“What is a Flashback?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers

Picture the hard-hearted food critic in the
movie Ratatouille when that dish of, well, ratatouille, is set before him in Remy’s
restaurant. As soon as he takes a bite, he’s transported
to his childhood home and we see him as a kid being served the same dish by his mother. That’s a flashback. All stories have some kind of chronology. This happened, then this happened, then this
happened. A sequence of events. A flashback interrupts that chronological
sequence, the front line action or “present” line of the story, to show readers a scene
that unfolded in the past. Often, a flashback is caused by a trigger—some
sort of tangible thing that a character encounters in the story (the dish of ratatouille in,
well, Ratatouille) that sparks a specific memory. So a flashback interrupts the present to show
us something meaningful from the past. The key word there is meaningful. When we flash back, what we see must reveal
something important about the characters, something that adds depth to how we understand
the story in the present line. Take the short story ‘Bullet in the Brain’
by Tobias Wolff. We meet jaded book critic Anders in line at
a bank. He can’t help criticizing everything, from
the friendly woman in line behind him to the quality of the Greek mythological scene depicted
in the bank’s painted ceiling. When two masked men with guns enter the scene,
you’d think his demeanor might change…but it doesn’t. He makes fun of the cliched lingo the robbers
use, from “stick ‘em up” to “capiche.” Even with a gun to his head, Anders can’t
resist laughing in their faces. It’s this brash snobbery that causes the
robber to pull the trigger. Between that moment and Anders’ inevitable
death, the present line of the story is broken and we flash back into his past. After listing several things that Anders doesn’t
remember, Wolff takes us to the critical scene of what Anders does remember in the moments
before his death. “Heat,” Wolff writes. “A baseball field.” Young Anders isn’t entranced by the game
he’s playing or the warmth of the summer sun. Instead, it’s something another player says
about playing shortstop that delights him. “Short’s the best position they is.” That’s it. That’s the line. And those two words—they is—hold young
Anders in a kind of rapture. It’s not because they’re grammatically
incorrect. He knows better, then, than to point that
out (something that would have served him well to remember as a grown man). Instead it’s their “pure unexpectedness,”
Wolff writes. “Their music.” It’s a moment that shows us a kernel of
something genuine in Anders, an authentic love of language that gets twisted and masked
as the years go by. The whole story is made by the flashback as
it’s our understanding of Anders in the past that transforms how we see him in the
present. But he isn’t wholly redeemed. Where before he was a cliche himself—the
cranky critic—now he’s a rounded person who was a kid once, who came alive in the
presence of words, who loved something and let that love get lost along the way. Without the flashback he’d just be a jerk. With it, he’s human. That’s the kind of heavy lifting that a
meaningful flashback can do.

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