I admit, I have a pet peeve with flash forwards. I’ve never seen them done well in books, movies, or TV shows, and they can even hurt my enjoyment of the story that follows. (But if you know a good example of this device done well, please share).
For those unfamiliar with the term, a flash forward is a device that shows a scene from later in the story, then jumps back in time to show how the characters ended up in that situation. On TV shows, it’s the “twenty-four hours earlier” text that shows up after the opening scene where we see the hero in dire straits.
In novels, it’s the “here’s an exciting scene to grab your attention, and now we’ll jump back and show you how we got there” device.
One quick note…I’m not referring to retrospective novels that say, “here’s a story from my past,” such as Stephen King’s Stand By Me. Retrospective novels typically start in the present and then jump into the past and use the jump back as a framing device. I’m talking more about novels that pull a scene from the back and use it to open the novel as tease.
The flash forward scene is problematic for several reasons:
1. It’s not as exciting as we think it is
By the time the flash forward scene actually happens in the novel, readers have had chapters and chapters to get to know the characters and care about their story. But when we open with that same scene, readers have no idea who those characters are or what’s going on. So they don’t have the same emotional connection that the writer does, and thus the scene usually falls flat.
It’s like turning into a scene in a movie you’ve never seen before. Sure, it might have car chases or people in trouble or something dramatic happening, but we don’t care because we have no context for what's happening.
(More on why opening action scenes don’t always work)
2. It gives away part of the story
A flash forward scene is usually from a big moment later in the book (that’s why we moved it forward). It often contains an important reveal or clue, and seeing it first robs the reader from discovering that “something” and anticipating it happening. For example, if we see on page one that the protagonist winds up trapped in a submarine about to explode, it’s no surprise when that happens later.
Even worse, readers might spend time wondering when that scene will occur, which steals focus from the rest of the novel. Clearly, the protagonist has survived to get to that point, so nothing that happens until then really matters. The flash forward scene signals “this is when the story really starts and the rest is just setup.” This can make the novel feel slow, even when it’s not.
(More on making readers care about the scene)
3. It tricks the reader
Most times, a flash forward gets added because we’re not sure our opening scene is strong enough to hook readers. We feel we need something more exciting to grab them and make them want to read the novel (so our instincts are on target)—but instead of making our opening scene stronger, we tack on the flash forward.
Which means we show readers a scene they have no connection to, then yank them out of the story’s timeline and make them read through a scene we know isn’t strong enough to grab them, and then expect them to become invested in the story.
Or, if we happen to get lucky and the flash forward scene actually does grab a reader’s interest, then we yank them out of the story and make them start over with a less interesting scene.
More times than not, the reader stops reading at this point, confused, disconnected from the tale, and already bored.
(More on things to avoid in your opening scene)
Flash forwards can feel like a great idea, but be wary when one tempts you in the moonlight. Odds are it’s your writer’s instinct telling you that something is lacking in the opening scene and nudging you to fix it. Trust yourself, but take a step back and think about ways to strengthen or change that opening scene and improve the novel as a whole. A scene that doesn’t work, doesn’t work, and that won’t change because we put something exciting before it.
How do you feel about flash forwards? Have you ever read/seen any that worked? What about ones that didn’t work?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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