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What is a Flashback in Literature? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Flashback?
  • 0:37 Flashbacks in Literature
  • 1:17 Identifying Flashbacks
  • 2:35 Examples in Literature
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Sedillo

Andrew Sedillo has taught Language Arts, Social Studies, and Technology at a middle school level. He currently holds a Bachelor's of Arts in Education, Master's of Arts Educational Learning Technology, and a Graduate certificate in Online Teaching and Learning.

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. 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 #1

In 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 #2

In 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 #3

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