In history, film, television and other media, a flashback (also called analepsis) is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point the story has reached. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened prior to the story’s primary sequence of events or to fill in crucial backstory. In the opposite direction, a flashforward (or prolepsis) reveals events that will occur in the future. The technique is used to create suspense in a story, or develop a character. In literature, internal analepsis is a flashback to an earlier point in the narrative; external analepsis is a flashback to before the narrative started.
The 1927 book The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is the progenitor of the modern disaster epic in literature and film-making, where a single disaster intertwines the victims, whose lives are then explored by means of flashbacks to events leading up to the disaster.
If flashbacks are extensive and in chronological order, one can say that these form the present of the story, while the rest of the story consists of flash forwards. If flashbacks are presented non-chronologically it can be ambiguous what is the present of the story: An example of this is Slaughterhouse Five where the narrative jumps back and forth in time, so there is no actual present time line.
A good example of both analepsis and prolepsis is the first scene of La Jetée. As we learn a few minutes later, what we are seeing in that scene is a flashback to the past, since the present of the film’s diegesis is a time directly following World War III. However, as we learn at the very end of the film, that scene also doubles as a prolepsis, since the dying man the boy is seeing is, in fact, himself. In other words, he is proleptically seeing his own death. We thus have an analepsis and prolepsis in the very same scene.
One of the first films to use a flashback technique was the 1939 Wuthering Heights, in which, as in Emily Brontë's original novel, the housekeeper Ellen narrates the main story to overnight visitor Mr. Lockwood, who has witnessed Heathcliff's frantic pursuit of what is apparently a ghost. More famously, also in 1939, Marcel Carne's movie Le jour se lève is told entirely through flashback: the story starts with the murder of a man in a hotel. While the murderer, played by Jean Gabin, is surrounded by the police, several flashbacks tell the story of why he killed the man at the beginning of the movie.
One of the most famous examples of non-chronological flashback is in the 1941 Orson Welles film Citizen Kane. The protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, dies at the beginning, uttering the word "Rosebud". A reporter spends the rest of the film interviewing Kane's friends and associates, in an effort to discover what Kane meant by uttering the word. As the interviews proceed, pieces of Kane's life unfold in flashback, but not always chronologically.
Occasionally, a story may contain a flashback within a flashback: one example of this is the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: the main action of the film is told in flashback, with the scene of Liberty Valance’s murder occurring as a flashback within that flashback. An extremely convoluted story may contain flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks: examples of this are the movies Six Degrees of Separation, Passage to Marseille, and The Locket.
Though usually used to clarify plot or backstory, flashbacks can also be used in the manner of the "unreliable narrator." Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright notoriously featured a flashback that did not tell the truth but dramatized a lie from a witness. The multiple and contradictory staged reconstructions of a crime in Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line are presented as flashbacks based on divergent testimony. Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon does this in the most celebrated fictional narrative use of contested multiple testimonies.
Near the end of his life, film director Howard Hawks boasted that he was proud that none of his films ever used a flashback.
Flashbacks are a trademark of the Saw movies, with many scenes adding extra depth to characters and adding insight to various aspects of the series. Saw IV has one scene set in real-time, while the rest of the film is a flashback, structured around a series of other flashbacks.
An occasional twist is the insertion of a character who was not part of the sequence being depicted, usually one to whom the events shown are being described. For instance, during a police interrogation in Under Suspicion, the events described are shown in flashback with the interrogator watching – signaling that the flashback represents the events as described by the witness, not necessarily as they really happened.
Lots of flashbacks have been used in the hit TV show Prison Break for most characters.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel, flashbacks show events in the history of the principal vampires Darla, Angel, Drusilla and Spike, from 1609 until shortly before the beginning of the series.
In One Tree Hill at the end of season 4, the characters graduate high school. In the start of season 5 the series takes place 4 years in the future. The series includes flashbacks to explain what happened to the characters.
In Cold Case, each episode begins with a flashback scene establishing the year in which it is set. Further flashbacks are used in each episode.
In Desperate Housewives in season 4 a flashforward takes place 5 years in the future. The next season takes place 5 years into the future. Season 5 will likely include flashbacks to explain the mysteries revealed in the season finale.
In the anime Fullmetal Alchemist, a 7-episode extended flashback sequence gives background information from the lives of main characters Edward Elric and Alphonse Elric. It lasts from episode 3, "Mother," to episode 9, "Be Thou for the People," and outlines main events from their early childhood up to adolescence, until the plot comes full circle.
In movies and television, several camera techniques and special effects have evolved to alert the viewer that the action shown is from the past; for example, the edges of the picture may be deliberately blurred, photography may be jarring or choppy, or unusual coloration or sepia tone may be used.