We’re all familiar with the flashback; but what is the art of the flash forward?
The flashback takes us back to an earlier part of the story – usually to fill in backstory we don’t get to see in the present timeline. The flash forward takes us to a later episode in the story, a glimpse at where the story is heading.
But surely the flash forward is a spoiler? Why would an author do that?
Often, flash forwards occur at the beginning of the story. Certain TV shows use it all the time; I’ve lost count of the dramatic opening In Medias Res, curtailed by a cliff-hanger and the ’48 hours earlier’ title card as the plot winds back to the beginning. We’re looking at you, NCIS and all your spin-offs.
Novels also use flash forwards to kick-start the story. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The ghost reveals Scrooge’s miserable legacy in the future to shock him into changing his behaviour. Admittedly this is a mid-point flash forward, not an opening scene, but if it’s good enough for Dickens…
The flash forward is more explicit than foreshadowing. The flash forward depicts actual events, but out of chronological sequence. Foreshadowing is a more conventional way to drop hints and pointers to events or plot points that will occur later in the story.
Why use the Flash forward?
The flash forward is an appealing device when used carefully:
1 Create a dramatic opening hook
Here the flash forward is used as a device to hook the reader. Showing a snippet of some dramatic turning point or climax can be so much more exciting than the usual Ordinary World beginning of a standard first page.
2 Create some mystery
When we don’t know quite where the flash forward fits into the timeline or the events of the plot, we have mystery. How will the plot take us to the events of the flash forward? How do we get there? It also teases the characters or their actions.
3 Create tension and suspense
The flash forward is like Hitchcock’s famous bomb under the table. We know it’s there as we read the earlier parts of the story. When will we get there and what is the outcome of the flash forward?
4 Make explicit promises of the story to come
It’s almost a trailer, making explicit promises about the plot, characters, tone and setting to come.
5 Set up a plot twist
…in which the flash forward isn’t what it appears. Is the bad guy really the bad guy? Or is he the victim desperate to clear his name? Does the protagonist really get shot, stabbed, blown-up or fall off the cliff? Is it all a Mission Impossible style sting, part of an elaborate Ocean’s Eleven long-con?
Criticisms of the Flash Forward
So many of those police-procedural TV shows flash forward to the climax, the device is getting a bad rap.
There are some valid arguments against the flash forward
- Lazy writing that exploits the climax rather than earning reader engagement through a decent setup
- Messing with chronology just to do something different
- Not trusting the actual beginning of the story to hook the reader
- Starting the story in the ‘wrong place’ – the flash forward is a ‘cheap trick’ selling the climax.
- ‘So what?’ The flash forward focuses on plot rather than providing an emotional connection with the characters. Why should we care about the future drama when we have no investment in the characters in peril now?
- Lack of context. Again, where does the flash forward fit into the plot and why should we care?
- The flash forward enables ‘tricksy’ plot twists that are hard to justify; a cheap bait-and-switch that annoys as many readers as it excites.
- It’s a spoiler for the later part of the story (see Lazy Writing and Tricksy Plot Twists)
Confession time: each of the three books in my fantasy series begins with a flash-forward. Ordinarily I regard the flash forward as a cheap trick used by hack writers. Except me. Because my main character has Second Sight, or premonition, I think my flash forwards are genius. My flash forwards are her visions, used knowingly as plot devices that drive her actions. They also perform all those useful narrative functions outlined in the first list. Win-win. Unless you hate the art of the flash forward.