Literary devices is the term used for the techniques and structures writers employ to convey their message and story. When done skillfully, the use of literary devices can alter, manipulate and challenge the way a reader perceives any work. Used masterfully, literary devices influence how a story or essay can be interpreted and analysed, as well as how much the reader enjoys the work.
To find out more about other literary devices, click here.
A flashback involves (as the name describes) a scene that moves from the present to the past to reveal something about a character or event within the narrative. Generally in fiction, the use of a flashback constitutes using white space to separate the past from the present, to signal to the reader that there has been a change in time and/or place. In some cases, a writer may choose to use italics (usually if the scene is more of a memory snippet than an actual fully-developed scene, as lots of italicized text irritates some readers and editors).
The best flashbacks are set up by the previous paragraph. In the lead up to the flashback, there is generally a 'trigger' - something that causes the protagonist/narrator to recall a particular event or detail of the past. The trigger is explored/explained in the flashback itself which then also reveals new information to the reader.
Flashbacks are an opportunity for the author to provide insight into situations that would otherwise be left unexplained...
Used in short stories, poems, novels, plays and movies, it is one of the most common and most recognisable writing techniques, and when executed well, one of the most effective.
- The Road (film): The director has used flashbacks throughout the whole film to reveal to the viewer how in a post-apocalyptic world, a father and son came to be on the road, homeless and unprotected.
- Breaking Bad (television series): This series is renowned for doing things differently, and the use of flashback here is no exception. In Breaking Bad, the flashbacks often come first and are then later explained and explored in the next few episodes, setting up a sense of intrigue within its viewers.
- Harry Potter (series of books): Yes, even the Harry Potter novels use flashback. Remember the Pensieve that Dumbledore uses? The reader (and Harry) are transported back in time to relive the memories of Dumbledore and others.
Tips for Using Flashbacks:
- Use a trigger to justify taking the reader back into the past. This is the most natural way to introduce scenes from the past as this is actually how we recall memories in real life - we see something that reminds us of an event, person or detail that occurred in the past.
- Also ensure that you use another trigger or event to bring your character (and reader) back to the present. This gives your reader clear signals as to when you are changing from past to present and present to past, in order to keep them immersed in the story, but not disorientated and confused.
- Think of these triggers as 'bookends' to your flashback - they need to be there to keep this scene neat and tidy, but also shouldn't stand out like a sore thumb (excuse the cliche).
- Don't overdo it. Don't litter your narrative with multiple flashbacks, this becomes irritating and confusing for the reader, but also questions the validity of you setting your story in the present when more is actually happening in the past... If you find you are doing this often, you might want to have a think about changing when you set your story.
- Ensure that each flashback contributes to your story in someway or another, whether it reveals something about a particular event, builds upon your characterization of the protagonist or sets up something for further down the track in the narrative - it has to propel the story forward, even though you're looking back.
- Check out this article at Writer's Digest to find out more.