Flashback & Foreshadowing — A-to-Z Blog Challenge, Literary Terms

FWe had a good first week getting some good solid literary terms in. Now comes the hard part with F, G, H, I, J, K. But don’t worry, I have them picked out, and you should be well surprised what they are.

Starting off the week, we have Flashback and Foreshadowing. This should be a delight, glad the week is starting off easy.

As always, please post below what you think and if you think I got something wrong, lay it on me.


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A flashback, also known as analepsis, is simply a scene that stops the narrative and takes the story back in time. It is a plot device used to fill in a backstory, retelling of events that happened prior to stories sequence of events that provide crucial information on the character or plot.

Well, that was easy, now on to foreshadowing…

WAIT…no…there’s more.

So, there are two types of flashback. External analepsis which is a flashback to before the narrative started and Internal analepsis, which is a flashback to an earlier point in the narrative.

Now, like all plot devices, there is a way to use this and a way not to use this to make your story great. Stephen King…I’m looking at you. The Gunslinger was a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback. I was happy when the book was done.

We live in a very visual culture and much of our movies and television use flashbacks to build suspense. But as a writer, remember that just because you saw it on TV, doesn’t mean you should do it. You’re better than that.

So what not to do for a flashback.

1. Never use a flashback as reason to push the story forward. Many writers get stuck and use a flashback to pull out some detail so the story can move forward. If you have to do this, go back and fix the story. Flashbacks are a function of the character, not the story.

2. Don’t do it too many times. Unless you have a really really have a good reason to do it, only use a flashback once. Remember, we have to stop the story, deal with something in the past, then come back and get the story back on track. Once you lose momentum, it is very tough to get it back.

3. If you can express the plot detail of the flashback in a simple conversation, then do the simple conversation. Not all retelling of the past needs to be a flashback. Try to remember in reality, we don’t randomly stop and think about our past while in the middle of a situation. We reflect, sure, but to stop dead and do nothing…doesn’t happen.


4. Do a proper transition to a flashback, don’t simply start one sentence in the present then suddenly be the past. Having a break in narrative with *** or changing font is a good method to use.

5. If you use a flashback, don’t make it too long. A chapter at the absolute most, but generally less than a chapter. Also, don’t start the chapter with the flashback, people are likely to skip over it.

6. Make sure there’s a point. If you are going to do a flashback, make sure the reader understands what to gain from it. If they read the flashback and think, “What was the point of that?”, then it needs work.

So, I think I covered enough of what not to do. Now let me go into when and how to use it to enhance your story.

1. Make sure the event we are going to is a crucial moment, that needs to be told but can’t be told in the chronology of the story.

2. If you wanted to do a prologue to showcase a past event, save it instead for a flashback, as most people don’t read prologues.

3. Smell and sound are intense senses that can trigger memory. Might not be bad to use that to start the flashback.

4. Avoid flashbacks within flashbacks. Want to know what I mean by this, go read the first Dark Tower book. It becomes tedious and confusing

5. Wait to establish a good foundation of your character before doing a flashback. It’s good for the end of Act I or the Beginning of Act II.

6. If your narrative is in present tense, then try the flashback in past tense. If the narrative is in past tense, then make the flashback present tense.

7. Make a detailed timeline of your story so you can keep track of details. Not so much for the readers, more for yourself to have.

8. Since this scene is short, be sure to do an info dump of exposition. This is a good time to tell, not show.

9. For added suspense, consider breaking up your flashback over the length of the story. Hard to do, but if done correctly, amazing.

10. Dreams and hypnosis are great ways to introduce a flashback.

11. Drop hints of a backstory that the character often thinks about or tries not to think about. Do it right from the beginning, but be sure to establish the current narrative before doing a flashback. Give readers a reason to come back.

So we have multiple reasons when to and not to use flashbacks. Remember that they are designed to bridge time. Something of the past has an affect on the future, or at least on the present. It’s not to move the story forward, it is to understand our character better.


Stephen King in the 4th Dark Tower book finished the story of the 3rd book, then spent some time moving the story forward. Then our MC decided to tell a backstory, so we entered into a flashback that took up 70% of the entire book. Only 30% of the story was pushed forward. I’m OK with backstory, but taking a majority of the book to do it…bad form.

Side note: I read all 7 of the Dark Tower books, and for the most part I disliked the entire series…if you can’t tell.

Β Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is another device used in narrative that gives hints to possible outcomes, often to mentally and psychologically prepare the reader. I say psychologically, because to be effective in narrative, the reader must not fully be aware of being told of it. Until of course after the finishing the story. To be truly effective, they don’t realize it until years later.

Foreshadowing shouldn’t be something you draw people to as saying, “Hey, look at what I’m doing, I’m telling you something that could happen…pay attention to this.”

With that said, I categorize foreshadowing into two categories, symbolic foreshadowing and literal foreshadowing.



Symbolic foreshadowing is when you use some symbol to indicate danger ahead or danger coming. Like a strike of lightning or the wind stopping. Perhaps everything suddenly got quiet. As humans, we know what those signs mean: Smokes if you got ’em, might be your last.



The great thing about Symbolic foreshadowing is that unless you reader is analyzing every word, they won’t consciously be aware of it, but subconsciously, they are readying themselves.


“He’s letting me know…he’ll be back.”


A good one was in the DS9 episode Call to Arms when the Cardassians took over the station and in Sisko’s office, Dukat found Sisko’s baseball. While Dukat didn’t need to say anything, it did add to the drama of the series, a hope given to the viewers that while Starfleet may have lost the battle, but the war is far from over.


Then we have literal. This is where our characters actually say something that may later come true. Like Obi-wan telling Anakin Skywalker that he would be the death of him in Episode II. This might have been effective if we didn’t know the outcome already of Episode IV.


Now Obi-wan didn’t intend on Anakin actually killing him and was referring to something entirely different…however, it gives the viewer/reader (you could be reading the novel) that this could be a hint at something later. This can actually be described as Figurative Foreshadowing, but I don’t want to confuse that term with Symbolic Foreshadow. It’s best to look at it as a Literal hint even though the characters are likely meaning it figuratively.

How great is it that I have references to Star Wars and Star Trek 
next to each other. I swear that was by accident

The problem with the literal approach is that one, you need to map out how your story goes, or come back and rewrite the scene so it does correspond with what is said. Second is that it can often be too obvious. Such as a Princess saying to a boy she loves, “If I ever get kidnapped, I want you to be the one to rescue me.” Gee, I wonder what’s going to happen?

Well, the jokes on you, the boy gets kidnapped and the Princess must come to the rescue. This is a different type of foreshadowing called a Red Herring. A Red Herring is much like Foreshadowing, but instead of revealing an event that will happen, it tricks us, it misleads us. Instead of the Princess getting kidnapped, even though she dared fate for it to happen, the boy she loved instead got kidnapped.


Perhaps I should discuss Red Herring for R. Perhaps that itself is a Red Herring…or simply foreshadowing. I’ll let you know in 20 or so days.

Be sure not to confuse Foreshadowing with Flashfoward. Flashforward is when the story stops the narrative and goes into the future to tell a story, and then returns to the present.

As an author, don’t take credit for foreshadowing. It ruins the experience. Use foreshadowing because you want people guessing. At worst, it is a coincident, and at best, it adds to the suspense and mystery.

Flashback & Foreshadowing

Now to combine two powerful terms and find their connection. Well, that’s easy. Timeline. Having a good understanding of your timeline will enhance your ability to use flashbacks and foreshadowing. Knowing what was, what is, and what will be in your plot.

When you design a timeline to your story, you often start before the story takes place and stop well after it. Perhaps you hint at this, perhaps you don’t. But understanding your timeline helps with flashbacks, as you have a better idea of when and how things happened, rather than creating a flashback and being vague on details.

Foreshadowing is good to do with a book, but bad to do with a series. You can do it, but may later decide that you want to change how the story goes later in the series, and the foreshadowing moment you have derails the story. Either ignore it or try to find a way to make it fit. I myself can’t write a story exactly as I want to when I start, often changing the ending as I write it. At least within a book, I have the ability to change a part of it to correspond to any foreshadowing I do.

So if you can, try to map out your timeline for your story before you write it, and update it as you write you story.

Help Keep This Site Running

This site is a great achievement for me, but due to being unable to work, I may not be able to keep this site running. With your help, I might be able to.

I need $125 by October 30th, 2017. Anything you can give will help.



  1. swanview says:

    Very thorough. Thank you

  2. Well, I was thinking on reading the Dark Tower series but now I’m not so sure. :/ Spending 70% of the book in the past would irk the crap out of me. Something similar happened in Robert Jordan’s “Heart of Winter” book from the Wheel of Time series. That book was 600+ pages long, but the story had gotten so bloated with characters that, once he made the rounds of who was doing what, the story had advanced by only 2 days once it was over. I’m still bitter. I never did finish reading the series; I doubt I ever will.

    Anywho… good advice on flashbacks and foreshadowing. I’ve only done very short flashbacks. Memories triggered by smell or seeing something specific that gives some insight to the character. I’ve also fiddled around with foreshadowing a couple of times. Whether or not I’ve pulled it off, I’ll leave to the reader to decide. πŸ™‚

  3. Great post! I loved the Dark Tower series. But, I love all of Mr. King’s writings.

  4. G. B. Miller says:

    Cool post. Don’t I’ve used either term with my writing as I’ve found them to be a bit annoying and somewhat distracting of the story.

    A-Z Challenge at Father Nature’s Corner

  5. Chris thanks !!! i just found a great blog

  6. Sonia Lal says:

    I’d never considered those two different ways when flash back happens could have its own term.

    Hey! Have you read Name of the Wind? It’s basically told in flash back. It’s pretty good.

    • mad_cat says:

      I’ll have to put it on my reading list. Hopefully it’s not like the first Dark Tower book.

      • Sonia Lal says:

        It’s really, really good. It caused a lot of buzz, but the second book was delayed and I don’t know when the third will come out. But soooo good!!!! The POV changes from third person to first in the flash back and back again when the flash back stops.

  7. bethharar says:

    I’m totally sending my AP students over here for a lesson. πŸ™‚ Stopping by from A-Z. bethsbemusings.blogspot.com

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