Using Flashback in Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Charles Dickens used flashback in his work, most famously in "A Christmas Carol.". (Epics/Getty Images)

A flashback is a shift in a narrative to an earlier event that interrupts the normal chronological development of a story. Also called analepsis. Contrast with flashforward.

"Just as with the novelist," says Bronwyn T. Williams, "the creative nonfiction writer can condense, expand, fold back, reorder, and otherwise play with space and time. Flashbacks, foreshadowing, changing perspectives, changing the order in which events are told, are all fair game and may be effective dramatically and stylistically" ("Writing Creative Nonfiction" in A Companion to Creative Writing, 2013).

Examples and Observations:

  • "For a flashback to succeed as part of your beginning, it should meet three criteria.
    "First, it should follow a strong opening scene, one that roots us firmly in your character's present. . . .
    "In addition, the second-scene flashback should bear some clear relation to the first scene we've just witnessed. . . .
    "Finally, don't let your readers get lost in time. Indicate clearly how much earlier the flashback scene took place."
    (Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles & Ends. Writer's Digest Books, 1999)
  • Flashbacks in the TV Series Lost
    "Backstory--that's been a key element in the brilliance of Lost. Flashbacks are usually deadly--but the writers have used them here as the best novelists do. We only get a flashback that is (a) interesting in and of itself and (b) pertinent to the present action, so that we don't resent the interruptions."
    (Orson Scott Card, "Introduction: What Is Lost Good For?" Getting Lost: Survival, Baggage, and Starting Over in J.J. Abrams' Lost, ed. by O.S. Card. BenBella, 2006)
  • Advice on Using Flashbacks
    "While the flashback is common in literary presentations--novels, drama, television programs--it need not be restricted to them. Indeed, it is very often used for expository writing. . . .
    "Begin a flashback as close to the conclusion, the effect, as you can. Do not 'give the plot away' in the first paragraph, but end the paragraph with a question, with a comment that the remainder of the theme will pertain to the flashback. In a short theme, your flashback should be short, certainly no longer than about one-fourth of your theme."
    (John McCall, How to Write Themes and Essays. Peterson's, 2003)
    "A rule of thumb: If you feel a need to have a flashback on the first or second page of your story, either your story should begin with the events of the flashback, or you should get us involved with some compelling present characters and events before flashing back."
    (Orson Scott Card, Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters and Viewpoint. Writer's Digest Books, 2010)
  • The Flashback Sequence in the Movie Casablanca
    "In the example of Casablanca, the flashback sequence is positioned strategically in the plot to resolve a newly elaborated narrative enigma. The crucial characters of the flashback (Rick, Ilsa, and Sam) have been clearly introduced, and the film's plot has raised a question about the relationship of Rick and Ilsa--What happened to them before the film proper has begun?--that must be answered before the plot can proceed."
    (James Morrison, Passport to Hollywood. SUNY Press, 1998)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Using Flashback in Writing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Using Flashback in Writing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Using Flashback in Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).