Definition of a Flashback

In literature, a flashback is an occurrence in which a character remembers an earlier event that happened before the current point of the story. The definition of flashback is identical to that of analepsis, which comes from the Greek for “the act of taking up.” There are two types of flashbacks—those that recount events that happened before the story started (external analepsis) and those that take the reader back to an event that already happened but that the character is considering again (internal analepsis).

Common Examples of Flashback

Many of us have flashbacks quite frequently. We may have flashbacks when we think of someone whom we haven’t thought of in a while, and remember some memory that that person was a part of. Or we may look at an object and think of when we first got it, or why it’s significant. Lots of different things in our daily lives can trigger flashbacks and we are not always aware of it.

There are also examples of flashback in film and television. For example, the series How I Met Your Mother is delivered entirely in a set of flashbacks, for it is supposed to be showing the evolution of characters over time as the main character tells his children how he met the children’s mother.

Significance of Flashback in Literature

Authors use flashbacks in their works for many different reasons. One key reason is to fill in elements of one or more characters’ backstories. Flashbacks can help the reader understand certain motivations that were otherwise unclear, or provide in other ways. Flashbacks can also create suspense or add structure to a story.

Some authors have chosen to tell their stories entirely in flashback, such as in Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus tells his story to a listener, or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the character Marlow tells his fellow sailors about a journey he once took up the Congo River. Other authors, like Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five and Julio Cortázar in Rayuela, choose to tell their stories completely out of chronological order. Thus, it’s more ambiguous where the “present moment” really is, and thus it’s harder to say what is flashback, what is present, and what is flash-forward.

Examples of Flashback in Literature

Example #1

We looked on, waiting patiently—there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating , “I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit,” that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.

(Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)

This flashback example comes from near the beginning of Heart of Darkness as sailors are at rest on their boat on the Thames. Since they are not presently working, their fellow sailor Charles Marlow decides to tell them about his experience traveling upriver in the center of Africa to find an ivory trader named Kurtz. Therefore, the great bulk of Conrad’s novel occurs in flashback.

Example #2

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gastby is the very opening line of the novel. Much of the first chapter occurs in flashback as the narrator Nick Carraway thinks about what has brought him to the East Coast and how out-of-place he feels there. His father’s quote stays with him, and it’s an interesting example of flashback that also carries some element of in that Nick will spend much of the book considering privilege and how it changes people in different ways.

Example #3

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

This is another example of flashback that occurs as the opening line of a novel. In fact, the first line of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. In it, we meet one of the central characters of the book, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, and know some important factors about him right away. We know that later in the book he will face a firing squad, and we also know that his life seems to predate history. García Márquez does an interesting job here of spanning many decades in just a few short words, and up tension and curiosity on the part of the reader.

Example #4

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird is told entirely in flashback from the main character Scout’s perspective. Lee opens the novel with this flashback example, and immediately sets the reader in the mindset of a child, especially Jem’s worries about being able to play football or not.

Example #5

“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?”
“For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!”
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.”

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)

This is one of many examples of flashback from J.K. Rowling’s final book of her seven-part Harry Potter series. In the final book Rowling must fill in a lot of information about many events that occurred before Harry was even alive. She does this in an ingenious way. Rowling introduced the device of a “pensieve” earlier on in the series, in which a character can enter another person’s memory. When Harry views this memory of Snape’s, he is still able to understand a vital piece of his own history. In this excerpt, Snape reveals that while he never came to care for Harry, he had always loved Harry’s mother, Lily.