From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In literature, 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.
A variation of prolepsis is prophecy, as when Oedipus is told that he will sleep with his mother and kill his father. As we learn later in Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, he does both despite his efforts to evade his fate. A self-fulfilling prophecy is also found in Krishna’s story in the Mahabharata.
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.
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.
In the world of television flashbacks are also very common. They are sometimes incorporated into episodes, but often whole episodes are devoted to them. One recent show which is well-known for this is Lost which utilises flashbacks in every episode to advance the storyline and provide a link between the characters’ past and their current behaviour.
In a story if flashbacks are presented non-chronologically it can be ambiguous what is the present of the story: if flashbacks are extensive and in chronological order, one can also say that these form the present of the story, while the rest of the story consists of flash forwards.
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: two examples of this are the movies Passage to Marseilles and The Locket.
Near the end of his life, film director Howard Hawks boasted that he was proud that none of his films ever used a flashback.