Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The Problem With Flash Forwards as an Opening Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you have to flash forward to hook a reader, you’re not starting in the right place.

I admit, flash forwards are a big pet peeve of mine. I find them awkward and pointless, because they’re trying to get me interested in “an exciting part” of the story without doing any work to actually create that emotional connection. Obviously, taste vary, but for me, they’re a trick, a bait and switch, and they fail more times than work.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a flash forward is a device that starts with 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 I’ll jump back to the real beginning and show you how we got there” device.

Readers need time to care about the characters before you throw them into trouble.

Which is why flash forwards don’t work very well.

I’ve only seen a flash forward done well once—in the movie, Deadpool. But I think it works there because it’s used more as a framing device than an actual flash forward. Plus, Deadpool’s narration of the scene is full of voice and character, which draws you in and sets up who he is even if you don’t know what’s going on yet. It also establishes him as someone who breaks the fourth wall (speaking directly to the viewer), which is a major part of his character.

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, and that’s fine. It’s an entirely different technique.

(Here’s more with Circle Your Writing with Bookends)

The flash forward scene is problematic for several reasons:

1. It’s not as exciting as you 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. The scene matters to them, because of all that emotional investment they’ve put into it.

But when you 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 typically falls flat. The elements that make the scene work in act three don’t exist if it’s an opening scene. Readers haven’t had time to connect and care.

Imagine turning on the TV at a random scene in a movie you’ve never seen before. Do you care what’s going on? It might have car chases or people in trouble or something dramatic happening, but there’s no context for what's happening and no emotional investment in the characters or the situation. In most flash forwards, it’s just action for the sake of action, because action is “exciting” and will hook readers. But that’s not what actually hooks readers.

(Here’s more with Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)

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 you 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 you 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 survived to get to that point, so nothing that happens until then puts the protagonist in actual danger. 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.

(Here’s more with Why Your Novel Isn’t Hooking Your Reader)

3. It tricks the reader.

Most times, a flash forward gets added because you’re not sure your opening scene is strong enough to hook readers. You worry you need something more exciting to grab them and make them want to read the novel. Your instincts are on target, but instead of making your opening scene stronger, you tack on the flash forward.

Which means you 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 you know isn’t strong enough to grab them, and then expect them to become invested in the story when you haven’t really given then any reason to care.

Or, if you happen to get lucky and the flash forward scene actually does grab a reader’s interest, then you yank them out of the story and make them start over with a less interesting scene, and risk losing them anyway.

More times than not, the reader stops reading at this point, confused, disconnected from the tale, and already bored.

(Here’s more with 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene)

Flash forwards sound like a great idea, but be wary when one tempts you in the moonlight.

Odds are that “should I flash forward?” question is 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 you put something exciting before it.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your opening scene. Is it strong enough to hook your reader all on its own?

How do you feel about flash forwards? Have you ever read/seen any that worked? What about ones that didn’t work? 

*Originally published July 2015. Last updated September 2023.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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.

  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.

  16. I actually love this device. It gives me a foreshadowing of what is to come (but I primarily read murder mysteries) and I think it works well in that genre.

    1. I can see that. I imagine there are some genres where this works better, such as mysteries. Glad you enjoy them, though!

  17. Mary Karr and Cheryl Strayed both do this well (and do it in most of their books).

  18. Good points, all! Now I'm wondering if the opening flash forward in my novella published in 2012 worked or not. My first reader liked it, but although she possesses a fine discernment, she could have been wrong. Too late now, I think! It is what it is.

    1. It probably did if readers liked it. Just because I don't care for the device doesn't mean it's wrong :)

    2. "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

      First sentence (translated) of One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    3. Plenty of books do it, and I did say it was a pet peeve of mine. That doesn't mean it won't work when done well, or that other people don't enjoy it.

      This book was also published in 1967, when the trope wasn't as overdone as it is now.

  19. "The Emperor's New Groove" starts with a flash forward. I thought it was the only instance done well; didn't think about Deadpool.

    But both instances are movies played for humor with a 4th wall break and help introduce the main characters in question who are, quite frankly, unlikeable douchebags.

    1. Thanks for another example. I haven't seen that movie in ages, and I'll have to rewatch it. :)

      Perhaps that's why it works? Maybe the humor and unusual break treat it more as a private joke for the viewer, and not just a peek ahead.

  20. Another meticulous breakdown of a real issue in writing. You're the sage who taught me that "start with an explosion" usually backfires, so it's good to see you tear this idea apart.

    I think one more problem with flash forwards is that they're *so* easy that every reader knows they're a cheat. We grumble about how hard a normal first scene is to pick and build, but one good thing about that is that readers know there's pressure here too, and they're more than willing to be impressed by an inventive opening. So for us to simply throw the story's biggest moment up front and then backpedal isn't only a cheat, it looks like a cheat, right when readers wanted to see our real skill.

    1. Janice Hardy9/28/2023 8:36 AM

      Thanks! I agree. Readers are smart, and they know they're getting that "24 hours earlier" device. I wonder how many either skip them or just don't buy the book if they read it in a sample? I think it hurts more stories than it helps.

  21. I'm writing a SciFi novel that uses a flash forward opening because the aliens have observed Earth for thousands of years and only "came out" to humans because they saved Earth from total destruction and the intervention was obvious. I want to use the flash forward to use the two main characters--one human and one alien--throughout. It will be more less an epistolary otherwise. In my favorite SciFi series, the Hyperion Cantos (Endymion to be exact) Raul Endymion begins the narrative in the "Schrodinger cat box", an execution device. Going through Plotting Your Novel and this post made me stop and think, but I want the character continuity it provides. Am I wrong?

    1. If you think it works and your beta readers agree, no, you're not wrong. But if you get feedback that suggests it's an issue, you might test to see if starting elsewhere or cutting it works better.

      You have a specific reason for it beyond "My other opening scene wasn't hooking readers," which suggests it's accomplishing something you need for the story to work.

  22. This has been a challenge for me. My novel is from two POV's characters that come together to help each other heal and thrive. I first wrote it starting with POV1 and all my Alpha/Beta and CG partners said who cares about POV2. So I rewrote the novel starting with POV2 and again readers said who cares about POV1. The story is about the synergistic effect of friendship. So, I broke this rule, I started the story on the day POV1 and POV2 came together each with scars from the past. Now readers are "Oh this is the story on how they came together. I get the importance now."
    Any ideas on how to avoid it, if it is frowned upon. Thanks

    1. Janice Hardy9/28/2023 8:29 AM

      Well, it sounds like you might have the rare case where it does indeed work. If you're readers are hooked by that flash forward and now they care about both POV characters, then it's doing its job. :)

    2. Thank you, Janice, for your comment. Given that I have taken three roads to the end, the structure of my novel has been a journey. I've learned from the shuffling of the deck process. Often it was fun to see what it looks like taking a different road to the end. And then sometimes I wanted to pull out my hair. LOL. Never the least I love my novel and will continue to explore ways to strengthen the story for the reader.