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What Are Literary Devices?

A literary device is a technique or structure employed by authors to enhance meaning, progress a storyline, enliven their characters or settings, and enrich the themes in their work. A few common literary devices include irony, metaphor, allegory, foreshadowing, and imagery. One device that can be used to increase understanding about a character, situation, or overall time frame is called a flashback.

What is a Flashback in Literature?

The flashback definition in literature refers to an interruption in the chronological order or timeline of a narrative to give additional information or backstory needed to further the reader’s understanding. In a flashback, the current action of the story is interrupted by a clear or distinct memory to reveal important or interesting past events and background information. Why do authors use flashbacks? Flashbacks as literary devices often reveal information about a character’s past, which could include disclosing personal secrets or inner conflict. The flashback may occur at any point in the work and may be of any duration and in any previous time sequence. A flashback typically extends beyond the simple narration of previous events by a character to include vivid language regarding the setting and events, shifting the time frame into the past. In addition to relating important character background information, authors may also use flashbacks to foreshadow important events or to create interest within the chronological flow of the story.

Types of Flashbacks

The technical term for a flashback is analepsis. The definition of analepsis refers to the interruption of the overall chronology of the narrative to include a past event or situation that will reveal important background information relating to the events or characters. The opposite of analepsis is prolepsis, which is also known as a flashforward. Within the realm of analepsis are several types of flashbacks.

  • A dream sequence flashback occurs when a character envisions or recalls previous events in a dream. One example from literature is found in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. In the beginning of the novel, Mr. Lockwood’s upsetting dream about Cathy, who has already died, sets the stage for key elements of the plot.
  • A straight break flashback in the narrative happens when the narrator interrupts the chronological flow of the text to give additional backstory designed to enhance the reader’s understanding of the events or characters. Brandon Sanderson often uses straight break flashbacks in his writing as interludes in the text, especially through short chapters in alternate time frames that are strategically placed between larger sections of text set in the main time frame.
  • A memory flashback is a type of flashback where events or dialogue in the narrative cause a character to remember previous events. Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has a flashback as a vivid memory about meeting Faber which is provoked by Montag’s epiphany regarding books and desire for a mentor.
  • A foreshadowing flashback happens when the information in the flashback creates suspense about a future event or gives away the ending, allowing the chronology of the narrative to explain the details leading to the foreshadowed events. For example, in the opening of the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, the protagonist informs the reader that he has died. This foreshadowing flashback provides a narrative hook, and the opening section of the book then fills in the details leading up to the impending death.

Flashback Examples in Literature

Flashbacks are used in many genres of literature. One example of analepsis, or flashback, in young adult fantasy literature is in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowlings. Flashbacks in the seven novels are employed in several unique ways, including by allowing the characters to experience the flashback as if they were happening in the present through the use of magic. For example, in book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, readers experience a flashback through the eyes of the protagonist Harry as he enters the memory of his professor, Severus Snape. This flashback serves to create sympathy for the character of Snape and give background on the relationship of several of the characters. The timing of the flashback is important, as giving this information earlier in the series would have removed some of the suspense and mystery surrounding the characters.

An example of flashback in classical literature is in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. After rejecting an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet receives a letter which details a situation from years prior involving Mr. Darcy’s sister Georgiana. This new information gives insight into several of the characters and their motives at a crucial point in the plot. Another well-known example of flashback in classical literature is found in Homer’s Odyssey, where information about Odysseus prior to the opening of the text, en route home from Troy, is related in the epic poem through flashback.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird uses a continuous flashback as the narrator recalls her childhood and fills in the reader with details needed to understand the plot, finally coming full circle with Jem breaking his arm. This type of continuous flashback is most often found in coming-of-age literature where the narrator relates events from their childhood, but continuous flashback can also be found in novels where the narrator is an adult in the main timeframe of the novel, such as in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the letter read in Book 3 Chapter 10 is an example of flashback given through a letter. Through the letter, important backstory is revealed regarding the character of Dr. Mannette. The letter vividly describes events in the past and transports the chronology to a previous time frame.

Lesson Summary

Flashback is a type of literary device used to create interest in the flow of the narrative, provide background information or sympathy for a character (including secrets or inner conflicts), or reveal background information necessary to drive the plot. A flashback interrupts the present narrative with a memory of events, often vivid, set in the past. Flashback, also called analepsis, may come in many forms, including dream flashbacks (when a character has fallen asleep and dreams of past events), straight break flashbacks (when the story’s chronology clearly shifts to past events), memory flashbacks (when events or dialogue cause a character to relive a memory), or foreshadowing flashbacks (when information is given about the future and then flashback is used to fill in the missing timeline). Flashbacks can be found in all genres of literature and may occur at any point in the chronology and last for any duration of time.

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