Flashback! And Away!

We’ve all read a story or novel where everything seems to be moving right along in the present and then suddenly, “Bam!” it’s taken you somewhere else entirely. This occurs when the writer jumps back to recall a past memory or event. Sometimes, the return to the past is signaled with a phrase or explanation alerting the reader to what is happening. But other times, it is not.

This shift in time changes the pace of the story, and sometimes, the setting, too. At times, this change of pace may be welcome but at others, not so much. This type of interruption is called a flashback. Writers use the flashback for a variety of reasons but usually, to change the pace of the story or action while offering insight into a character or history.

What is Flashback?

A flashback, also known as an analepsis, is a tool writers use to interrupt the natural flow, or chronological order, of a story or novel. A flashback takes the reader back to a time before the present story began and provides the reader with useful information needed to understand the present chain of events and to learn more about the character. A flashback may be a quick trip to the past or a prolonged stay, based upon what the writer wants to convey to the reader.

How to pronounce Flashback?

flaSH – bak

When do writers use Flashback?

Writers use flashbacks to slow down a story and interrupt the natural flow of time. Writers do this because they want to provide the reader with a deeper insight into the present or to develop a character more fully by providing the reader with more information.

Flashbacks also provide the writer with an opportunity to delve into different time periods. By doing so, the writer may choose to provide insight into current conflicts as is the case in Harry Potter when Rowling uses flashbacks to explain what happened to Harry as a baby and why Voldemort wants him. The use of flashbacks in writing can also be used to deepen the connection between character and reader. Whatever the reason a writer chooses to incorporate this device into their writing, it will no doubt enrich the story by making it more interesting and a more realistic feel.

How to use Flashback in Your Writing

When using a flashback in your writing, there are a few crucial elements to keep in mind to avoid confusing the reader or audience.

  • You should be mindful of your verb tense. Use verb tense shifts between the past and present to help signal to the reader the change in time. Always try to alert the reader that a shift, or jump in time, is occurring. If the recollection is brief, describe it briefly and transition back to the present. For a longer jump back, try to incorporate a few past perfect tenses in the memory or recollection and then return to a simple past tense.
  • Keep your flashbacks relevant and not overly long. If they stray too far from the character or main story, the reader may become confused. If they are too long, or dull, or tedious, the reader may become bored and lose interest.
  • Tell the primary story first. Keep in mind multiple drafts may be necessary. Don’t lose sight of the task at hand. You’re writing to tell a story. Remember your main story. You may not know exactly where to fit your flashback until your second or third draft.
  • Remember: A whole novel can be a flashback. Case in point: The Great Gatsby. Oh! Good ‘ol Fitzgerald. We love you!

Types of Flashback

As with any literary device or tool out there (and because the internet is what it is) you will find conflicting information floating around about how many types of flashbacks exist and what they are called. Depending on who or what you consult, you’ll probably get a number between 2 and 6 with varying identifiers. At least this writer did. To avoid confusion and try to make things as simple as possible, we’ll focus on the commonly accepted typing by most educational systems. Below are the 4 main types of flashback and how to use them.

  • Dream – This type usually occurs as a dream sequence when the character recalls events from the past while dreaming in their sleep. The events in the dream often prepare the reader for key plot points. A famous example of this is when Mr. Lockwood dreams about the deceased Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
  • Straight break – This occurs when the narrator or writer interrupts the natural, chronological flow of time in the text to delve into the past. Typically, the writer does this to offer additional backstory on the character or events occurring in the present. It is called a “straight break” because the writer makes it obvious to the reader that an interruption is occurring through formatting such as a line or page break or other variation in formatting.
  • Memory – This type of flashback occurs when narrative events or dialogue force a character to recall a specific time or event in the past. Think of the events in the Harry Potterseries and every time the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office is used to revisit the past.
  • Foreshadowing – And now things get a little confusing. A foreshadowing flashback can occur as any of the previous types described above. While the flashback serves a foreshadowing event, it is still a flashback and not necessarily an example of the literary device foreshadowing. But to be fair, it’s clear why the confusion occurs.

Flashbacks in Literature 📚

The Great Gatsby.F. Scott Fitzgerald – This is a great example of when an entire novel becomes a flashback. As Nick Carraway recollects the events of summer long past, the novel begins when he says,

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.”

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad – In his novel, Conrad chooses to use a flashback to include a longer story within the main narrative. As a character named Marlow sits on a small ship in the Thames, both the setting and the situation trigger a memory. While the crew of the Nellie wait for the tide to shift, the sun sinks below the horizon and Marlow remembers a time in the Congo when he was a riverboat captain.The novel is full of flashbacks, as Marlow recounts his journey up the Congo River.

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway – While the novel contains multiple examples of flashbacks, one of the most memorable is when the old man flashes back to the memory of an arm wrestling match in youth in Casablanca

When Used in Poetry …✍🏽

While commonly used in poetry, unless the reader is paying close attention, it may be easy to miss the writer’s use of the flashback. This is very true of longer, more complex works where the shift in time may occur without warning or seemingly appropriate context.

In “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot incorporates the first of many flashbacks very early in the poem. Beginning as early as line 1 in Part I Eliot has the speaker recall a childhood memory in which she goes sledding with another. In this example, Eliot writes:

And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.”

As Part I begins, it is clear that the speaker is an adult and the shift back in time is reminiscent of a time in her childhood when she felt safe despite her fear of the unknown.  While introduced in a flashback, this feeling of fear also sets the tone for one of many themes throughout the poem.

Remember that in poetry, a flashback is not always easy to identify. Sometimes, it may take multiple close readings to correctly identify and exact an example of flashback in a poem. In this example taken from Robert Frost’s “Birches,” it is clear the speaker has returned to a time in the past and the lines represent a memory from that time.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs”

Flashback as Seen in Movies 🎥

While literary devices are a necessary function of film, rarely are they so easily identified in the finished product. Rather, they are usually included in the script for the actors’ benefit. However, the flashback is a rare bird that shines across many different mediums, so it deserves a little extra attention here today.

One of the greatest scenes in the Harry Potter series is also one of its saddest. However, the scene in question is also a great example of a flashback. In The Deathly Hallows, Part II (2011), Harry takes Professor Snape’s tears to the previously mentioned Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office. He then drops them in the water, along with his face, and the following scenes from the past reveal important moments in Snape’s life and his connection to Harry’s mother, Lily. But for the full effect, watch for yourself.

RIP Alan Rickman.

And then … Who could possibly forget the mind-blown moment in Fight Club(1999)? Most critics have agreed that the use of flashbacks in this film was brilliant. But the scene where the narrator begins to realize he lost his freakin’ mind. Just amazing. The thing to note in the scene “Letting Yourself Become Tyler Durden” is not just that the simultaneous flashbacks are recollections of previous scenes but that the flashback sequence in this scene introduces new information, which until that point, had never been done before. Hence, its brilliance. If you’ve never seen this cult classic, check out the scene for yourself.

For our third and final example in this category, the winner is ….

Forrest Gump (1994) – In one of the most beloved films in American cinema, this Forrest Gump utilizes the flashback to its fullest. As Forrest narrates his life, each story is a memory taking the audience back in time to experience what he did at the historical moment it occurred. The result is a compilation of flashbacks blended seamlessly together to create a film.

Examples of Flashback in Advertising 📺

  • In the world of advertising, marketing pros are finding ways to be more creative to attract consumers. As this trend continues, it has become more common for ad campaigns to incorporate tools such as flashbacks into their campaigns to pull on the viewer’s heartstrings.
  • One of the greatest examples of this is illustrated through a McDonald’s ad from 2012. The obscure ad campaign was titled “Flashback” and was the Canadian contribution to the Ads of the World campaign. In the commercial, you see adults nostalgically buying McDonald’s and then morphing into their childhood selves.


Marketing pros have also begun using what has been dubbed “brand flashbacks,” also referred to as nostalgia marketing, to appeal emotionally to consumers. Effective brand flashbacks incorporate past logos, images, songs, jingles, or even symbols to pull the viewer or listener back to a previous time. Coca-Cola did a great job with their 2022 Christmas campaign.

In the clip below, you watch a young man drink a Coke as he struggles to follow an old handwritten recipe as he prepares Christmas dinner while an older woman watches over him. As the commercial ends, the viewer realizes the woman has died and could not celebrate with him


Other related devices … 👥

  • Flashforward (prolepsis) – The polar opposite of flashbacks. A flashforward propels the reader into the future to witness events that may or may not occur or will but have not yet taken place. A great example of this is the ghost of Christmas future in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
  • Foreshadowing – The use of either a subtle or direct hint to events that have not yet occurred or a character’s demise. Foreshadowing is often used interchangeably with flashbacks, but they are not the same thing. However, it can be confusing because flashbacks may function as part of a foreshadowing event.