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Pensieve Flashback

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"Okay. Gotcha. Like I'm in a movie. Only I'm the movie. Or something."

Let's face it: flashbacks can be pretty boring. At the end of the day, they are a blatant form of exposition that can make it feel like the story has been put on hold, and depending on the circumstances, may only serve as a recap for information the audience is already fully aware of. But since they are also the most direct way to explain a character's past if you want to keep to the all-important Show, Don't Tell rule of storytelling, they're an inevitability in many genres. So what's a good method of making flashbacks not boring? One popular variant, particularly in fantasy and science-fiction works, is to have the flashbackee or someone else be an observer to the events.

There are a few ways that this can be achieved within the narrative, but the end result is that the character is now walking around in a representation of their or someone else's memories. This leads to moments of them echoing the audience by asking questions like "Was I really like that?" or "How did such a sweet kid become so cruel?" If it's their own memories and another person is in there with them, this fellow observer may berate them for their pathetic life choices or show them what they have to live for. In some cases the character may be dealing with False Memories, and so must use the details they're seeing to reconstruct the truth of their past.


The Trope Namer is the pensieve, a magical object in the Harry Potter universe that allows characters to do just this.

Similar to the Exposition Beam, which essentially transfers these memories from one character to another, allowing them to experience it in their own POV. Can overlap with Time Travel, particularly Intangible Time Travel, if the character is actually sent back in time to view the events of their past.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Negima! Magister Negi Magi, Negi and Asuna use a spell to get an Out-of-Clothes Experience inside Negi's memories of the destruction of his Doomed Hometown. "It's a lot quicker than talking", you see. Later in the Magic world, Rakan reveals a kind of technology that can read memories and turn them into a film reel, since Raken hates talking. This helped the drama considerably.
  • Caro's flashback in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS had her observing her past self. Also, the sound stages had Hayate and Reinforce Zwei accessing the memories of the Book of Darkness on two separate occasions, allowing them to observe the past of the Book of Darkness and the Wolkenritter with the first Reinforce to guide them.
  • In Dr. Kishiwada's Scientific Affection, Dr. Kishiwada uses virtual reality security cameras to go back into the past, find the culprit of a crime and trace him back to his "hideout". Being Dr. Kishiwada this is all pretty normal stuff.
  • In Tsubasa -RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE-, Syaoran picks up a magic book that shows him Kurogane's past. He is unable to close the book until he finishes watching Kurogane's youth, though he can't interfere.
  • This happens a few times in Twin Spica.
  • In Paranoia Agent a three-dimensional flashback is invoked during the climax of the story.
  • Most of Millennium Actress is a variation of this. As the eponymous character tells her life story to a documentarian and his cameraman, the events are shown, with the two men as observers—and later, participants. Lampshaded when it cuts back to the present day interview— and they're acting the flashback out.
  • Played with in Naruto: Itachi puts Sasuke in a Pensieve Flashback via genjutsu to show him the history of Madara Uchiha and the Eternal Mangekyo Sharingan explaining what he wants out of Sasuke, but it later appears that his account may not have been completely accurate.
  • Noein's Haruka does this all the time. Also, future badasses Karasu and Fukurou. ..sort of. And Yuu's mother, Miyuki Gotou, also did it once.
  • In Future Diary, Yukki is shown Yuno killing Yuno in this way. It turns out this Yuno is from an alternative timeline who came back to take over and be with Yukki once more.
  • 20th Century Boys: The Bonus Stage in Friend Land is effectively a Pensieve Flashback to the area and time period Kenji and his classmates grew up in, albeit one where you can interact with the virtual people and certain details are missing. This is played with in at least one scene where what appeared to be a genuine flashback only the audience sees is really just another visit to Bonus Stage.
  • Noah puts the Kaiba brothers through these during the Virtual Nightmare arc of Yu-Gi-Oh!.
  • In Sands of Destruction, while trapped in the Cave of Memories, Morte dreams of when her brother told her he was leaving to join the Golden Lions and screams at her younger self to not let him go because he'll be killed; naturally, the memory doesn't hear her and simply plays out the way it originally happened. A later dream averts this, as she actually becomes her (even younger) self and is able to interact with the other characters in her dream.
  • When Marnie Was There: When Hisako fills Anna in on Marnie's life story, we see Anna being present in the flashbacks.
  • Maoyu: The Demon King is able to use memory-projecting lamps to great effect. Of course, they're a bit too easy to use, so sometimes Hilarity Ensues... Cue the Hero finding out she keeps a body pillow version of him for Kissing Warm-Up, incidentally revealing she's known what he looks like for a long time before they first met. More on point, the Demon King is able to use the Hero's memories to point out some economic implications he'd never considered about how the different nations handle war time as well as share scenes from a dream of peace that she holds close to her heart.

    Comic Books 
  • Spider-Man: Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #14 has Spidey find a computer disk that allows him to explore the events of Norman Osborn's life.
  • Green Lantern: In one version of Hal Jordan's origin story, his ring does this so he can experience the final battle of his predecessor, Abin Sur.
  • Superman:
    • In Convergence: Adventures of Superman, Pre-Crisis Supergirl walks through a series of three-dimensional visions narrating her life since her arrival on Earth to her impeding death.
    • In The Phantom Zone, Charlie Kweskill is walked through a series of visions narrating the past of Krypton, the discovery of the Phantom Zone, the imprisonment of its inmates -including him-, and finally Krypton's explosive demise.

    Fan Works 

    Film — Animated 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Woody Allen's older movie, Annie Hall, used this. Also, the use of No Fourth Wall sometimes let other characters speak to the audience, such as when he asks his former classmates from elementary school what they're doing now.
    Little girl: I'm into leather.
  • The title character in Spider, a mentally ill man, has Pensieve Flashbacks to his childhood in which he follows himself as a young boy play out a key drama in his life. We see alternately through the boy's point of view and the man's.
  • The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind halfway uses this, in that the character who is flashing back (as his memory is being erased) is participating in the action, but he's also commenting on it to his girlfriend. When he breaks course and flashes back to his childhood, he and his girlfriend are still themselves (that is, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet), but they are still acting out his memories (he's in his five-year-old's rocket pajamas, she's dressed up like his mom. It plays out a lot better on-screen.
  • The Made-for-TV Movie based on the book The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom is chock-full of this. In it, an elderly man named Eddie dies in a roller coaster accident at Ruby Pier, the fairground where he worked his entire life. When he goes to heaven, he meets five people who tell him the meaning of his life and tell things from their lives as well. The person who did it the most was Ruby, the namesake for Ruby Pier.
  • Pacific Rim: During their first test drive together of Gipsy Danger, thanks to the Drift allowing to share memories, when Mako relives Onibaba's attack on Tokyo she experienced as a little girl, Raleigh is present in the flashback, standing next to her while witnessing everything, and trying to convince her to come back.
  • Played with in Captain America: Civil War. The audience is shown a flashback to Tony Stark's last conversation with his parents before their deaths, at the end of which the adult Tony is visible watching from a doorway — then there's a Proscenium Reveal and it turns out that Tony is physically present in a holodeck simulation based on his memories.
  • Wild Strawberries: The plot deals with Isak Borg, a retired doctor, reliving his childhood/young adulthood days. He explores these memories by seemingly walking through them and bearing witness to the events.
  • Click features a Universal Remote Control which, among other features, allows Michael to rewind back to any point in his life. It's played for everything from comedy (when he checks out the "Making Of" bonus feature) to tear-jerker (replaying his last conversation with his father). Bonus points: it has a commentary track by James Earl Jones.

  • Harry Potter:
    • The Pensieve from which this trope gets its name allows people to relive or share memories in this manner.
    • Tom Riddle's diary from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has the ability to show people the memories of Tom Riddle as he saw them, similar to the mechanics of a Pensieve that would be introduced in later books.
  • Older Than Radio: Scrooge has these kind of flashbacks given to him by the Ghosts of Christmas in A Christmas Carol.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series does this with full-3D documentaries about the creation of the supercomputer Deep Thought and the history of the planet Krikkit.
  • Ghosts in Pact serve this purpose. Being essentially an imprint left on the world by an event of great emotion, trauma, or inspiration, they replay that moment to whoever interacts with them. Notably, though death is the most common source of ghosts seen in the story, the event that creates a ghost doesn't have to kill the person that it involved. At one point, Conquest weaponizes this feature to summon the ghosts of the most traumatic experiences Blake Thorburn has ever had and forces him to relive them.'
  • The title character of the Agent Pendergast novels, due to his studies in esoteric mental disciplines, is able to mentally reconstruct and experience the past in his own mind.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Angel, Faith and Angelus enter Angel's subconscious thanks to a mystical drug that links their minds. They observe Angel's past mistakes, snipe at each other and eventually start fighting... inside the flashback.
  • In an episode from the 2000s Battlestar Galactica, "Maelstrom", a figure who looks like her enemy Leoben guides Kara "Starbuck" Thrace through flashbacks of her troubled relationship with her mother, in order to help her achieve closure and embrace her destiny.
  • The Frasier episode "Daphne Returns" had a couple of flashbacks of past Niles and Daphne moments, with present day Frasier and Niles observing.
    • The best one is a memorable scene from older episode that Frasier finds so preposterous (largely due to a lack of context) that he denies it could have possibly happened.
  • Game of Thrones: The Three-Eyed Raven has Bran go through several of them to explore his family's past, and the effect is subsequently occasionally re-used when Bran uses his power.
  • The appropriately named Star Trek: Voyager episode "Flashback" has a telepathy-induced flashback. Unique in that one of the characters observing the events wasn't there when they actually happened (In fact, she wasn't even born yet). It gets even weirder when the flashback somehow malfunctions (!?) and the characters in the flashback can suddenly see and react to the observers.
    • The person whose memories they were had to act his role in them all along. The remembered people just stopped ignoring his asides and his "guest."
      • And it was subverted when the exact memory that was troubling the flashbackee isn't even his own, but planted there by a virus.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation did it in "Tapestry", when Q offers Picard, hovering near death thanks to an old heart wound, the chance to relive the events surrounding his original heart injury and Set Right What Once Went Wrong. Q inserts himself into the flashback as a deliveryman at one point.
    • Also, TNG often used the holodeck to recreate events or memories as an investigative aid. Troi has all the victims of subspace alien abduction in "Schisms" relate their experiences and recreate the scenario on the holodeck.
  • In the sitcom The King of Queens, One episode has each of the three core characters going to a therapist. Each time the character and the therapist become observers of some kind of event in that character's childlife. They then go on to argue with someone in the flashback. The last one even has him getting into a fight with his younger self.
  • There was a short-lived ABC TGIF sitcom where two brothers had a Flashback to their childhood. It starts out played straight, but then the adult brothers enter the scene to argue "that's not how it happened" or some such. At the very end, the adults leave, but on the way out one decides to screw with the kids' heads by telling them "Darth Vader? Luke's father."
  • The sensory deprivation tank in Fringe coupled with LSD and electrodes allowed Olivia to experience John Scott's memories as an observer in this manner.
  • As with all flashback tropes, this was used on Lost. The episode "Maternity Leave" features Claire recovering a memory of her abduction by "watching" herself talking with Ethan outside the Staff Station.
  • Mad Men has something like this in the first episode of season three, where Don looks on as flashbacks show how he was conceived, born and adopted. However, they're obviously not his own memories, since he was a prostitute's worst fear/a fetus/a newborn when they took place.
  • House gets these in "Baggage" and, technically, in "Three Stories"
  • The Dead Zone: In the TV series, some of Johnny Smith's visions work in this manner and he can even rewind or replay the vision in Bullet Time to get a better perspective of the events he's seeing.
  • Pops up a few times in Charmed, firstly in "A Paige From The Past" where Paige is sent back in time to her teenage years to relive her parents' last day. She becomes herself but Leo sits on the sidelines to guide her. A similar version happens later on when Paige takes Kyle Brody back to his childhood but he doesn't assume his younger self.
    • Leo's vision quest in "Someone To Witch Over You" where he is shown flashbacks of his life with Chris as his guide.
    • Phoebe takes another one in the episode "Generation Hex" where she sees all her past loves.
  • MythQuest: Alex travels into a Norse myth and encounters Thor. He has questions about the history between Thor and Loki, so Thor brings him into two different flashblacks that they observe together.
  • The Vampire Diaries' Season 4 premiere has Elena experience a buried memory as though she's seeing it from outside her body.
  • In the Supernatural episode "All Hell Breaks Loose, Part One" (S02, Ep21), the Yellow-Eyed Demon shows Sam how his mother died in a dream where they were both present, but unable to interact.
  • The premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feature the team using videotape footage and a holographic computer simulation to recreate a laboratory explosion.
  • Used at least Once per Episode in Unforgettable. Protagonist Carrie Wells has hyperthymesia and literally cannot forget anything she's ever experienced. The show uses an effect of present-time Carrie walking through her memories of a few hours or days before when Carrie puts her gift/curse to work in solving murders.
  • In an episode of Hannah Montana, after Miley and Jackson explain their different interpretations of what's got Robbie Ray so worked up about them, they enter the flashback to see what happened. In the flashback, they find a bunch of birthday cards on the tape, making them realize that they forgot his 40th birthday.
  • The short flashback nightmare at the beginning of the The X-Files episode "Demons" shows Mulder as his younger self as well as him as an adult observing the scene.
  • Part of Ptonomy's mutant power in Legion (2017) allows him to help others see their past from a different POV. Needless to say when he helps David do this things get weird.
  • Luke Cage (2016): Misty Knight's reconstruction of crime scenes plays out in this way, with Misty seemingly standing at the scene like an invisible observer as the events enact themselves around her. More often than not, the scene then transitions to show that this is what Misty is seeing in her head as she studies crime scene pictures on the wall behind her desk.
  • Daredevil (2015): In season 3, as Fisk reads through files on Dex get his backstory, the events play out like a stage play going on in the penthouse, with Fisk acting as a silent observer.
  • WandaVision: In episode 8, Agatha casts a spell that allows her to view a few of Wanda's memories as a third-party observer. Wanda herself flips between being a third-party observer and a participant.


    Tabletop Games 
  • This is how the Akashic Records work in Pathfinder. As a metaphysical record of all events, recorded automatically as they happen, visitors can select moments to experience in flawless clarity, free of personal bias and perception. This allows these flashbacks for clear retrospection.
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Blood Angels chapter of Space Marines collectively suffers from a disease known as the Red Thirst, where they relive the agonizing final moments of their Primarch Sanguinius (due to the implants being taken from his own genetic material), going absolutely berserk.

  • In the third act of Our Town, Emily, now deceased, is given the chance to relive one day of her life. She is advised to make it an unimportant one, since the experience of watching herself alive will be painful for her. The date she chooses is that of her twelfth birthday (Tuesday, February 11th, 1899).

    Video Games 
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: After viewing an Elder Scroll, the player is transported to the moment a few Nord heroes banished the dragon Alduin, thousands of years ago. However, the player can only observe the battle take place and is unable to move around without the use of bugs.
  • A rather interesting case occurs in Final Fantasy VII as a crucial part of game's story. The heroine Tifa enters the catatonic hero Cloud's mind and helps him sort through his muddled memories. Together, she and Cloud (his subconsciousness, really) go over experiences they shared in the past to determine what memories were real, which were invented, and which were implanted.
  • Final Fantasy VIII also uses this for the orphanage revelation.
  • Final Fantasy X had three variations:
    • The pyreflies can form visions of people or events when there are enough of them, such as in the Farplane or especially Zanarkand Dome, where you see visions of Jecht, Auron, and Braska.
    • When you reach Zanarkand and find out that Zanarkand is the Fayth's dreams of their memories of the old city, making it one big Pensieve Flashback that carried on where the real city left off when it was destroyed.
  • Granblue Fantasy: The Celestial Strait in What Makes The Sky Blue: Paradise Lost is a dangerous route according to Rackam. One of the reasons why many skyfarers never make it out of this route is due to a space-time distortion. When the crew do manage to enter the Strait, they experience visions alongside the stormy weather. These visions are actually events that happened in the past, before and during the War, including a vision of Lucifer meeting his friend, Lucillius.
  • The Memory Maze in Wild AR Ms 2, which had the Sword Magess, Anastasia guiding Ashley through her memories.
  • These are an integral part of ch. 20 of the Story mode in Honkai Impact 3rd. Kiana and Bronya travel to Mt. Taixuan to find clues about Fu Hua, and encounter feathers which, when touched, allow them to experience memories that Fu Hua has excised from her mind for one reason or another, ranging from her teenage years in the Previous Era to her time as a MANTIS soldier to when she was the "Celestial" and training students on Mt. Taixuan.
  • Star Ocean: The Second Story did this while going through the four fields on Disk 2
  • One of Fe's collectible item categories is the Silent Helmets, whose crystal orbs provide insight into the Silent Ones' backstory from a first-person view.
  • In Return Of The Obra Dinn, the player character solves the mystery of what happened to the Obra Dinn by finding corpses and using the Memento Mortem to look into their last memories.

  • In Blip, Liz's portion of the "Rashomon"-Style flashback involves Hester and Mary stepping directly into her memory. ("This is cool, right? Just like in Harry Potter".) Memory!Liz within the flashback acts as the mouthpiece for modern-day Liz, and Hester (briefly forgetting that these are not actual events) punches one of the memories.
  • In Cans of Beans, Carl gets to watch some significant memories as they replay inside the Mental World he shares with his werewolf alter ego.
  • The nameless protagonist of HERO, when he picks up a compass containing a memory, experiences one of these — though he experiences it in first person, the only thing he can do that deviates from the memory is to think, and technically, it's Eira's memory.
  • The dream bubbles in Homestuck. They act both as the dream world and the afterlife and are composed of the memories of the dreaming/dead people. The main twist is, originally when dreaming the character's memory is retold verbatim, but once they realize it isn't a memory they are free to manipulate stuff at their will.
  • In Juathuur, Arvval and Faevv watch this way Faerun's disapperance.
  • Kaiten Mutenmaru: The crystals in the Ruins of Time draw Tetsujin into Astar's encounter with Sick, whose horrific past the rest of Mutenmaru's group relive.

    Web Original 
  • Psychics in We Are All Pokémon Trainers can use their powers to allow people and Pokémon within a certain radius to see the memories of themselves and others as observers. Aura can be kneaded into the projection to get around the difficulties most Dark types have with this.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: When Aang and Roku visit Roku's past to teach Aang in "The Avatar and the Fire Lord", Aang is able to see his past self. No one else sees any of this, leading to a joke where Aang's allies watch him mediating silently, wondering if he has to relieve himself.
  • Centaurworld: In "Bunch O' Scrunch" Horse learns "backstory magic", a spell that allows her to experience other characters' most defining memories as if she were present there. She immediately uses it on four of her friends.
  • An episode of Chowder has this be the solution to Mung's teacher telling everyone awful stories about him. They make him tell the story, then jump into his flashback to alter the past. It works flawlessly...except that Chowder decided to grab his past self and pull him to the present...
  • The Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "Every Which Way But Ed" has the Eds get mixed up in flashbacks within flashbacks.
  • Final Space: In "Episode 4", while on a mission to harvest power from a dying star, Gary suddenly gets one about his childhood. He relives the day he and his dad watched the launch of the new Imperium T3 cruiser together, the day his dad was about to leave on his last mission, making young Gary promise him that he would have many adventures of his own, and the day his dad died during that mission.
  • Futurama plays with this as Professor Farnsworth tells the story of the original Planet Express crew to the current crew, on the 50th anniversary of the original crew's disappearance in the episode, "Möbius Dick". We see the events, including a younger Zoidberg with hair. Amy is incredulous that he had hair, to which the Professor responds, "I never said he had hair! If you chose to imagine him that way, that's your business!" As he finishes the story, we see Zoidberg's hair turned white. Amy comments on this, to which the professor tells her he grew hair and it turned white from the shock.
  • Infinity Train: Every passenger has a tape of their own memories that can be viewed, either by themselves or others, in this fashion. As Tulip discovers in "The Cat's Car", watching your own tape can lead to you being trapped inside forever.
  • Kim Possible, in "A Sitch In Time", Kim finds herself traveling through time to prevent Drakken, Shego, Monkey Fist and Duff Killigan from altering her history. At one point, she gets to witness the moment when she and Ron first met in kindergarten and became friends, and gets quite wistful about it.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In the episode "The Return of Harmony, Part 2", Discord shows Twilight one of these (using his Reality Warper abilities) to show her the riddle he gave her near the beginning of her quest, in order to reveal that she was taking it the wrong way the whole time and he was Just Toying with Them.
    • In the season 4 premiere "Princess Twilight Sparkle", Twilight drinks a potion provided by Zecora that allows her to peer into Equestria's past. She sees Celestia's battle with Nightmare Moon, then Celestia and Luna's original confrontation with Discord, then finally Celestia and Luna finding the original Elements of Harmony at the Tree of Harmony.
    • In "For Whom the Sweetie Bell Tolls", Princess Luna takes Sweetie Belle into a flashback explaining the truth about Rarity's actions at Sweetie's fifth birthday party.
    • In "The Cutie Re-Mark" Starlight uses a time travel spell to actually take Twilight back in time to show her an event from her past. It's more literal than most examples, but it plays out almost exactly the same as this trope.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did this in the 2003 series: the Utroms show the Turtles and Splinter why and how they landed on Earth via virtual simulation pods. Then Stockman hacks into the system and past-Shredder stops ignoring the Turtles...


Video Example(s):


The Pensieve

Harry enters a memory in Dumbledore's Pensieve.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / PensieveFlashback

Media sources: