Troubled Backstory Flashback

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A specific Sub-Trope of Dark and Troubled Past, Flash Back, and Tragic Hero.

When a movie starts after The Hero suffers a great personal Tragedy that motivates them to go on a quest for justice or revenge, the audience will be curious about what exactly happened to this guy or gal to make them such a nigh unstoppable Badass. An Opening Scroll may work for a Space Opera, but not here, where it would trivialize such a personal hurt. So directors instead use a Flash Back to deliver this Exposition.

It'll begin with a Happy Flashback, a snapshot of a happier time with the people who have since been killed. The flashback will be bright, much brighter than the drowning-in-dark main cinematography, and use a non-desaturated (or even super saturated) lively color palette. It will sometimes use softened edges and warm gold tones, when not in sepia, and have a sweet but slightly jarring melody (preferably a music box) or obviously sad fare. Then the disastrously happy loved ones will be killed as the happy flashback suffers a Sugar Apocalypse into a gory bloodfest. For extra pathos, the hero will be helpless to save them or Forced to Watch.

We aren't being over-dramatic here, these flashbacks run the risk of portraying the hero's pre-tragedy life as more nauseatingly happy than a Norman Rockwell painting on distilled Glurge. This may be intentional, since the net effect is the hero's life effectively goes from living in a Sugar Bowl to a Crapsack World.

Not all Troubled Backstory Flashbacks are given all at once though. A director may space out the flashback in order to keep the exact nature of the tragedy a suspenseful secret. To this end it will be be shown in snippets that get progressively longer, until near the end of the movie when the hero breaks down and narrates the entire flashback to a friend or Love Interest. For extra creepy factor the flashback will be a garbled mess mixing the happy memory and the bloody aftermath.

See also Happier Home Movie and You Remind Me of X.

Examples of Troubled Backstory Flashback include:

Anime and Manga

  • There's one of these early in the Bleach anime (and the manga as well) when we see how happy Ichigo was with his mother, and then her death at the hands of Grand Fisher.
    • Later, the Turn Back The Pendulum arc went into Urahara's tragic backstory, as well as those of the Vizard.
  • In Weiss Kreuz, Aya Fujimiya's flashback to his younger sister's sixteenth birthday is all bright, cheerful images of the smiling girl having fun at a shrine festival - but then it starts raining on the way home. You can probably guess what happens to his happy, loving family next.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, there are flashbacks of happy, young Ed and Alphonse with their mother. There's then a flashback of her dying right before their eyes.
    • And the flashbacks of the Ishval Genocide, to most of the soldier main characters.
    • And all the flashbacks of the failed human transmutation.
  • Black Butler has flashbacks of Ciel when he's a happy little boy, laughing and smiling. Then we see bits and pieces of the horrors he went through and witnessed (one of which actually causes him to vomit at the memory). This is more prominent in the manga.
  • The Manhwa Priest has Ivan's flashback, starting in Volume 4 and continuing in Volume 6. It starts out rather sugary (complete with a Tsundere Love Interest), which is jarring, but it quickly goes to hell in Volume 6.
  • The entire episode/s of Trigun that flashback to REM and show what happened with Vash and Knives aboard the SEED ship on their way to Gunsmoke. I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned before because Vash's past is usually referenced in the show quite a bit, possibly even Once an Episode .
  • It's best not to make a Drinking Game out how many times these sorts of flashbacks appear in Naruto. It'll probably kill you.
  • Crona's past in Soul Eater. Made worse by the simple, child-like style in which it is drawn/animated. Crona's is the stand-out example for known backstories in the series; the main cast has far more mundane, and (generally) less violent pasts.
  • Almost every character that's shown somewhat often in Fruits Basket gets one of these, even more minor characters like Kakeru and Machi. Subverted by Kimi, whose "troubled backstory flashback" wasn't so troubled.
  • Mandatory for a character to join the main crew of One Piece. Most of the flashbacks took up one episode, others took three. Luffy's past, after nearly 500 episodes, actually gets expanded upon - which the anime is using to to fill up as much time as possible.
  • Tiger and Bunny's Barnaby has a considerable number of these—usually in the form of his own nightmares or frequently recalled and re-analyzed memories. The number of inconsistencies that turn up during each repetition of a particular memory are a clue that they are, in fact, Fake Memories planted by his Parental Substitute, Albert Maverick.
    • Episode 16 reveals Lunatic's past through these.
  • Inuyasha flashes back to his childhood on multiple occasions, and none of his memories are happy ones. First, he remembers being rejected by ordinary humans and his mother's tears when he asks her what "Half-Breed" means. Next he remembers fleeing into the forest after the death of his mother, being pursued by a small army of demons; this prompted his desire to become stronger. The movies add one more, although he probably doesn't remember it - the night of his birth his mom is stabbed, his dad is badly wounded, and their mansion burns to the ground while his dad is inside it fighting the man who stabbed Izayoi.
    • And then there's no shortage of flashbacks to his life with Kikyou, including the stubid boat scene which is repeated at least half a dozen times.


  • The Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has one of these flashbacks.
  • This is all over the place in Max Payne, where it takes the better part of the movie to fully reveal how Max's wife died.
  • Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead has a flashback of the heroine's childhood that does the reveals-slightly-more-each-time thing, which I remember noticing because some iterations are misleading (one early one shows her being chased by a man, who is revealed in a later flashback to be a friend shepherding her to safety because the real villain is coming).
    • This was probably based on a similar use of flashbacks in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, where Harmonica was relentlessly pursuing the villain Frank (played ironically by Henry Fonda), with a few flashbacks showing a blurred figure. In the final showdown, we get a full flashback which reveals the blurred figure is Frank, who had Harmonica's brother hung from a bell and standing on his shoulders.
      • A lot of Sergio Leone's Westerns had these. For a Few Dollars More had a flashback involving a young woman being raped by the villain. It turns out she was Colonel Mortimer's sister, who had killed herself to keep El Indio from getting the satisfaction of raping her, and Mortimer is after revenge. Duck You Sucker also had a similar series of flashbacks to John Mallory's life in Ireland with a friend and a woman they both loved. It turns out Mallory killed his friend after he was forced to turn him into the authorities, which ends up influencing him in the present when he faces a similar situation but spares the man responsible.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street gives us one of these in the flashback/musical number "A Barber And His Wife," which shows Sweeney and his beautiful wife as they used to be before Judge Turpin came along.
  • Give My Regards to Broad Street has one during "Wanderlust" and another on the car ride between that recording session and the EMI Thorn music video production lot. These are much closer in tone to the film's "present" than usually happens because the crisis itself is less visceral than usually happens.
  • In The Country Girl, the protagonist has a flashback to the day his son was run over.
  • Manny has one in the first Ice Age movie, explaining what happened to his family. It was done as animated cave paintings.
  • Kainen's backstory in Outlander is spread over several flashbacks. His family's death (or rather, Kainan's discovery of their death) is shown before the scenes of Kainan and his family, happy together.
  • The various flashbacks from Eric and Shelly's life together before it was all ripped apart in The Crow. May well be the codifier for the trope's use in horror movies.

Live Action TV

  • Lost has such a flashback for each character during their character spotlight episode.
  • NCIS: We occasionally see flashbacks of Gibb's deceased wife and daughter. Usually they are of the happy orange-and-yellow-washed picnic variety, but just once we see glimpses of blood and broken glass and an implied bloodbath.
  • Leverage did this for the first season or two for most characters. Parker's flashbacks were the most traumatic, disturbing and nonsensical.


  • Parodied Once an Episode in Another Case of Milton Jones, with the reasons why his far-more-talented assistant Anton isn't the famous [insert occupation of the week here] instead of Milton. Cue the sad music, Anton's serious voice, and a ridiculous, pun-laden description of his 'tragic' past mistake.

Video Games

  • Interlude 4 in The Reconstruction. It centers around Dehl, and starts off innocuously enough, with peaceful humans arriving on Dehl's island, and Dehl then going off to find his father. In the process, he discovers his father's secret 'laboratory', which is swathed in blood and has bloody Sikohlon corpses chained to the walls. Dehl's father rambles about how he killed everyone to try and isolate a cure for the Blue Plague, and Dehl is just barely able to come out alive through the manifestation of his pseudo-magic powers -- which causes his father to be graphically impaled by a sword and die. Yeah.
  • Present in the prologue of Max Payne, as well as the start of the first major nightmare sequence which brings you back to the place where it all went to hell.


Western Animation

  • Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender gets two of these that show his life before he became angry, bitter and obsessed with catching Aang. The first consists of Iroh telling the ship's crew how Zuko got his scar and was banished, and the second comes in the form of Zuko reminiscing about his family when he was a kid... and then his mom mysteriously disappears and his dad becomes Fire Lord. And it kind of went downhill from there.
  • When mad scientist Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb captures his secret agent nemesis and starts monologuing about his latest evil scheme, he often explains his motives with a troubled backstory flashback. (For example, "Back in Gimmelschtump in the days of my youth, the Doofenshmirtzes were a proud family. But those were lean times for my father, and our beloved lawn gnome was repossessed. Who would protect our ancient garden from witches, spells, and wood trolls? From a tender age, my father decided that it will be me. While the other kids played kick the schumptel and ate doonkelberries, I would stand for hours. All through the cold night, as the spitzenhounds howled... My only companion was the moon. And my neighbor Kenny. So, since my lawn gnome was taken from me, I will destroy every lawn gnome in the entire Tri-State Area!")