Saturday, August 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Should I Start With This Flash Forward?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 12.

This week’s question: I am considering starting this novel with a scene of main character Kate as she is caught in a rip current, then flashing back eighteen months to the first chapter. Would this work?


Market/Genre: Young Adult

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is a re-imagining of du Maurier's Rebecca, set among teenagers in the Carolina low country.

For a moment I almost convinced myself it was all a dream, or maybe one of the brooding, stormy seascapes Dani painted. The waves were higher now, the foamy white crests crashing upon themselves, rolling under, dragging me under with them.

I came up sputtering and coughing, feeling the rip current carry me farther out to sea. Steely gray clouds roiled against a sky that had suddenly gone dark.

I caught a few fleeting glimpses of Becca’s ghost and knew it was too late. A mailbox was just behind her, its post planted in the waves. She was getting closer, and I strained to hear what she was saying. It all made sense now. I understood the Captain’s message. I knew the Neried and the Charybdis. I knew the shipmate I was supposed to save. It was a shame that I’d never be able to do that now.

A huge wave swept over me, dragging me under and holding me there for what I knew would soon be far too long for me to survive. I thought of my mother and of Amy and Father Bill, remorseful for lying to them, sorry that I’d never be able to keep the promises I’d made. I thought of Gabe and knew this would break his strength and his heart and be the end of him. I was glad Max was such a good swimmer. I’d miss his kisses.

My vision narrowed into a black void, and then into nothingness, and I sank, alone, beneath the wine dark sea.

My Thoughts in Purple:

For a moment I almost convinced myself it was all a dream, or maybe one of the brooding, stormy seascapes Dani painted. The waves were higher now, the foamy white crests crashing upon themselves, rolling under, dragging me under with them.

I came up sputtering and coughing, feeling the rip current carry me farther out to sea. Steely gray clouds roiled against a sky that had suddenly gone dark.

I caught a few fleeting glimpses of [Becca’s ghost and knew it was too late] This could make me wonder about the ghost and why it’s too late. A mailbox was just behind her, its post planted in the waves. She was getting closer, and I strained to hear what she was saying. [It all made sense now. I understood the Captain’s message. I knew the Neried and the Charybdis. I knew the shipmate I was supposed to save.] This feels like a quick summary of some or all of her goals for the story It was a shame that I’d never be able to do that now.

A huge wave swept over me, dragging me under and holding me there for what I knew would soon be far too long for me to survive. I thought of my mother and of Amy and Father Bill, [remorseful for lying to them] now I know she’ll lie at some point, sorry that I’d never be able to keep the promises I’d made. I thought of [Gabe and knew this would break his strength and his heart and be the end of him.] Curious how and who he is I was glad [Max was such a good swimmer. I’d miss his kisses.] Can guess he’s the love interest

My vision narrowed into a black void, and then into nothingness, and I sank, alone, beneath the wine dark sea.

The question:

1. I am considering starting this novel with a scene of main character Kate as she is caught in a rip current, then flashing back eighteen months to the first chapter. Would this work?


This is a tough one, because it’s very subjective. Coincidentally, I just talked about my personal dislike for flash forwards (which this is), so for me, this type of opening would not work. (Readers chime in here, as many commented they had no problem with flash forwards).

(Here's more on why flash forward can be a problem)

The reasons I would have trouble with this in particular, is that I have no context for what’s going on. It’s a faceless person drowning, referring to people and things I don’t yet know as if I ought to know what she’s talking about. I know she ends up in this situation, but unless she dies at the end, she won’t die because it’s first person. So at the very least, I know despite this harrowing experience for her, she survives to tell the tale. I’d guess Max saves her since she mentions he’s a strong swimming, and I assume he’s the love interest.

It also doesn’t give me any story question or plot problem to draw me into the book. “How does she end up here?” is a legitimate question, but without knowing or caring about her, I’ve no interest in knowing the answer. Especially since I know in a flash forward I’m about to jump back in time and start the real story, and none of this actually matters until who knows when in the tale (flash forwards usually have a certain tone to them, so they often stand out). It feels like the climax of the story, and getting to the climax and finding out the answers is why I read a book. Getting a snippet of it first robs me of that fun.

That said…

Stepping back and being objective about this--it's well written, and for those who don’t mind or like this type of opening, I can see it appealing to them. It puts the protagonist in a dangerous situation, and it drops quite a few clues of things that will happen and mysteries to solve. There are hints of romance, conflict, broken promises, and a ghost story. All good elements that could be strong hooks. I can see readers paying more attention while they look for clues that connect to the hints dropped here and try to put the pieces together before the narrator winds up in the ocean.

This is also a retelling, so the original material could play a part. If Rebecca opens like this, or this is a nod to something in the novel, then it could also work well, like a private joke (I’ve never read Rebecca, and all I know is that it starts, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again...”).

Overall, it’s your call. If this is all the flash forward you have (versus several more pages), then it’s quite short and those who don’t care for this literary device can easily skim past it. It’s also easy to cut if an agent/editor (if you plan to go that route) feels it’s stronger without it. I’d suggest going with your gut. Do you feel this is the way it needs to open? If so, do it. If you feel it’s not or something feels off to you, then cut it. Trust your instincts and do what feels right to you.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

6 comments:

  1. This is extremely well written. I've read `Rebecca' and I can see how the atmosphere is similar to the opening.

    The flash-forward in `Rebecca' is actually an epilogue that happens to be placed at the beginning. Its purpose is to explain the ending which would, otherwise, be completely open ended. In your take, does the heroine actually drown, and is the twist the idea that the entire story is her life flashing before her eyes? (That would be cool but sad...)

    I'd say listen to Janice and go with your gut, but be aware of the structural reasons behind the original story choices as you make your own storytelling decisions. (Hope I'm not pointing you wrong. If I am, ignore me. I just geek out a lot. Variations in story structure are fascinating.)

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  2. Hi Chicory, Thanks for your comment. Possibly because this is my first novel, I have been waffling about whether or not to begin with the flash forward. At the moment, I am leaning toward doing so. The novel is complete, and this is my last major decision before beginning to shop it around to an agent.

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  3. Hi, Anonymous.
    I'm sorry, but I disagree with Janice and Chicory about how well written the fragment is. For instance, there are too many "I thoght", "I knew", "(I was) feeling", so it feels like the narrator tells about herself being in danger of drowning sometimes in the past.
    The scene is all visual, and the perspective is wrong. When you're about to drown, you don't see the steely sky and the foamy waves, you only see THE wave that's coming on to you. You don't feel the current dragging you, you feel the wave smashing into you, turning you upside down, and the water rushing into your nose. What was the character hearing? Why couldn't she hear the ghost? How did the water taste like?
    "Sputtering and coughing". This are the only things the character actually does in this scene. Doesn't she want to escape death? The survival instinct should have kicked in and not let her just stay there, at the mercy of the waves, thinking and remembering. Shouldn't she be trying to swim to the shore, or screaming for help, or merely swinging her arms trying to stay afloat?
    In my opinion, this scene should have been written in present tense (even if the rest of the book is in past tense) with a very deep POV. It should make me, the reader, feel the horror and despair of the character facing death, and give me that sensation of sickness you feel when you see someone dying violently right in front of you.
    Instead this text only tells "When I faced death, I realized how wrong I behaved until then, and I found all the answers to previous questions", which is wrong in itself, because: A. it's not author's job to state the character changed, and B. not revealing the answers means the book goes on beyond this point, so the reader knows the character doesn't actually die.

    This is my very subjective take on this. Ignore it if it doesn't fit your vision.
    Lastly, excuse any mistakes I made, not being a native english speaker.




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  4. Hi Saergius, First, as a retired ESL teacher, I complement you on your English language skills. Second, you make some observations I had not considered in writing this scene, and I appreciate your forthrightness.

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  5. As an English Lit and Linguistics person, and an avid reader of everything I can get my hands on, I can't help but add my two cents. Unlike Saergius, I do not think it was badly written. The words are well put together and your sentences well formed. And that is what I have a problem with in the scene. There is no sense of panic or urgency, even though she is still trying to stay above water. While I am reading about the character drowning, I feel absolutely no tension. The character appears mentally at the point of serenity that I wouldn't expect to see while she's still fighting for her life. If she was already dragging along the muddy ocean floor, exhaling her final breath, it would be much more believable for me that her final thoughts would turn to her family and the mistakes she's made. But while she is still fighting for her life, struggling and sputtering, feeling the weight of her clothes and shoes pull her down while her arms are burning to pull her back up above the surface to suck in one more breath, see the sky just one more time, getting a mouthful of bitter, salty water for her trouble? That does not strike me as the time to remember somebody's kissing skills.

    There is also little sense of urgency in the language. I blame the unmarked words.

    For example:

    I came up sputtering and coughing, feeling the rip current carry me farther out to sea.

    I "came up" sputtering and coughing,

    "came up" is a very neutral way of saying what happened here. Perhaps try something like...

    I broke through, or

    I pushed my head above water

    something that conveys the effort it takes to get your head up out of the water when the undertow is givin' it all she's got to pull you down and swallow you whole.

    ...feeling the rip current carry me farther out to sea.

    feeling here is a very passive thing. It makes it seem like she's floating along, letting the current do whatever it feels like. And 'carry' is another unmarked word that doesn't really convey the strength or immediacy of what's going on. How about something like...

    fighting against the rip current dragging me farther out to sea.

    kicking against the rip current forcing me out to sea.

    I also agree with Janice that the part where she talks about it all making sense now reads too much like a summary. Maybe if you tightened it up a little?

    It all made sense now. The Captain's message. The Neried and the Charybdis. The shipmate I was supposed to save.

    Those are just my thoughts while reading this, and you can definitely ignore them. Personally, I'm not picky when it comes to what place in time a story begins. At the beginning, at the end or right in the middle of things. It just needs to be done in a way that makes me want to find out more. If you're going to start at the end like this, I need to feel like I want to know more about this character and how in the world they ended up drowning in the open sea.

    Independent of the flash forward, I am a little leery about having too many characters thrown at me at once from the get go. You are at the very beginning of the novel and I'm already confronted with the protagonist, and Max, and Gabe, and mother, and father Bill, and Amy, and the Captain, and Becca's ghost. Who in the world are all these people? And why should I care about all of them, right now? Can't I, just for now, be worried only about the protagonist and Becca's ghost?

    Again, these are all just my two cents (I give a lot for 2 cents, I'm cheap) as a reader who will devour any genre and subject, just as long as it's a solid story that keeps me guessing what happens next. Keep it up.

    Sabby (sabby g on google)

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  6. Hi all!

    I usually don't comment on the RLDs, but since this particular aspect is being discussed, I thought I'd chime in with why the lack of urgency in the text didn't bother me in this case (when it usually does).

    This was a flash forward to me, being told "after the fact" so it had a retrospective quality to it. Having someone who survived this relay the information calmly felt more normal than if this was happening as the reader read it. In that case, then I'd agree with the lack of urgency comments. The softer, literary style also fit the source material.

    All good things for the writer to consider though, so thanks for the discussion!

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