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What are Flashbacks?

Flashback Definition

A flashback is a way of presenting events that happened prior to the current action taking place.

Flashbacks are a popular literary technique for writers to use when starting a story in medias res (in the middle of things), to add drama or suspense, or to fill the reader in on important information. A flashback typically is implemented by:

  • The narrator tells another character about past events
  • The narrator has a dream about past events
  • The narrator thinks back to past events, revealing the information only to the reader
  • The narrator reads a letter that prompts back to an earlier time

Flashbacks are a useful way to start a story at the end, and then fill the reader in on the events that got the characters there. Flashbacks also mirror the way our minds work, as we think back to past events or people as the result of triggers we may see throughout a normal day. Often, we aren’t even aware it’s happening! In literature, flashbacks are incredibly useful for:

  • Understanding character relationships and background
  • Understanding a character’s motivations and perspective
  • Disrupting the chronological, linear order of a narrative for more depth and complexity
  • Creating surprise or suspense
  • Giving clues or hints to remember which foreshadow future events
  • Enhancing understanding of an important theme or idea

Many well-known works of literature begin their tales at the end and work their way back to the beginning. Other stories begin in in medias res and fill in the rest of the narrative with flashbacks before moving forward. Students may also be familiar with TV shows and movies that bend the chronological timeline. Some popular examples of flashback are listed below. Showing excerpts of a TV or movie flashback to students may be useful in helping them better understand the technique:

Examples of Flashback in Literature

Examples of Flashback in Television

  • How I Met Your Mother
  • Lost
  • Arrow
  • True Detective
  • The Walking Dead
  • The Wonder Years

Examples of Flashback in Movies

  • Titanic
  • Memento
  • Forrest Gump
  • Citizen Kane
  • It’s A Wonderful Life
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Student Activity: Using Flashback!

Have students try out using flashback in a story of their own! Students can start in the middle or end of their story and work around it, or they can jump around if they’re feeling truly adventurous. Students should use their flashback purposefully and be able to explain what it reveals: character, theme, setting, plot, or foreshadowing. Then, they can depict the action in a storyboard like the one below.

Cell 1: I found myself outside of the castle, with only the moon to guide me. I had arrived, but I had no recollection of how I got there. I felt my face, and the bruises were fresh. I looked down at my arm. “SHAME” was written in large letters across it, and suddenly, I realized I couldn’t speak. I didn’t have a voice!

Cell 2: I had been walking through the village, quietly enjoying the sights and smells of the local marketplace. It was a beautiful spring day, and the village was in a celebratory mood after the long winter. [Flashback serves to reveal: plot and foreshadowing]

Cell 3: Suddenly, I heard shouting from within a nearby alley. I quietly crept over to investigate, and found two men arguing heatedly. One was an average-looking man in royal dress; the other was a man with a funny cap and robe. The man in the cap raised his arm at the royally-dressed man and made a slight movement with a long stick. There was a flash, and in his place was a frog!

Cell 4: I must have shouted in surprise because the next thing I knew, the man in the cap was whirling towards me. I yelled at him that what he had done was a crime – and it was shameful! In our beautiful city, how could he do such a thing? The man sneered and raised his stick towards me. The end of it glowed with an evil red phosphorescence.

Cell 5: I jumped, and the red glow missed me by inches. I began to run, crashing through the market and knocking over carts. I could hear the man on my heels, yelling and zapping his magic wand at me as I dodged back and forth. Finally, I felt an electric sensation hit the back of my head. I fell, and all around me was black. I could hear a man mumbling, “Shame me, will you? Put me in a dunce cap will you? Oh no, never again!”

Cell 6: When I awoke in front of the castle, I realized I would never be able to scold anyone again. The wizard had taken my voice. I don’t know why “shame” had made him so angry, but I knew I would have to find him and get my voice back. This time, though, I would need backup. I knew where to find it: the dragon in the Hidden Cave.

Flashback Activity
Using the Storyboard Creator, craft your own imaginative story that employs an effective use of flashback. You may start at the end of your story, the middle, or jump around with the timeline if you feel adventurous. Please make sure your Storyboard is at least 6 cells long, shows time and care put into your artistic depictions, and gives good narrative details. In the cell where your flashback begins, please use a textbox to denote what the flashback reveals for your story: character, theme, plot, setting, or foreshadowing. It can reveal more than one element!
33 Points
25 Points
17 Points
Narrative and Flashback
The narrative is at least 6 cells long and employs a good flow of plot elements, such as character and setting descriptions, transitions of events, etc. The flashback scene is identified and reveals an important element for the story. The narrative makes sense and shows creativity, time, and effort.
The narrative is at least 6 cells long and employs basic plot elements, such as character descriptions and transitions of events. There is an attempt to provide a flashback scene, but it does not add to the story. The narrative makes sense and shows adequate time and effort.
The narrative is less than 6 cells long, or is incomplete. The descriptions are too limited to assess. The flashback scene may be missing, or incorrect. The narrative may be confusing or disjointed, and the entire product seems to have been rushed.
Artistic Depictions
The art chosen to depict the scenes is appropriate and neat. Time and care is taken to ensure that scenes are eye-catching and creative.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is appropriate but may seem rushed. Some art may be haphazardly placed and lack of attention to detail is noticeable.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is inappropriate or too limited. Some scenes may have been left blank.
English Conventions
Ideas are organized. There are few or no grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas are mostly organized. There are some grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas may be disorganized or misplaced. Lack of control over grammar, mechanics, and spelling reflect a lack of proofreading.

Related Activities

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences

  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)

  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically

How to Connect Flashbacks to Theme and Plot Development


Introduce Flashbacks and Their Purpose

Explain the concept of flashbacks, which are narrative devices that shift the story to a previous time or event. Discuss how flashbacks contribute to theme and plot development by providing important background information or revealing character motivations.


Teach Theme Development

Teach students about theme, which is the underlying message or central idea of a literary work. Explore how flashbacks can help develop or reinforce themes by providing insights into characters' past experiences or revealing patterns and connections.


Analyze Flashback Placement

Guide students in analyzing the placement of flashbacks within the text. Discuss how the timing and strategic placement of flashbacks can impact the reader's understanding of the theme and the overall plot.


Identify Common Themes Explored in Flashbacks

Engage students in identifying common themes often explored through flashbacks, such as loss, redemption, identity, or the consequences of past actions. Discuss examples from literature that demonstrate how flashbacks contribute to the development of these themes.


Analyze Plot Development

Help students analyze how flashbacks contribute to plot development. Encourage them to identify how the information revealed in flashbacks influences the trajectory of the story, introduces conflict, or provides resolution.


Make Connections and Discuss

Engage students in making connections between the flashbacks, theme, and plot. Encourage them to discuss how the events or revelations in the flashbacks shape character development, advance the plot, and deepen the exploration of themes.

Frequently Asked Questions about Flashback: Examples and Student Activities

What are flashbacks?

Flashbacks are a literary technique used to present events that happened prior to the current action taking place. They can be implemented in several ways, such as the narrator telling another character about past events, the narrator having a dream about past events, the narrator thinking back to past events, or the narrator reading a letter that prompts a memory.

What are some examples of flashbacks in literature?

Some examples of flashbacks in the literature include "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Catcher in the Rye," "The Odyssey," "A Separate Peace," "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," and "The Things They Carried."

Why do authors use flashbacks in their writing?

Authors use flashbacks to add drama or suspense, fill the reader in on important information, and disrupt the chronological, linear order of a narrative for more depth and complexity. Flashbacks can also help readers understand character relationships and background, a character's motivations and perspective, and enhance understanding of an important theme or idea.

Find more activities like this in our 6-12 ELA Category!
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