Definition of Flashback
It is a literary device that allows a writer to shift the narrative to an earlier time period. It provides context and background about events or characters. Flashbacks interrupt the normal chronological flow of a story. It helps the readers to transport to a past moment before resuming the main narrative timeline.
Writers utilize flashbacks to reveal new information about plot, relationships, motivation and more. Effective flashbacks connect seamlessly with the entire story progression rather than simply info-dumping. When crafted intentionally, flashbacks build suspense, drama and empathy by giving the readers insight into pivotal memories, that shaped characters or events in the present.
Types of Flashbacks
Character Flashbacks: These focus on the memories and past experiences of the character. They explain their current motivations, personalities and connections to other characters and events in the story. These flashbacks provide backstory.
Plot Flashbacks: Plot flashbacks interrupt the main story. These reveal an important scene from the past that shaped the existing storyline. Often a mysterious reference is made early on and then a flashback subsequently provides the full details.
Theme Flashbacks: These types of flashbacks heavily emphasize the main themes or motifs in the story while subtly revealing character and plot details. The thematic parallel between past and present enhances entire meaning.
Foreshadowing Flashbacks: Writers use these flashbacks to hint at a coming action and consequence. These build suspense around a future event tied back to an earlier memory retained by a character and the reader. The previous foreshadows the eventual.
Examples of Flashback in literature
“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens
“You are in every line I have ever read since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then.”
In the aforesaid excerpt, Pip is remembering how Estella hurt his feelings when he first came to Miss Havisham’s house. This childhood memory shapes his ongoing feelings for her. The flashback adds poignancy and a nostalgic mood to the scene. The writer recalls this formative experience from long ago. He connects the past and present for Pip inviting the reader to reflect on how childhood episodes shape us.
“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
“He was loyal to his friends, not ideology. Loyal to his family, not a cause. And he was killed because of that. The fundamental law of nature; the weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”
The main character Amir looks back on his relationship with the servant of his father namely Hassan. The writer uses a flashback and gives insight into the political turmoil that shaped the lives of Hassan and others in Afghanistan. The reflection of the adult Amir gets a glimpse to the readers into admirable qualities of Hassan, his loyalty to friends and family rather than abstract ideologies and causes. However, as Amir’s memory reveals, those virtues led to Hassan ultimately being “meat” for the “strong” – he became a victim of powerful political forces beyond his control. This flashback adds depth to our understanding of Hassan, the relationship between him and Amir and the tragedy that unfolded in a volatile environment.
“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak
“The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places it was burned. There were black crumbs and pepper, streaked across the redness.”
This vivid paragraph immediately transports the reader back into a memory from the narrator’s past using descriptive imagery. The reader realizes that the narrator is reflecting back on the last time they saw a certain “her” (presumably a significant woman in life). By opening with “The last time I saw her…” the author signals we are entering a flashback.
Through striking visual details, we get a glimpse of this moment the narrator last saw this woman. The similes “like soup” and “burned” convey the fiery red sky, while “black crumbs and pepper” emphasize the debris and smoke polluting the red canvas. This helps paint the ominous scene, hinting at an environment altered by disaster, conflict or turmoil. This fleeting flashback immerses the reader in the last glimpse of an important figure in the narrator’s past. The rich description of the scene adds symbolism and emotional depth, while raising intriguing questions surrounding the players and events that unfolded.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison
“Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed…she had nothing to lose. She would not lose her boy.”
The lines seem to come as a character reflects back on a difficult period in their past. Though there is limited context, the reader gets a glimpse of hardship and loss through this flashback. The reference to “those white things” taking away what the speaker “had or dreamed” hints at an outside force that stripped them of some crucial aspect of their life – perhaps a livelihood, hopes or a loved one. This suggests that while material things were lost, her child was the most precious thing left. By taking us briefly into the perspective of this woman facing immensely high stakes, the flashback gives an empathetic lens emphasizing the human toll of loss. It also hints at the bond between mother and child – a bond tested in the midst of crisis.
“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë
“Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
This dramatic excerpt utilizes a flashback as the narrator recalls an intensely emotional moment from their past. The heart-wrenching plea depicts a time when the speaker feared losing someone profoundly dear to them. The desperation of begging this person to “be with me always” and the sentiment that this individual constitutes the narrator’s “life” and “soul” reveals a completely anguished state at the prospect of being left behind.
Through this brief glimpse back in time, the readers gain insight into the unbearable pain once felt by the narrator when contemplating life without their beloved. The vivid language used conjures the debilitating distress they experienced, being willing to endure anything – even madness – in order to hold onto this relationship.
Analepsis – This refers more broadly to any instance in a work of literature when the chronological order of events is interrupted by the insertion of a scene from the past. Flashbacks are a form of analepsis.
Prolepsis – While less directly related, prolepsis refers to when a future event is alluded to or depicted before its normal chronological place in a story. Writers sometimes use prolepsis purposefully in contrast with analepsis, switching between past and future to give context.