Flashback (narrative)

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A flashback (sometimes called an analepsis) is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point in the story. [1] Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened before the story's primary sequence of events to fill in crucial backstory. [2] In the opposite direction, a flashforward (or prolepsis) reveals events that will occur in the future. [3] Both flashback and flashforward are used to cohere a story, develop a character, or add structure to the narrative. In literature, internal analepsis is a flashback to an earlier point in the narrative; external analepsis is a flashback to a time before the narrative started. [4]


In film, flashbacks depict the subjective experience of a character by showing a memory of a previous event and they are often used to "resolve an enigma". [5] Flashbacks are important in film noir and melodrama films. [6] In films and television, several camera techniques, editing approaches and special effects have evolved to alert the viewer that the action shown is a flashback or flashforward; for example, the edges of the picture may be deliberately blurred, photography may be jarring or choppy, or unusual coloration or sepia tone, or monochrome when most of the story is in full color, may be used. The scene may fade or dissolve, often with the camera focused on the face of the character and there is typically a voice-over by a narrator (who is often, but not always, the character who is experiencing the memory). [7]

Notable examples


An early example of analepsis is in the Ramayana and Mahabharata , where the main story is narrated through a frame story set at a later time. Another early use of this device in a murder mystery was in "The Three Apples", an Arabian Nights tale. The story begins with the discovery of a young woman's dead body. After the murderer later reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder in a series of flashbacks leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story. [8] Flashbacks are also employed in several other Arabian Nights tales such as "Sinbad the Sailor" and "The City of Brass".

Analepsis was used extensively by author Ford Madox Ford, and by poet, author, historian and mythologist Robert Graves. The 1927 book The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is the progenitor of the modern disaster epic in literature and film-making, where a single disaster intertwines the victims, whose lives are then explored by means of flashbacks of events leading up to the disaster. Analepsis is also used in Night by Elie Wiesel. If flashbacks are extensive and in chronological order, one can say that these form the present of the story, while the rest of the story consists of flash forwards. If flashbacks are presented in non-chronological order, the time at which the story takes place can be ambiguous: An example of such an occurrence is in Slaughterhouse-Five where the narrative jumps back and forth in time, so there is no actual present time line. Os Lusíadas is a story about a voyage of Vasco da Gama to India and back. The narration starts when they were arriving in Africa but it quickly flashes back to the beginning of the story which is when they were leaving Portugal. [9]

The Harry Potter series employs a magical device called a Pensieve, which changes the nature of flashbacks from a mere narrative device to an event directly experienced by the characters, who are thus able to provide commentary.


The creator of the flashback technique in cinema was Histoire d'un crime directed by Ferdinand Zecca in 1901. [10] An early use of the flashback technique in cinema occurs throughout D.W. Griffith's film, Hearts of the World (1918): for example, during the wall scene with the Boy at 1:33. Flashbacks were first employed during the sound era in Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 film City Streets , but were rare until about 1939 when, in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights as in Emily Brontë's original novel, the housekeeper Ellen narrates the main story to overnight visitor Mr. Lockwood, who has witnessed Heathcliff's frantic pursuit of what is apparently a ghost. More famously, also in 1939, Marcel Carné's film Le Jour Se Lève is told almost entirely through flashback: the story starts with the murder of a man in a hotel. While the murderer, played by Jean Gabin, is surrounded by the police, several flashbacks tell the story of why he killed the man at the beginning of the film.

One of the most famous examples of a flashback is in the Orson Welles' film Citizen Kane (1941). The protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, dies at the beginning, uttering the word Rosebud. The remainder of the film is framed by a reporter's interviewing Kane's friends and associates, in a futile effort to discover what the word meant to Kane. As the interviews proceed, pieces of Kane's life unfold in flashback, but Welles' use of such unconventional flashbacks was thought to have been influenced by William K. Howard's The Power and the Glory . Lubitsch used a flashback in Heaven Can Wait (1943) which tells the story of Henry Van Cleve. Though usually used to clarify plot or backstory, flashbacks can also act as an unreliable narrator. The multiple and contradictory staged reconstructions of a crime in Errol Morris's 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line are presented as flashbacks based on divergent testimony. Akira Kurosawa's 1950 Rashomon does this in the most celebrated fictional use of contested multiple testimonies.

Sometimes a flashback is inserted into a film even though there was none in the original source from which the film was adapted. The 1956 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage musical Carousel used a flashback device which somewhat takes the impact away from a very dramatic plot development later in the film. This was done because the plot of Carousel was then considered unusually strong for a film musical. In the film version of Camelot (1967), according to Alan Jay Lerner, a flashback was added not to soften the blow of a later plot development but because the stage show had been criticized for shifting too abruptly in tone from near-comedy to tragedy.

In Billy Wilder's film noir Double Indemnity (1944), a flashback from the main character is used to provide a confession to his fraudulent and criminal activities. [11] Fish & Cat is the first single-shot movie with several flashbacks.

In John Brahm's film noir "The Locket" (1946) a unique hat trick is used (a flashback within a flashback within a flashback) to give psychological depth to the story of a woman who was allegedly a kleptomaniac, inveterate liar, and murderess but had never been punished for any of her crimes.

A good example of both flashback and flashforward is the first scene of La Jetée (1962). As we learn a few minutes later, what we are seeing in that scene is a flashback to the past, since the present of the film's diegesis is a time directly following World War III. However, as we learn at the very end of the film, that scene also doubles as a prolepsis, since the dying man the boy is seeing is, in fact, himself. In other words, he is proleptically seeing his own death. We thus have an analepsis and prolepsis in the very same scene.

Occasionally, a story may contain a flashback within a flashback, with the earliest known example appearing in Jacques Feyder's L'Atlantide . Little Annie Rooney (1925) contains a flashback scene in a Chinese laundry, with a flashback within that flashback in the corner of the screen. In John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the main action of the film is told in flashback, with the scene of Liberty Valance's murder occurring as a flashback within that flashback. Other examples that contains flashbacks within flashbacks are the 1968 Japanese film Lone Wolf Isazo [12] and 2004's The Phantom of the Opera , where almost the entire film (set in 1870) is told as a flashback from 1919 (in black-and-white) and contains other flashbacks; for example, Madame Giry rescuing the Phantom from a freak show. An extremely convoluted story may contain flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, as in Six Degrees of Separation , Passage to Marseille , and The Locket .

This technique is a hallmark of Kannada movie director Upendra. He has employed this technique in his movies – Om (1995), A (1998) and the futuristic flick Super (2010) – set in 2030 containing multiple flashbacks ranging from 2010 to 2015 depicting a Utopian India.

Satyajit Ray experimented with flashbacks in The Adversary (Pratidwandi, 1972), pioneering the technique of photo-negative flashbacks. [13] He also uses flashbacks in other films such as Nayak (1966), Kapurush- O – Mahapurush ( 1965), Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), Jalsaghar(1959). In fact, in Nayak, the entire film proceeds in a non linear narrative which explores the Hero (Arindam's) past through seven flashbacks and two dreams. He also uses extensive flashbacks in the Kanchenjunga (1962). [14]

Quentin Tarantino makes extensive use of the flashback and flashforward in many of his films. In Reservoir Dogs (1992), for example, scenes of the story present are intercut with various flashbacks to give each character's backstory and motivation additional context. In Pulp Fiction (1994), which uses a highly nonlinear narrative, traditional flashback is also used in the sequence titled "The Gold Watch". Other films, such as his two-part Kill Bill (Part I 2003, Part II 2004), also feature a narrative that bounces between present time and flashbacks.


The television series Quantico, Kung Fu, Psych , How I Met Your Mother , Grounded for Life , Once Upon a Time, and I Didn't Do It use flashbacks in every episode. Flashbacks were also a predominant feature of the television shows Lost , Arrow , Phineas and Ferb , Orange Is the New Black , 13 Reasons Why , Elite and Quicksand . Many detective shows routinely use flashback in the last act to illustrate the detective's reconstruction of the culprit's plot, e.g. Murder, She Wrote , Banacek, Columbo . The television show Leverage uses a flashback at the end of each episode to show how the protagonists successfully carried out their confidence trick on the episode's antagonist.

The anime Inuyasha uses flashbacks that take one back half a century ago in the two-part episode "The Tragic Love Song of Destiny" in the sixth season narrated by the elderly younger sister of Lady Kikyo, Lady Kaede; Episodes 147 and 148.

In Princess Half-Demon , the ongoing spinoff to the anime stated above, the premiere takes us back eighteen years ago, five months since the conclusion of the original series' seventh season. Episode Fifteen "Farewell Under the Lunar Eclipse" is narrated by Riku that explains what had happened before and right after the Half-Demon Princesses were born; namely where Inuyasha and nineteen-year-old Kagome Higurashi had ended up, trapped within the Black Pearl at the border of the Afterlife for fourteen long years. Some months later, flashbacks that are memories belonging to Jaken ("The Silver-Scale Curse") and Hachimon ("Battle of the Moon, Part 1") eventually come.

In the Disney Channel series Phineas and Ferb , flashbacks and flash forwards often appear. In several episodes, the main antagonist Dr. Doofenshmirtz uses flashbacks as a way to explain his past. A gag in the episode "Doof Dynasty" notes that, when a character explains his or her past, their body ripples (referencing the "ripple effect" which starts a flashback in other media). The whole episode "Act Your Age" is a flash-forward of the characters as teenagers. Several other episodes also feature flashbacks of the main characters' ancestors who, as a running gag, always seem to look like the main characters with slight variations in clothing, but the exact same mannerisms and voices. ( Northern Exposure episode "Cicely" used a similar device, with the main cast playing unrelated characters of 84 years before, at the founding of the village.)

Breaking Bad and its spinoff Better Call Saul frequently employ flashbacks, most often in the form of the cold open. While many of the flashbacks take place years before the events of each series, there are also cases in which new scenes set during previous episodes are shown, such as Breaking Bad's "Más" and "Ozymandias," whose openings are set during the show's pilot. The final three episodes of Better Call Saul, set in the post-Breaking Bad timeline, also include flashbacks taking place both between and during the two series' time frames.

The 2D hand-drawn animated show Rapunzel's Tangled Adventure (known as Tangled: The Series during its first season) began showing flashbacks set a quarter of a century ago in the Dark Kingdom, where the heavenly Moonstone resides within for hundreds of years in the second season's premiere "Beyond the Walls of Corona", "Rapunzel and the Great Tree" and the finale "Destinies Collide."

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Story within a story</span> Literary device

A story within a story, also referred to as an embedded narrative, is a literary device in which a character within a story becomes the narrator of a second story. Multiple layers of stories within stories are sometimes called nested stories. A play may have a brief play within it, such as in Shakespeare's play Hamlet; a film may show the characters watching a short film; or a novel may contain a short story within the novel. A story within a story can be used in all types of narration including poems, and songs.

A plot device or plot mechanism is any technique in a narrative used to move the plot forward. A clichéd plot device may annoy the reader and a contrived or arbitrary device may confuse the reader, causing a loss of the suspension of disbelief. However, a well-crafted plot device, or one that emerges naturally from the setting or characters of the story, may be entirely accepted, or may even be unnoticed by the audience.

Diegesis is a style of fiction storytelling which presents an interior view of a world in which the narrator presents the actions of the characters to the readers or audience. Diegesis can be experienced by both the characters within a piece and the audience.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Foreshadowing</span> Literary technique

Foreshadowing is a narrative device in which a storyteller gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story, and it helps develop or subvert the audience's expectations about upcoming events.

Story structure or narrative structure is the recognizable or comprehensible way in which a narrative's different elements are unified, including in a particularly chosen order and often specifically referring to the ordering of the plot: the narrative series of events. In a play or work of theatre especially, this can be called dramatic structure, which is presented in audiovisual form. The following overviews how story structure works in a cross-cultural and general sense.

A frame story is a literary technique that serves as a companion piece to a story within a story, where an introductory or main narrative sets the stage either for a more emphasized second narrative or for a set of shorter stories. The frame story leads readers from a first story into one or more other stories within it. The frame story may also be used to inform readers about aspects of the secondary narrative(s) that may otherwise be hard to understand. This should not be confused with narrative structure. A notable example is The Decameron.

A narrative work beginning in medias res opens in the chronological middle of the plot, rather than at the beginning. Often, exposition is initially bypassed, instead filled in gradually through dialogue, flashbacks, or description of past events. For example, Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet's father which is later discovered to have been a murder. Characters make reference to King Hamlet's death without the plot's first establishment of this fact. Since the play is about Hamlet and the revenge more so than the motivation, Shakespeare uses in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.

A plot twist is a literary technique that introduces a radical change in the direction or expected outcome of the plot in a work of fiction. When it happens near the end of a story, it is known as a twist ending or surprise ending. It may change the audience's perception of the preceding events, or introduce a new conflict that places it in a different context. A plot twist may be foreshadowed, to prepare the audience to accept it, but it usually comes with some element of surprise. There are various methods used to execute a plot twist, such as withholding information from the audience, or misleading them with ambiguous or false information. Not every plot has a twist, but some have multiple lesser ones, and some are defined by a single major twist.

<i>Mise en abyme</i> Technique of placing a copy of an image within itself, or a story within a story

In Western art history, mise en abyme is the technique of placing a copy of an image within itself, often in a way that suggests an infinitely recurring sequence. In film theory and literary theory, it refers to the story within a story technique.

A clip show is an episode of a television series that consists primarily of excerpts from previous episodes. Most clip shows include a frame story in which cast members recall events from past installments of the show, depicted with a clip of the event presented as a flashback. Clip shows are also known as cheaters, particularly in the field of animation. Clip shows are often played before series finales as a way to summarize the entire series, or once syndication becomes highly likely as a way to increase the number of episodes that can be sold. Other times, however, clip shows are simply produced for budgetary reasons.

Continuity editing is the process, in film and video creation, of combining more-or-less related shots, or different components cut from a single shot, into a sequence to direct the viewer's attention to a pre-existing consistency of story across both time and physical location. Often used in feature films, continuity editing, or "cutting to continuity", can be contrasted with approaches such as montage, with which the editor aims to generate, in the mind of the viewer, new associations among the various shots that can then be of entirely different subjects, or at least of subjects less closely related than would be required for the continuity approach. When discussed in reference to classical Hollywood cinema, it may also be referred to as classical continuity.

A dream sequence is a technique used in storytelling, particularly in television and film, to set apart a brief interlude from the main story. The interlude may consist of a flashback, a flashforward, a fantasy, a vision, a dream, or some other element.

A flashforward is a scene that temporarily takes the narrative forward in time from the current point of the story in literature, film, television and other media. Flashforwards are often used to represent events expected, projected, or imagined to occur in the future. They may also reveal significant parts of the story that have not yet occurred, but soon will in greater detail. It is similar to foreshadowing, in which future events are not shown but rather implicitly hinted at. It is also similar to an ellipsis, which takes the narrative forward and is intended to skim over boring or uninteresting details, for example the aging of a character. It is primarily a postmodern narrative device, named by analogy to the more traditional flashback, which reveals events that occurred in the past.

Reverse chronology is a narrative structure and method of storytelling whereby the plot is revealed in reverse order.

This article contains a list of cinematic techniques that are divided into categories and briefly described.

Nonlinear narrative, disjointed narrative, or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique where events are portrayed, for example, out of chronological order or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured, such as parallel distinctive plot lines, dream immersions or narrating another story inside the main plot-line. The technique is common in electronic literature, and particularly in hypertext fiction, and is also well-established in print and other sequential media.

In film, a match cut is a cut from one shot to another in which the composition of the two shots are matched by the action or subject and subject matter. For example, in a duel a shot can go from a long shot on both contestants via a cut to a medium closeup shot of one of the duellists. The cut matches the two shots and is consistent with the logic of the action. This is a standard practice in film-making, to produce a seamless reality-effect.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fabula and syuzhet</span> Terms describing narrative construction

In narratology, fabula equates to the thematic content of a narrative and syuzhet equates to the chronological structure of the events within the narrative. Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky originated the terminology as part of the Russian Formalism movement in the early 20th century. Narratologists have described fabula as "the raw material of a story", and syuzhet as "the way a story is organized".

The Novel: An Introduction is a general introduction to narratology, written by Christoph Bode, Full Professor and Chair of Modern English Literature in the Department of English and American Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. The first edition of Der Roman was published 2005 at A. Francke Verlag in German; in 2011, the second revised and extended German edition followed, as well as the English translation.

Morris the Explainer is an old American film industry term referring to a fictional character whose job it is to explain the plot or parts of a plot to other characters and the audience. This storytelling cliché of narrative exposition is also known by the names Jake the Explainer, Sam the Explainer and Irving the Explainer.


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