Flashback is a device that changes an audience from the present moment in a sequential narrative to a scene in the past. Often, flashbacks are unexpected interjections that further explain a story or character with related information and memories.

A flashback (sometimes called an analepsis) is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point in the story. Flashbacks are often used to narrate events that happened before the story's primary order of events to fill in key story.

A flashback is a literary device in a story that provides some background information on situations, events, circumstances or a character's past history; author's often use flashbacks to disclose some important truth about a character's past that otherwise the reader might not have known. By using flashbacks, writers allow their readers to gain insight into a character’s motivations, and provide a background to a present conflict. Dream sequences and  memories are methods used to present flashbacks.

A flashback is implemented by:
  1. The narrator who has a dream about past events
  2. The narrator who tells another character about past events
  3. The narrator who  reads a letter that prompts back to an earlier time
  4. The narrator who thinks back to past events, revealing the information only to the reader

Examples Of Flashback

Flashback can arise as a sudden hazy dream, thought sequence, or a vivid memory. It can be announced or unannounced in the line of narrative.

  • The Holy Bible (By Various Contributors)
The Bible is a good source of flashback examples. In the Book of Matthew, we see a flashback has been used when Joseph, governor of Egypt, sees his brothers after several years. Joseph “remembered his dreams” about his brothers, and how they sold him into slavery in the past.
  • In a story about a girl who is afraid of heights, there is a flashback to a time when she fell off of the top of a playground as a young child.
  • In a story about a man who acts strangely and rude, there is a flashback to a scene of war, in which this man was a soldier.
  • A story begins with a scene of a desolate, destroyed town, then flashes back to a time when the town was full of life and people.
  • In the children's movie Up, the old man has a flashback as he remembers meeting his wife and marrying her, which helps us to better understand why he does not want to leave the house that they have shared.
  • Forrest Gump is a series of flashbacks. As Forrest meets new people, he sits down and tells them a story from his life.

The 5 Rules of Writing Effective Flashbacks

The 5 Rules of Writing Effective Flashbacks

1. Find a trigger to ignite a flashback.
Memories don’t arise out of nowhere; they need to be triggered by something in the present. The fact that the flashback can be so easily triggered also lets the reader know that its content is important. 

2. Find a trigger to propel a return to the present.
Just like there needs to be a reason for your character to enter a flashback, he should be pulled back to the present for a reason as well. Think of these triggers as bookends for your flashback that will make it come across as more organic.

3. Keep it brief.
Chances are, there is only one really important point that you want to get across with your flashback, so cut it down to its key moments. If readers have to go through pages and pages of backstory, they will wonder why you didn’t just incorporate the flashback into the greater time frame of the novel.

4. Make sure the flashback advances the story.
While character is crucial in developing the story, more than anything a novel is driven by plot. A flashback should always serve as a tool to advance what is happening in the present.

5. Use flashbacks sparingly.
A flashback should be used only when there is no other effective way to get an important piece of information across. If you use too many, it begins to feel like a cop-out storytelling device. 

The Importance of Using Flashback

Flashback is important as it adds complication and depth to a narrative that is otherwise up-front and chronological. Sometimes information about characters, places, or things is only revealed when the past is sharply pulled forth, mentioned, or remembered. The use of a flashback is to convey to the readers the information regarding the character’s background and give them an idea of the character’s purposes for doing certain things later in the story. 

Flashbacks can thicken plots, create complex and dynamic characters, reveal information otherwise left unspoken, or surprise the audience with shocking secrets. Flashback is a basic element of most plots, as we gain information about nearly everything from referencing the past. A large part of a character’s essence can be found in the past and the memories which reappear over time.

Thus, a flashback in the story deepens the inner conflict. It provides motivation for the conflict, deepens the touching effects, and allows the reader to sympathize even with the villain.  Another function of flashbacks in a narrative is to increase tension. A mere mention of a past event makes readers wish to know the secrets. Often, the function of flashback in poetry is to convey an idea of the happiness that the poet enjoyed in the past, but at present does not enjoy those pleasures. Poets use flashback to contrast a character’s unhappy circumstances in the present to the happy days of his past.