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When writing a work of fiction, an author can take the reader out of the present story and jump into an earlier time period in a character’s life. This narrative tool is called a flashback. Also used in films and television shows, flashbacks give a story more depth by revealing details that help readers understand character motives. Flashbacks also add tension and help advance the plot.

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What Is a Flashback in Literature?

In fiction, a flashback is a scene that takes place before a story begins. Flashbacks interrupt the chronological order of the main narrative to take a reader back in time to the past events in a character’s life. A writer uses this literary device to help readers better understand present-day elements in the story or learn more about a character. Whether it’s a vivid memory or a dream sequence, a flashback scene (sometimes called an analepsis) is a window to an earlier occurrence that provides critical information to the story. In the opposite narrative direction, a flash-forward (sometimes called a prolepsis) is a sneak preview or foreshadowing of future events.

4 Ways to Use Flashbacks in Your Writing

Flashbacks can either be quick dips into the past or a larger narrative thread within a story. Taking readers out of the present time to learn about an earlier event can help a writer tell a story in a non-linear style. Approaching short story or novel writing in this way can make the narrative more interesting. Flashbacks have several other important functions in literature.

  1. Flashbacks aid character development. Diving into a character’s past, even momentarily, is a way for writers to convey background information that supports the main storyline. Writing flashbacks can provide insight into the main character’s motivations for the decisions they make and actions they take. For example, if a character's backstory includes something critical that happened in high school that can explain an event in the present, a writer can create a scenario that triggers a character to recall and reflect upon the memory.
  2. Flashbacks incorporate different time periods. Everyone has layers of moments in their lives that influence who they are in the present. Following the chronological sequence of a storyline can leave a plot feeling flat. Flashbacks break up the chronological flow of a story, making it more interesting and realistic.
  3. Flashbacks make readers more connected to the characters. Effective flashbacks provide a deeper insight into who a person is. Maybe a villain thinks back to the parents who abandoned him—a past event that has directly impacted his bad behavior. Though readers might not excuse the character’s actions based on his past experiences, the flashback helps them feel empathy and make sense of the antagonist’s behavior.
  4. Flashbacks can explain the current conflict. Flashing back can help a reader better understand why and how the protagonist got into the situation that’s driving the plot and the reasons behind the main conflict. If there’s a long history of bad blood between the protagonist and antagonist, a writer can use flashbacks to show readers this history.

3 Examples of Flashbacks in Literature

A sight, a sound, a smell, a time, a place—writers use different stimuli to trigger a flashback. Once they take the reader back in time, they use flashbacks to enlighten them. Here are three flashback examples that demonstrate different ways this device can be used in literature:

  1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: In Joseph Conrad’s novel, a flashback makes up most of the narrative, creating a story within a story. Sitting on board a small ship on London’s Thames river, the crew of the Nellie waits for the tide to shift. As the sun sinks below the horizon, the sight triggers a memory for a crewmember named Marlow who begins to recall his time as a riverboat captain in the Congo.
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.” So begins Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. He uses a flashback in the first scene of the first chapter to kick off his story.
  3. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling: Rowling begins her first Harry Potter book just as Harry turns eleven years old. It’s been ten years since Lord Voldemort murdered his parents and Harry was left with his less-than-welcoming relatives, the Dursleys. Rowling uses a series of flashbacks to hint at Harry’s unique abilities by recounting the strange things that happened to him before the story takes place. For example, when Aunt Petunia makes Harry get a haircut, he wakes up the next morning to find his hair has grown back to where it was. Rowling uses these flashbacks to foreshadow what we soon find out—that Harry has inherited wizarding powers from his parents.