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Monday, October 7, 2019

Writing Callbacks

I finally found the correct term for a writing technique that has been in my head a few years! I was at a panel at FanX, when author Dan Willis (not to be confused with Dan Wells) started talking about "callbacks"--I wanted to stop him right then and there and thank him for finally giving me the word (but since we were on a panel, I didn't think that would be a good idea!).

Of course, it comes from the screenwriting world 🙄 Seriously guys, I've never had much of a desire to get into screenwriting, but there are some great ideas (and terminology) in that branch of creative writing (particularly with story structures). So if you want more resources for writing good stories, look into some screenwriting books.


Naturally, I want to now talk about callbacks, since I have the official term (maybe I'm late to the game, and you guys already knew the correct term 😅) But, I'm also going to expand the idea, afterwards.

Callbacks Explained

By definition, a callback is a dialogue technique. It's when you bring back an old line from earlier in the story.

The Order of the Phoenix film has one of my favorite callbacks in it.

After Harry gets detention, he has to write lines with Umbridge that say "I must not tell lies."

Later in the film, this happens:

That is a callback.

And audiences love it.

Often callbacks are used in comedy, where the punchline of a joke is pulled back in later for another laugh.

Callbacks can happen in a lot of different places and have a lot of different tones.

However, most of the time, to be effective, the callback must be different than the original line in some way.

This often means changing the context and/or the line itself (by my definition).

So in the Order of the Phoenix example, the line stays the exact same: "I must not tell lies." But the context is radically different. Originally, Umbridge had the upper hand and was torturing Harry. In the callback, Harry has control. Because we all hate Umbridge and what she did to him so much, it's really satisfying when he calmly throws it in her face.

But the context can change in a bunch of other different ways too. In Galaxy Quest, Alexander loathes delivering the line "By Grabthar's hammer . . ." throughout the film, which is comedic to the audience, but near the climax, the line is flipped on its head when he uses it to comfort a man dying in his arms.

Sometimes you can use the line to illustrate an arc. At the beginning of the story it meant one thing, but by the end, it has a new, more significant meaning. This can be great to emphasize character growth and thematic statements. Mockingjay (the book) does this well in all its references to the "Hanging Tree" lyrics.

Some stories tweak the line. Pirates of the Caribbean uses this comedically throughout the series, when characters make references to the rum being gone.

In Spider-verse, the writers played around with Spider-man's tag line: with great power, comes great responsibility, and flipped it around so that we have Miles's dad saying incorrectly "With great ability, comes great accountability" or even having Spider-man himself imply how sick he is of hearing the line. (This is a smart move on the writers' part, since they are working with a story that has been rebooted four times in 16 years ðŸĪŠ Like Peter, we may be tired of the tagline ourselves.)

Often people's favorite lines to quote are callbacks. Have you noticed?

When writing callbacks, the most important thing to remember is to not be annoying.

If you overuse this technique, it can become annoying.

If you overuse a line in the same context over and over again, it can be annoying.

It's like telling the same joke over and over and expecting it to be just as effective. It's not. It gets irritating.

(Unless the joke is that you tell it over and over again.)

You could say the Inigo Montoya's line is overdone, but it's intentional and part of the point.

Physical Callbacks

By definition, "callback" relates to dialogue, but I say, why stop there? Why can't objects or actions work as callbacks too? Well, they can, and actually, they do.

Let's go back to Spider-verse. The climax is loaded with all sorts of callbacks. But perhaps the most memorable is when Miles defeats Kingpin with the "shoulder touch" he learned earlier in the story. Sure, it does have the same dialogue from earlier ("Heeeeey!"), but really, it's the action that's the focal point. That's the real callback.

What about in Lord of the Rings, when we get that shot of Frodo stroking the ring in the exact same way as Smeagol? Isn't that an action that conveys a significant arc of character? And it's an action we've seen before.

What about Seamus Finnigan's magic constantly blowing up in flames through the Harry Potter series--isn't that like a callback? Finally in the last movie, he's asked to blow something up intentionally.

And then let's not forget Napoleon Dynamite and his dancing.

And why can't this be objects too? Like the changing context of a Mockingjay pin? Or Dobby and his love of socks?

Sure, these all might be a little trickier to pull off in a novel, but not impossible. For actions, just make sure to use the same or similar descriptions and keywords, so you reinforce and emphasize an association. Objects might be a little easier, and they may even take on symbolism, but you make sure they stand out.

I could go on and talk about how callbacks can even extend beyond the text to other texts. Like how Spider-verse calls back to the original Spider-man trilogy a lot in the opening (like with Peter's dance moves). But I think I'll call it good for today.

In the end, remember this: Callbacks are effective because they resonate with what the audience saw before.


  1. One of my favorite writing techniques! Thanks for explaining the execution more clearly in this post.

    1. I love this one too! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Hey! This was super helpful! I am a senior in high school trying to find a way to end my college application essay gracefully. I might try to use a callback!


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