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Monday, July 20

The Problem With Flash Forwards as an Opening Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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). [ETA: The movie Deadpool actually does this well. First one I've ever seen.]

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 planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. I don't care for the flash forwards. They are showing up a lot in TV shows. It does take my focus off of the storyline while I am waiting to get to that point in the show. I prefer to have a good first page and have the story develop. Thanks for the article.

  2. It is a popular TV device. And it's never as "cool" as they think it is. I think i roll my eyes every time. Maybe there is a good one, but I can't think of any.

  3. Dave Duncan's King's Blades books all employ flash forwards, and I think he does them rather well. He starts just before a big event towards the end of the book, flashes back and builds up to the event, and then follows the event with the climax. He hooks me every time. :) But he's very close fisted with his cards, so even though I know that X event will occur, I can't see how he'll take us there or what will come after.

    1. Dave Duncan does everything well. :)

  4. I saw a Lego Batman movie where a flash forward was effective. But it was effective only because I had prior knowledge that the scene I saw was uncharacteristic for the characters involved. It piqued my interest consequently. In a book with characters we're getting to know, we don't have the prior knowledge needed to make a scene work.

  5. Twilight uses this technique (which obviously didn't hurt its popularity), but I agree with you in disliking the method. In Twilight's case, it was used to sow the promise of "really, this will get more exciting" because the beginning is so weak.

    So I guess it CAN work as intended, but... LOL! As you said, we don't care about the characters yet, and it gives away the surprise of the situation later in the book. So even with Twilight--where it supposedly "works"--it still suffers from all these problems.

    I judged a contest entry that used that technique (it was a YA, and I suspect they were *trying* to imitate Twilight). And especially in that case where I saw only that section and the weak opening, it *really* didn't work. There wasn't any of the "good" stuff later on to base a good score on. Great post!

    1. Good point about Twilight and the issues there.

    2. Twilight's opening is more of a framing, retrospective scene to me than a true flash forward. She's reflecting on her experience from the future.

      What I'm talking about is more of a scene almost literally plucked from later in the book and tacked on the front of the novel.

      Framing scenes are a different beast to me.

    3. Just saw your reply... :)

      Ah, I see what you mean there. It's close to what happens later, but not an exact match. I guess it didn't strike me as a frame scene because it didn't have a clear echo later, but that might be an individual perspective thing. Interesting!

    4. Or it could be me just remembering it wrong :) It's been years since I read it. I just remembered that one as being more "I'm reminiscing on this thing that happened to me last year, let me tell you about it...." vibe to start. Now I'll have to go back and check! hehe

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  7. I'm not a fan of this method. I thought it was a fad for a while in TV shows, but they keep doing it...

  8. There's an episode of Seinfeld in which the story is a series of flash forwards. It started the story with the last scene and worked backward to where the story started. It was brilliantly done, and probably not something that could be effectively recreated.

    I realize it isn't *quite* what you are talking about here, but it's as close as I can get that was done well.

    1. Yep, different technique, though when done well, very effective. Memento was like that and very powerful.

  9. The TV show Alias did this a good bit, & most of the time, I agree with you -- it was confusing & I didn't really see what it was supposed to add. You could have thrown out the flash-forward opening & not lost anything. But, the one time I thought it worked really well was in the series pilot, because it really did legitimately function as a great hook--you really wanted to know how she got into that situation & the clues actually did make the story more engaging. But it was clear that the whole episode was built with this structure in mind -- it wasn't just tacked on in order to start with a bang the way it seemed to be in some other episodes.

    1. Funny, we just started re-watching ALias the other night, and the first thing I thought of on the first episode was how much strong it would have been if they hadn't had that flash forward scene, lol.

      But they changed the format a little because they kept showing the "real time" mixed in with the flashback of how she got there.

  10. I don't really mind flash forwards as long as they follow through and don't "cheat." unfortunetly, most flash forwards do by makeing the situation seem bad, but once we get to the scene, the conflict we saw and expected is only an illusion. Super natural did this in one of the season one episodes. It looked like one of of the MC's turned evil, but in the end, it was just a shape shifter.
    Other than that, as long as it hooks my interest, i don't mind flash forwards. Sometimes, if done right, they can add dramatic irony to a story, like Romeo and Juliet for example.


  11. YES! Reason number 3! It drives me crazy when I've gotten all invested in the opening scene, only to be yanked away and made to watch/read a less interesting bit as we build back up to the action. Definitely makes me consider putting the book down or turning off the TV. The same thing happened to me when I read Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, only in that case it was even worse. The first 150 pages were told from one character's POV, then we got to a HUGE revelation and then suddenly the POV switched to a different character and it was like starting a whole new novel as the author built back up the story and the tension to bring the two storylines together. I actually put the book down because I was so irritated. I ultimately picked it back up days later because I decided I really did want to know what happened. I love Sarah Waters, but I still haven't quite forgiven her for the bait-and-switch.

    1. That would have driven me nuts. I would have been hard pressed to stick with it after that.

    2. It wasn't a bait and switch. It was a dual POV novel that didn't reveal it was a dual POV until halfway through. I found it masterful and impossible to put down because of that. That's actually the only Sarah Waters book that I have unreservedly adored.

    3. Ah, cool. I had that happen with The Lace Reader, and it had the opposite affect. Glad your experience was better!

    4. I loved Fingersmith. I think it only worked because the second POV explained a lot of the things that the first POV found strange. It wouldn't have worked if they hadn't seen the world from such completely different angles.
      Using a framing scene, where you start and end in the future can work really well. Just yanking a scene in from the end of the book and popping it at the start to show how interesting it's going to get is just annoying.

  12. I've read books in which a flash forward is the prologue. It all depends on how well the story is written for me to decide if the flash forward is right or wrong.

  13. One of the half-dozen best SF stories I've ever read, Roger Zelazny's HOME IS THE HANGMAN*** (1976 Hugo winner in novella category) opens with a flashforward, and it succeeds brilliantly. That opening ff scene is maybe 400 words of a +/- 20k-word story.

    Deconstructing it a bit, it's not hard to see why this opening works so well. First, Zelany was a superb prose stylist who knew how to grab the reader right away. In the opening sentences he builds a terrific atmosphere starting with, "Big fat flakes down the night, silent night, windless night. And I never count them as storms unless there is wind." Within the first paragraph, two sentences later, "(...) a silence confirmed by gunfire, driven deeper now that it had ceased."

    By the end of this short scene we have characters, mystery, hints at strange new technologies; in the protagonist's first-person VP, Zelazny solidly establishes establishes, by brilliant command of voice and detail, a character who is direct, honest, wry and serious, and ends on a note of imminent danger.

    It's impossible not to read on. I must have read this novella at least ten times, and it still rocks me back.

    I think your cautions, Janice, are all good ones, and agree we should be "wary when one tempts you in the moonlight" (LOL!! great phrase). And the flashforward, like the frame device to which it's very closely related, will only work for a minority of stories.

    But as Zelazny proves, a good writer--and he was a great one--can get away with anything. As you and I have discussed before, the key is to intrigue the reader, setting up questions in the reader's mind that they *must* have answered. Combine that with a powerful character voice and a confident, strong attack on the page, and I think it can succeed very well.


    ***For anyone interested, this out-of-print story can easily be found used in the Zelazny collection "Unicorn Variations" and the Ace Double, "Home is the Hangman".

    1. Like all things writing, anything can work if it works. And I mean, Zelazny. Like Duncan, he makes everything work. :) I tend to look more at the bigger picture than one or two examples where it did work vs. the majority where it didn't.

      I also wonder how many ones that work are more framing or retrospective in nature (which is why they work) and not true flash forwards and I mean here.

  14. I used this technique in Liars, Inc. despite being familiar with (and agreeing with) all of the caveats you mentioned, because I write as if my story is unspooling as a movie in my head and I couldn't envision it starting any other way.

    The book was beta-read by at least 8 other authors and then my agent and editor, and I kept expecting each one of them to tell me to "lose the gimmicky flash forward" but every single person agreed that they liked it and thought I should keep it.

    Obviously I'm sure there are people out there who didn't like it, but maybe part of why it worked for so many readers is because you do learn a lot about the MC in those first few pages and the flash is to an event in the middle of the book, not all the way to the big dramatic climax.

    I am split on the TV flash forwards. Sometimes I really like them and sometimes I find them frustrating. I guess it's like anything else--if you're going to do it, try to do it well.

    Great post :)

    1. If it works, it works :) The fact that you "knew" you shouldn't do it and did it anyway says volumes that it was the right thing for the story even though it stepped into dangerous territory :)

    2. It really depends on the story and genre as to how I feel about them.

      On the subject of pet peeves, though, I despise head hopping. There's a very popular and well known crime writer who employs this constantly, for example (I made this up but it can be this trite):

      "Guess I'd better grab some coffee," she said to her boss, then realized that maybe he wasn't done with her yet.

      "Sure," he said. She'd been drinking so much coffee, he was worried about her.

      It's clearly written in each character's POV, not an omniscient type narrator and is often this trite. And it drives me nuts.

    3. I've stopped reading for that :) I can think of a few novels I never got past the first scene because they started in one POV at the beginning of a paragraph, and ended it in another POV.

  15. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett employed a flash forward done well.