[ flash-bak ]
/ ˈflæʃˌbæk /
Save This Word!

a device in the narrative of a motion picture, novel, etc., by which an event or scene taking place before the present time in the narrative is inserted into the chronological structure of the work.
an event or scene so inserted.
Also called flashback hallucinosis. Psychiatry.
  1. the spontaneous recurrence of visual hallucinations or other effects of a drug, as LSD, long after the use of the drug has been discontinued.
  2. recurrent and abnormally vivid recollection of a traumatic experience, as a battle, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations.
Do you know the difference between everyday US and UK terminology? Test yourself with this quiz on words that differ across the Atlantic.
Question 1 of 7
In the UK, COTTON CANDY is more commonly known as…

Origin of flashback

1910–15; 1965–70 for def. 3; noun use of verb phrase flash back
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does flashback mean?

A flashback is a technique in movies, novels, and other narratives in which the present story transitions into a scene from the past.

When used as a verb, the term is usually spelled as two words, as in My favorite part of the book is when it flashes back to their childhood. The opposite of a flashback is a flash-forward—when the narrative transitions into a scene from the future.

Flashback is also used in psychology to refer to recollections or hallucinations of past events.

Example: The flashback scene showed how they got their superpowers.

Where does flashback come from?

Flashback is a combination of the words flash and back—a typical flashback flashes (transitions) backward (to the past). The first records of the use of flashback as a term for a narrative tool come from the early 1900s.

Of course, the technique itself is much older and has been used since at least Homer’s Odyssey. Today, flashbacks are common in every form of fictional media. They’re typically used to provide backstory or exposition in a way that shows instead of tells—instead of having a character explain what happened, the scene is depicted for the audience. Flashbacks can be sudden (done without introduction), but they can also be set up in several ways, such as having a character say they remember something. In old movies, this was often followed by a rippling or hazy screen effect intended to indicate that the next scene was a flashback.

In real life, people sometimes use flashback to describe a sudden memory, as if they were in a movie or TV show, as in I just hung out with my younger cousin and it was like a flashback of my college days. 

This should not be confused with how the term is used in the context of psychology. This phenomenon, also called flashback hallucinosis, involves a lifelike recollection of a past traumatic experience, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations. It can also refer to an instance in which the visual hallucinations or other effects of a drug (such as LSD) recur long after it was used, as in the phrase acid flashback. This sense of the word is first recorded around the 1960s.

Did you know ... ?

What are some other forms related to flashback?

  • flash back (verb)

What are some words that share a root or word element with flashback

What are some words that often get used in discussing flashback?

How is flashback used in real life?

Flashbacks are such a familiar narrative device that people often use the word to describe their own sudden memories as if their own life were a movie.



Try using flashback!

True or False? 

A flashback can show something that happened in the past or that will happen in the future.

How to use flashback in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for flashback

/ (ˈflæʃˌbæk) /

a transition in a novel, film, etc, to an earlier scene or event
verb flash back
(intr, adverb) to return in a novel, film, etc, to a past event
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012