What are Flashbacks?

Flashback Definition

A flashback is a way of presenting events that happened prior to the current action taking place.

Flashbacks are a popular literary technique for writers to use when starting a story in medias res (in the middle of things), to add drama or suspense, or to fill the reader in on important information. A flashback typically is implemented by:

  • The narrator tells another character about past events
  • The narrator has a dream about past events
  • The narrator thinks back to past events, revealing the information only to the reader
  • The narrator reads a letter that prompts back to an earlier time

Flashbacks are a useful way to start a story at the end, and then fill the reader in on the events that got the characters there. Flashbacks also mirror the way our minds work, as we think back to past events or people as the result of triggers we may see throughout a normal day. Often, we aren’t even aware it’s happening! In literature, flashbacks are incredibly useful for:

  • Understanding character relationships and background
  • Understanding a character’s motivations and perspective
  • Disrupting the chronological, linear order of a narrative for more depth and complexity
  • Creating surprise or suspense
  • Giving clues or hints to remember which foreshadow future events
  • Enhancing understanding of an important theme or idea

Many well-known works of literature begin their tales at the end and work their way back to the beginning. Other stories begin in in medias res and fill in the rest of the narrative with flashbacks before moving forward. Students may also be familiar with TV shows and movies that bend the chronological timeline. Some popular examples of flashback are listed below. Showing excerpts of a TV or movie flashback to students may be useful in helping them better understand the technique:

Examples of Flashback in Literature

Examples of Flashback in Television

  • How I Met Your Mother
  • Lost
  • Arrow
  • True Detective
  • The Walking Dead
  • The Wonder Years

Examples of Flashback in Movies

  • Titanic
  • Memento
  • Forrest Gump
  • Citizen Kane
  • It’s A Wonderful Life
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Student Activity: Using Flashback!

Have students try out using flashback in a story of their own! Students can start in the middle or end of their story and work around it, or they can jump around if they’re feeling truly adventurous. Students should use their flashback purposefully and be able to explain what it reveals: character, theme, setting, plot, or foreshadowing. Then, they can depict the action in a storyboard like the one below.

Cell 1: I found myself outside of the castle, with only the moon to guide me. I had arrived, but I had no recollection of how I got there. I felt my face, and the bruises were fresh. I looked down at my arm. “SHAME” was written in large letters across it, and suddenly, I realized I couldn’t speak. I didn’t have a voice!

Cell 2: I had been walking through the village, quietly enjoying the sights and smells of the local marketplace. It was a beautiful spring day, and the village was in a celebratory mood after the long winter. [Flashback serves to reveal: plot and foreshadowing]

Cell 3: Suddenly, I heard shouting from within a nearby alley. I quietly crept over to investigate, and found two men arguing heatedly. One was an average-looking man in royal dress; the other was a man with a funny cap and robe. The man in the cap raised his arm at the royally-dressed man and made a slight movement with a long stick. There was a flash, and in his place was a frog!

Cell 4: I must have shouted in surprise because the next thing I knew, the man in the cap was whirling towards me. I yelled at him that what he had done was a crime – and it was shameful! In our beautiful city, how could he do such a thing? The man sneered and raised his stick towards me. The end of it glowed with an evil red phosphorescence.

Cell 5: I jumped, and the red glow missed me by inches. I began to run, crashing through the market and knocking over carts. I could hear the man on my heels, yelling and zapping his magic wand at me as I dodged back and forth. Finally, I felt an electric sensation hit the back of my head. I fell, and all around me was black. I could hear a man mumbling, “Shame me, will you? Put me in a dunce cap will you? Oh no, never again!”

Cell 6: When I awoke in front of the castle, I realized I would never be able to scold anyone again. The wizard had taken my voice. I don’t know why “shame” had made him so angry, but I knew I would have to find him and get my voice back. This time, though, I would need backup. I knew where to find it: the dragon in the Hidden Cave.

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences

  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)

  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically

Find more activities like this in our Middle School ELA and High School ELA Categories!
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