Flashbacks in literature refer to a device in which an earlier event is inserted into the normal chronological order of a narrative.The technique is also known as analepsis, revealing new ties between characters and events.

1. Definition
2. Category
3. Function
4. Example
5. How to use them in writing
6. Caveat


A character origin flashback shows key events early in a character's development. There are basically two categories of flashbacks: one is internal analepsis and another one is external analypsis. The first type refers to a flashback to an earlier point in the narrative; while external analepsis is a flashback to before the narrative started.


Flashbacks interrupt the current action of the story to show a scene from the past, which can add depth and interest to the character by depicting a character's past in real time and can add suspense to the plot. They are important in the sense that they bring the reader into the life of the characters on an emotional level and let him enter the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and expectations.


  • Convoluted flashback structures are not only intellectually based, they tend to distance the viewer from that 'simple reality' they come to the movies to enjoy. It is no surprise that many great movies with complicated or innovative flashback structures were not particularly popular, not crowd-pleasers. DVDTalk.com

  • It is true that flashbacks can make the majority of the story confusing, but the concept is a bit like putting a puzzle together - you're not really sure where each piece fits or what the picture really looks like until the very end. Therein lies the payoff. streetdirectory.com

  • The flashback should be prompted by an incident, dialog, or intense action which brings a vivid memory to the character. Helium.com


There are novels adopting this device. An early example of flashbacks is in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, where the main story is narrated through a frame story set in a later story. 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 as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story.

Flashbacks were used extensively by author Ford Madox Ford also by poet author, historian and mythologist Robert Graves, as a source of inspiration. One example is the Odysseyin which the author begins the story from when Odysseus is at the court of the Phaescians and then goes back Odysseus' early experience. \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, which are thus able to provide commentary.


There are several ways to bring flashbacks to a story.

(1) One is to give them in total in the beginning as a prologue, an introduction or an introductory chapter. They can be done with a transition statement such as,

"John remembered the day his father died."

Then, use past perfect ("had") two or three times to complete the clue that you are entering real time in the past. And you are in the past.

The advantages of using this type of flashbacks are:

--Total flashbacks allow the telling of the story without stopping the action.

--They give the story a chronological order.

--During the storytelling, the critical back story data serves to give depth to the story.

--Writing the total flashback is easy on the writer. After he is done with the back story in flashback, telling the real story becomes uncomplicated.

The disadvantage of the total flashback in the beginning of a story is that it can bore the reader with the long past, instead of pulling him into the story’s action and the story’s present time.

(2)Another way to insert flashbacks in a story is to give them in several large chunks inside the story. The film industry can use cut-aways for this; however, in writing straight fiction, large chunks work better only in slow-moving stories. If the writer is telling a fast-paced story in any genre, he needs to avoid the large chunks of flashbacks.

In addition, this type of flashback is best used by signaling its beginning and end in some way or possibly putting the flashback in italics. As to the dialogue in a large chunk of flashback, it can be summarized, if possible.

(3)A third way of inserting the flashbacks in the story is to insert small pieces of flashback, possibly in one or two sentences wherever they are needed.

The advantages of this technique are:

-- The writer has flexibility in telling the story, as to how to tell it and how much he will let the reader know.

-- The writer can weave in critical information and background material at any time he wishes.

-- He can use it to increase suspense or to attract the reader's curiosity -- He can create layered characters during the writing of the real story.

On the negative side, if not handled well by the writer, this technique may cause the reader to confuse the past with the present.


There are some caveats concerning flashbacks:

-- The writer should not make the contents of the flashback more interesting or longer than the real story.

-- The writer should not introduce the flashback as the first real scene in the story. This doesn't always work.

-- Flashbacks within flashbacks run the risk of confusing the story and the reader who is reading it, unless the writer is as highly experienced as John Updike.

-- Too many and too long flashbacks tend to turn a story into an epic. If that is not the intention and there is a limit to word count, the writer must be careful with long flashbacks.

-- It works better to use flashbacks sparingly and with discretion since they do tend to slow the pacing. An experienced writer will not use flashbacks past the three-quarters of the real story.