, in this buoyancy-driven setting, enhances slab steepening. In models that produce flat slab subduction, it only commences after a prolonged period of slab dip angle reduction during lower mantle slab penetration. The flat slab is supported by mantle wedge suction, vertical compressive stresses at the base of the slab and upper mantle slab buckling stresses. Our models demonstrate three modes of flat slab subduction, namely short-lived (transient) flat slab subduction, long-lived flat slab subduction and periodic flat slab subduction, which occur for different model parameter combinations. Most models demonstrate slab folding at the 660 km discontinuity, which produces periodic changes in the upper mantle slab dip angle. With relatively high overriding plate strength or large subducting plate thickness, such folding results in periodic changes in the dip angle of the flat slab segment, which can lead to periodic flat slab subduction, providing a potential explanation for periodic arc migration. Flat slab subduction ends due to the local overriding plate shortening and thickening it produces, which forces mantle wedge opening and a reduction in mantle wedge suction. As overriding plate strength controls the shortening rate, it has a strong control on the duration of flat slab subduction, which increases with increasing strength. For the weakest overriding plate, flat slab subduction is short-lived and lasts only 6 Myr, while for the strongest overriding plate flat slab subduction is long-lived and exceeds 75 Myr. Progressive overriding plate shortening during flat slab subduction might explain why flat slab subduction terminated in the Eocene in western North America and in the Jurassic in South China.