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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.
Further Resources for Teachers
William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" offers students many opportunities to explore how flashbacks operate. In that story, flashbacks often open into additional flashbacks in ways that provide context for Emily's strange personality and the townspeople's equally strange responses to that personality. The flashbacks also foreshadow the dramatic revelation at the end.