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This lesson will assist you in identifying and understanding the components of flashbacks found in literature. See examples of flashbacks, and then test your understanding through a quiz.

What Is a Flashback?

Have you ever been in a situation that triggered memories about something that happened in the past? If so, this is what you call a flashback. A flashback is defined as an interruption in the present of a vivid memory set in the past. There are a variety of things that can cause a flashback to occur, which include songs, food, people, places, or similar events to those in the past. Through flashbacks, we are able to reflect upon experiences we have had in life, both positive and negative, and apply them to the present.

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Flashback is one of the most popular literary devices used in writing.

Flashbacks in Literature

Authors use flashbacks as a means of adding background information in the present events of their story. They interrupt a specific event within their story by using events that have already occurred or that have not been presented. This gives the reader added information about a character’s past, including his or her secrets, inner or external conflicts, or significant events that affected his or her life. If the author is able to do this well, the reader will begin to convey reasoning for the actions of the characters throughout the story and develop a better understanding of present events.

This also helps the author create a theme for the story and increase the emotional impact it will have on the reader.

Identifying Flashbacks

Identifying when flashbacks are occurring is crucial when reading a story, otherwise the reader will become confused. An author can do this in a variety of ways, which include dream sequences, memories, or even bringing it up in a straightforward way through character narrative.

Type Example
Dream Sequence – Occurs when a character has fallen asleep and dreams about events of the past. Sarah was nervous about her performance. She had a dream about her performance last year when she fell in front of everyone.
Memory – Occurs when the character is interrupted by thinking about an event in the past. The author will typically put the character in a place in which something from the past occurred. The character may see something, taste something, or encounter a person who played a role in their past. Through this process the author will successfully indicate to the reader that a flashback is occurring.

After the teacher took attendance, Sandra was shocked when she saw that James was back in class. Sandra thought about what happened last week at school when James was involved in several fights with other students.
Straightforward – Occurs when it is obvious that the flashback is presented to the reader. After talking to friends about certain fads in the past, Andrew remembered about a time he was in high school and dressed a certain way to impress a girl he liked.

Examples in Literature

Example #1In chapter two of S.E.

Hinton’s The Outsiders, the protagonist/narrator, Ponyboy, shares information about his friend Johnny. One of the things he mentions is that Johnny always carries around with him a knife. Ponyboy uses a flashback to tell the story about the time Johnny was beaten up by a rival gang. He includes feelings of the people involved and helps set up the background conflict between the two gangs in the story.

This also gives readers an understanding for why Johnny carries around the knife.Example #2In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, an example of a flashback occurs when Nick explains background information about Jay Gatsby. Here the reader gets details about the life of Jay Gatsby that includes how he made his money, his acquaintances, and even why he changed his name from James to Jay to impress his love interest Daisy.

This flashback gives readers insight of what type of person Gatsby is and his infatuation with Daisy.Example #3In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the protagonist Katniss has a flashback involving Peeta. We are taken back to a time when Katniss has lost her father, and she is trying her best to take care of her family. She is searching through trash cans looking for scraps of bread to feed her family, when she is rushed off by Peeta’s mother.

Peeta feels for Katniss and secretly gives her scraps of bread when his mother is not looking. This gives readers background information about Katniss and begins to show what type of person Peeta is.

Lesson Summary

Now that you have had time to identify and understand the components of flashbacks, this would be a great time to apply flashbacks to your life. We can almost instantly recall certain memories when we hear a particular song. Take time to think about one of your favorite songs.

Does this song cause you to vividly remember where you were when you first listened to this song? Does it remind you of someone? Was this a negative or positive experience? If so, you have successfully had a flashback!Flashbacks in literature are similar: the author takes the reader back to the past, before the current moment in the story. Just like flashbacks when you listen to music can reveal details about your past, including events that occurred and emotions you felt, flashbacks in literature can reveal information about characters’ pasts. They are usually brought up in one of three ways: through dream sequences, memories, or in a straightforward way through a character’s narrative.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the purpose of flashbacks in literature
  • Describe three ways that authors can alert the readers to flashbacks
  • Recall some examples of the use of flashbacks in literature

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