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English Literature

The flashback is a useful device that pops up frequently in film and literature. Its purpose is to add background information while grabbing the reader’s or audience’s attention. It is also used for foreshadowing and non-linear narratives, and flashbacks are a handy way of adding suspense or mystery.

The meaning of flashback

While some stories describe events in the order in which they happen, other stories follow different directions: the events of the story are, therefore, not told chronologically. A common device for doing this is to use flashbacks where the reader is transported back to an earlier period in the story.

Flashback happens when the narration takes the reader to a period of time before the current scene of the story, very often before the story began.

Examples of flashback

An early example of the use of the flashback technique is in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

A sea voyager writes home about how he has rescued a dying scientist called Frankenstein, who then tells his story of how he created a monstrous being, ‘The Creature’. The story flashes back to Frankenstein’s student days, which are spent hunting the secret of life. Frankenstein builds a man from body parts he obtains from dissection rooms and brings it to life. Horrified by what he created, Frankenstein rejects the Creature and abandons his creation. The story, after several murders and much travelling, ends with Frankenstein dying.

The sea captain closes with a description of a meeting with the ‘Creature’ who, informed of Frankenstein’s demise, disappears on a raft across the waves until he is ‘lost in darkness and distance’ (M. Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818).

Flashback, Visualization of flashback, StudySmarterA flashback is a memory shared with the reader- StudySmarter Originals

The flashback is a memory that is shared with the viewer or reader. Memories are usually triggered by something (unless we consciously try to remember the last time we saw a certain film or read a certain book etc.). The trigger may be an action, an object, a sound, a taste, or a smell.

In Proust’s novel A la recherche du Temps Perdu (Memory of Things Past, 1912), a memory from a happy time is set off by the taste of a madeleine after dipping it in a cup of tea. In this case, the flashback is not immediate; he has to taste it again before he is transported back:

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.

(Proust, Memory of Things Past, vol. 1, Swann’s Way, Part 1, 1912, trans. S. Moncrieff)

This memory triggers a sequence of smaller flashbacks: his aunt’s house, the garden, the town and its streets, the seasons, and so on. He compares these memories to Japanese paper flowers that expand in water:

all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swanns park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

(Proust, Swann’s Way, Part 1)

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) also uses flashback to give the backstory to its main character Heathcliff. The housekeeper Nellie Dean is asked to tell the story of the morose residents of Wuthering Heights, a decaying house on the Yorkshire moors. The story flashes back over twenty years to the childhood of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw.

Sometimes, a writer will switch from the past to the present or future part of the story, and this becomes a flashforward. For example, in Frankenstein, the story begins in the present, switches to the past (Frankenstein’s student days) then flashes forward to the present again. In Wuthering Heights, once Nellie Dean finishes her tale, we are briefly brought forward to the present (1801), then the story moves forward again by a year and ends in 1802.

In The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern, two magicians wage a rivalry through their pupils, who never grow old, although time moves forward. The narrative frequently jumps between time periods (from the 1880s to the 1990s, from the 1900s to the 1880s etc.).

The flashback is a popular device in literature, on stage, and in films, as it allows authors more creative freedom and enables audiences to enjoy a fuller, more varied experience.

Films using flashback include:

  • Citizen Kane (1941).
  • Memento (2000).
  • The Amazing Spiderman (2014).

Each film relies on flashbacks in a different way to tell the story.

Citizen Kane is narrated almost entirely by means of flashbacks from the perspective of different characters. The film opens with Kane on his death bed murmuring the word ‘Rosebud’. A journalist is assigned the task of discovering its meaning. By means of a series of flashbacks, he gradually pieces together the early life story of the deceased. One flashback shows Kane as a little boy playing with his sledge in the snow outside his parents’ house.

The journalist keeps searching but gives up trying to learn the significance of ‘Rosebud’. A final shot of the dead man’s property being catalogued or destroyed provides a close up of a sledge consigned to fire, on which is written the name ‘Rosebud’.

Memento narrates its story in reverse order, as a man with short-term memory loss attempts to find his wife’s murderer. There are two threads involved:

  • One in black and white that gives a chronological sequence of events.
  • One with colour sequences in a non-chronological sequence of events.

The Amazing Spiderman 2, the second film in the Amazing Spiderman franchise, opens with a flashback to Peter Parker’s childhood when his scientist father destroys his research files and attempts to escape with his wife. They are killed by an assassin while onboard a plane.

The film returns to the current day with Peter Parker/Spiderman protecting the city. He later discovers why his father had to destroy his research, and the conflict in the plot begins when an old childhood friend returns to the city and turns out to be the son of Peter’s father’s nemesis.

Types of flashback in literature

A flashback can be narrated to somebody else, whether in a book or a film. Nellie Dean is telling her master Lockwood about past events at Wuthering Heights. This is an external flashback (or external analepsis), which is a description of what happened before the story started.

Analepsis is the literary term for what a flashback does: describing an event that happened earlier on.

Proust refers several times throughout Memory of Things Past to his memories of madeleines soaked in tea. These are examples of internal flashbacks (or internal analepses), which concern something that has happened or been described during the story, which the character is thinking about again.

Once upon a Time: Flashback transition words

Fairy tales use the quickest, most obvious way to introduce a story by opening with ‘Once upon a time, …’, which works as an efficient way of suggesting that everything we hear or read now has already happened.

While that works for fairy tales, it does not work for a novel set in a specific period. Usually, a specific date is given to show that we’re going into a flashback:

  • ‘It was two weeks ago and I was running in the park …’.
  • ‘It was 1914 and the Great War had just started …’.

Memories can also be introduced with:

  • ‘I remember it as if it happened last year …’.
  • ‘My memories of that period are filled with happiness/pain/laughter’ etc.

Flashbacks can be introduced in a variety of ways, and some writers (like Proust) can find subtle methods for doing this, such as a taste that triggers off a series of images.

Flashbacks can also be introduced with dramatic effect. For example, the opening lines of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) are Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

This suggests a place from the past, evoking mystery in these opening lines. As a result, the reader wants to find out who is dreaming, where is Manderley, when were they there, and so on. A past is already revealed, something that happened before these opening lines.

The flashback is popular in both literature and film and offers readers and viewers a fresh and stimulating perspective of the world created in the story.

The main advantage is the element of surprise and intrigue, and it can also help to set the mood and tone of the work.

Flashback - Key takeaways

  • Flashback happens when the narration takes the reader to a period of time before the current scene of the story, very often before the story began.
  • Sometimes, a writer will switch from the past to the present or future part of the story, and this becomes a flashforward.
  • An external flashback (or external analepsis) is a description of what happened before the story started.
  • An internal flashback (or internal analepsis) is something that has happened or been described during the story, which the character is thinking about again.
  • The main advantage of the flashback is the element of surprise and intrigue it can bring.

Flashback

A flashback is when the narration takes the reader to an earlier time in the story, often even before the story began.

A flashback can be a memory or a backstory told by a character in the narrative.

External and internal flashback (or analepsis).

Flashbacks are where the reader is transported back to an earlier period in the story.

Final Flashback Quiz

Question

What is a flashback ?

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Answer

A flashback is when the narration takes the reader to an earlier time in the story, often to before the story began.

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Question

How to write a flashback?

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Answer

A flashback can be a memory or a backstory told by a character in the narrative.    

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Question

What are the two types of flashbacks in literature?   


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Answer

External and internal flashback (or analepsis).

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Question

What is the flashback technique? 

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Answer

Flashbacks are where the reader is transported back to an earlier period in the story. 

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Question

Complete: Analepsis is the literary term for what a … does: describing an event that happened … on.

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Answer

Analepsis is the literary term for what a flashback does: describing an event that happened earlier on.

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Question

Complete: Memories can be … by an action, an object, a …,  taste or ….

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Answer

Memories can be triggered by an action, an object, a sound,  taste or smell.

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Question

True or false? In Proust’s novel Memory of Things Past, a memory is set off by the taste of a madeleine after dipping it in a cup of coffee. 

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Answer

False: In Proust’s novel Memory of Things Past, a memory is set off by the taste of a madeleine after dipping it in a cup of tea. 

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Question

True or false? The story of Frankenstein flashes back to his student days, which are spent hunting the secret of love.

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Answer

False: The story of Frankenstein flashes back to his student days, which are spent hunting the secret of life.

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Question

True of false? A flashback can be told to somebody else, whether in a book or a film.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Complete: Sometimes a writer will switch from the … to the present or future part of the story, and this becomes a …

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Answer

Sometimes a writer will switch from the past to the present or future part of the story, and this becomes a flashforward.

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Question

Multiple choice: In the film Citizen Kane, Rosebud is the name of:


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Answer

a ship

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Question

True or false? The purpose of a flashback is to add background information.


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Answer

True.

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