Understanding Flashbacks: Definition, Meaning, and Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 5 min read


  1. What are flashbacks?
  2. How flashbacks function in narrative
  3. Meaning and purpose of flashbacks
  4. Examples of flashbacks in literature
  5. Examples of flashbacks in film

If you've ever watched a movie, read a book, or even told a story yourself, you've likely encountered a flashback. It's a common storytelling technique used across different mediums, but what exactly is it? In this blog, we'll walk you through the definition of flashback, its meaning, and its uses in narratives, and we'll show you some examples from literature and film. You'll soon see how flashbacks can turn a simple story into a compelling narrative that hooks the reader or viewer.

What are flashbacks?

A flashback, by definition, is a scene in a movie, novel, or other narrative that takes us back to a time earlier than the main story. It's like a window to the past, letting us peek into a moment that has already happened.

Definition of Flashback in Narrative

In narrative terms, the definition of flashback is a moment where the progression of the story halts and shifts, taking the audience back in time. This shift could be a few minutes, a few days, or even several years before the current moment in the story. It's important to remember that:

  • Flashbacks are not real-time: They're memories or past experiences of the characters.
  • They're not a retelling: Rather, they're a reliving of past events, often in vivid detail.

Flashback in Film and Literature

While the definition of flashback remains consistent across different media, the execution varies. In literature, a flashback might be a full chapter or a few lines, while in film, it could range from a few frames to whole sequences. Things to consider:

  1. Flashbacks in literature: Writers often use italics, changes in tense, or phrases like "She remembered when..." to signal a flashback.
  2. Flashbacks in film: Filmmakers may use different lighting, colors, or even sepia tones to distinguish flashbacks from the main timeline.

So, now that you know the definition of flashback and how it functions in narrative, it's time to explore its meaning and purpose. You'll soon see that this simple narrative tool can add layers of depth and intrigue to a story. Stay tuned!

How flashbacks function in narrative

Flashbacks aren't just random trips to the past. They serve a distinct purpose in a story. Understanding the function of flashbacks can help you appreciate the depth and complexity they add to a narrative.

Building Character Background

A flashback can provide valuable insights into a character's past. It's like a puzzle piece that helps complete the picture of who a character is and why they act a certain way. For example, a flashback might reveal a traumatic event in the protagonist's childhood that explains their fear of dogs.

Adding Suspense and Mystery

Ever watch a movie where a vital piece of information is revealed in a flashback, and suddenly everything makes sense? That's a flashback doing its job. By withholding information and revealing it at the right moment, flashbacks can create suspense and keep the audience hooked.

Creating Emotional Depth

Flashbacks also help to create emotional depth and empathy. By showing the audience key moments from a character's past, flashbacks allow us to better understand their emotions and motivations. This can make us care more about what happens to them in the narrative, increasing our emotional investment in the story.

As you can see, flashbacks are more than just a narrative detour to the past. They're a powerful tool that can add depth, suspense, and emotional richness to a story. And while the definition of flashback is simple, its impact on a narrative is anything but. Next up, let's explore some examples of flashbacks in literature and film to see them in action!

Meaning and purpose of flashbacks

Flashbacks are a storytelling secret weapon. They allow us to time travel, revealing the hidden layers of a story or character. But what are they really, and why do authors and filmmakers use them? Let's break it down.

What is a Flashback?

At its core, the definition of flashback in storytelling is a scene that takes the audience back in time. This scene, or series of scenes, shows an event or events that occurred before the current narrative timeline. But it's much more than just a narrative trick. It's a means to a deeper end.

Why Use Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are used for many reasons, but here are a few of the big ones:

  • Unpacking the past: Flashbacks allow authors and filmmakers to show rather than tell. Instead of saying a character is haunted by their past, a flashback can show us that past and let us experience it alongside the character.
  • Revealing secrets: Flashbacks can slowly unveil secrets that add depth and complexity to the narrative, keeping us on the edge of our seats.
  • Developing characters: Through flashbacks, we get to know characters beyond their present selves. We see their backstory, their struggles, and their growth, making them more relatable and real.

So, while the definition of flashback is straightforward—a jump back in time—the purpose and impact of flashbacks in a narrative can be profound. They are not just a stylistic choice, but a meaningful way to deepen the story and connect with the audience.

Examples of flashbacks in literature

Now that we've unpacked the definition of flashback, let's see it in action! Here are some examples of how authors have used flashbacks to enrich their stories.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The entire novel is a flashback, narrated by an adult Scout Finch remembering her childhood. Through her recollections, we experience the injustice and prejudice of her small Southern town, as well as her own growth and understanding.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Hosseini uses flashbacks to reveal the protagonist Amir's guilt-ridden past. These flashbacks provide crucial context for his present actions and deepen our understanding of his journey towards redemption.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Flashbacks in this novel reveal the horrific pasts of former slaves, making the readers bear witness to their experiences. Morrison uses flashbacks not just to provide backstory, but to confront the readers with the brutal reality of slavery.

These examples show us how flashbacks can be used to explore a character's past, reveal secrets, and deepen the emotional impact of a narrative. So next time you pick up a book, keep an eye out for this time-hopping technique—you might be surprised at how much it adds to your reading experience!

Examples of flashbacks in film

Moving on from literature, let's see how the magic of flashbacks works in the cinematic world. You may not have realized it, but some of your favorite movies might be using this technique to draw you deeper into the story.

Forrest Gump by Robert Zemeckis

In this iconic movie, the entire narrative is a series of flashbacks as Forrest Gump narrates his life story from a park bench. These flashbacks create a rich tapestry of his extraordinary life and the historical events he unwittingly becomes a part of.

Citizen Kane by Orson Welles

This classic film uses the device of flashback to unravel the mystery of Kane's last word—"Rosebud". Each flashback provides a piece of the puzzle, building a complex portrait of a deeply flawed man.

Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino is known for his non-linear storytelling, and Pulp Fiction is a prime example. His use of flashbacks allows the audience to piece together the intertwined stories, adding layers of depth and intrigue to the narrative.

As you can see, flashbacks can bring a unique dimension to films, allowing us to see the past, present, and sometimes even future, all at once. So, the next time you're watching a movie, see if you can spot the flashbacks—they might just give you a whole new perspective on the story!

If you're fascinated by the concept of flashbacks and want to learn more about how to incorporate them into your writing, we recommend checking out the workshop 'Writing From Memory - Part 1' by Charlie Brogan. This workshop will help you understand how to effectively use flashbacks and other memory techniques to create compelling stories.