Saturday, April 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Should You Keep a Flash-Forward Opening?

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.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Eleven 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 10.

This week’s questions:

1. Is it too cliche to start with 1) a despondent person contemplating/beginning to take her life, and 2) at the almost-end of the story?

2. There's no dialogue. How much of a problem is that?

3. Is it OK not to identify her by name until the next chapter, where (hopefully) it's apparent it's the same character, but a year earlier. 


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

DECEMBER 20, 1995

CHAPTER 1


The Atlantic Ocean wasn’t cooperating. It was calm on both sides of the ribbon of road that split the water towards Tod’s Point. Rough waves would be appropriate. Welcoming. She kept driving, amused by her folly of obeying the speed limit. To her right, the drab, gray sky had captured then killed the pale splotch of yellow before it could reach the horizon. Not a sunset worth remembering. Perfect.

Minutes later, speed limits forgotten along the shore of Flat Neck Point, she missed the road’s sharp left turn. The old Volvo went straight and skidded across the frozen dirt path, caught an ice patch and careened towards the ocean. She gripped the wheel, locked her elbows and waited for the impact of the cluster of low rocks ahead. Steel and stone screamed. The front lurched upward and the car jerked to a stop. Steam rose from the hood. Her dashboard dinged in time with flashing red and orange symbols. She wasn’t hurt, which had her laughing. Her door opened with the groan of ornery metal against metal. She slid from her seat, dropped to the ground and stepped towards the shore.

It wasn’t a day for aqua shoes. She needed raw, from the rocky surface against her feet to the frigid water that rose.

She’d abandoned her peace and taken a side.

Now she was here, waiting for the last train from hell.

Was someone calling?

She knew that voice. She’d heard it before.

Once.

My Thoughts in Purple:

DECEMBER 20, 1995

CHAPTER 1


The Atlantic Ocean wasn’t cooperating. It was calm on both sides of the ribbon of road that split the water towards Tod’s Point. Rough waves would be appropriate. Welcoming. She kept driving, amused by her folly of obeying the speed limit. To her right, the drab, gray sky had captured then killed the pale splotch of yellow before it could reach the horizon. Not a sunset worth remembering. Perfect. I like the voice is this. It’s distant, yet there’s just enough of the character to get a feel for this person, and she had a bit of a dry wit.

Minutes later, speed limits forgotten along the shore of Flat Neck Point, she missed the road’s sharp left turn. The old Volvo went straight and skidded across the frozen dirt path, caught an ice patch and careened towards the ocean. She gripped the wheel, locked her elbows and waited for the impact of the cluster of low rocks ahead. Steel and stone screamed. The front lurched upward and the car jerked to a stop. Steam rose from the hood. Her dashboard dinged in time with flashing red and orange symbols. She wasn’t hurt, which had her laughing. Her door opened with the groan of ornery metal against metal. She slid from her seat, dropped to the ground and stepped towards the shore.

It wasn’t a day for aqua shoes. She needed raw, from the rocky surface against her feet to the frigid water that rose.

She’d abandoned her peace and taken a side.

Now she was here, waiting for the last train from hell.

Was someone calling?

She knew that voice. She’d heard it before.

Once.

The questions:

1. Is it too cliche to start with 1) a despondent person contemplating/beginning to take her life, and 2) at the almost-end of the story?


I didn’t get the sense that she was committing suicide. She was clearly doing something and being reckless, but it felt like she had a plan and this was part if it to achieve a bigger goal. I also didn’t get the sense that this was near the end of the story (readers chime in here).

That said…

Starting with “should I kill myself?” is a bit of a cliche. We see it a lot, so it would all depend on what the story was about and why it was starting here.

If this is a flash-forward, then maybe (readers also chime in here). Personally, I don’t care for them and have only seen it done effectively once (the movie Deadpool). They always feel like you’re missing something and they don’t add to the actual story once it starts. Or, they give too much away and you kill the hook that would otherwise keep readers reading. However, this is more common in some genres, such as thrillers, and readers don't mind and even enjoy this device.

Since question #3 mentions starting with the same character a year earlier, I’d said you don’t need this chapter. If this is where the story ends up, why would you want to show it to readers before they care about this character or this situation? Why give away the ending?

As an opening though, it did its job, and I was intrigued by this and would read on. It gave me an interesting situation with enough questions to make me curious to see what happened, and a character I liked due to her wit. But I would be annoyed as a reader when it jumped back a year and made me start over, and then I’d complain about it to my husband and friends (because this is a pet peeve of mine).

So ultimately, it’s your call.

(Here’s more on the problems with flash forwards)

2. There's no dialogue. How much of a problem is that?

For this snippet, it didn’t bother me at all. If this was 5000 words long, it might be a problem. If it was a few pages, odds are it would be okay. This is paced well and moved quickly, with plenty of strong hook lines to feel witty and brisk, and a bit unexpected to hold my interest. Some of my favorite lines:
  • Rough waves would be appropriate. Welcoming.
  • She kept driving, amused by her folly of obeying the speed limit.
  • Not a sunset worth remembering. Perfect.
  • She needed raw, from the rocky surface against her feet to the frigid water that rose.
  • She knew that voice. She’d heard it before. Once.
These all make me curious, and make me feel like there’s a person here behind this character with an agenda.

(Here’s more on hook lines)

3. Is it OK not to identify her by name until the next chapter, where (hopefully) it's apparent it's the same character, but a year earlier.

That didn’t bother me, but by not saying anything, and then jumping back a year, it’s possible to either feel like a new person or make readers wonder why you hid the identity (readers chime in here). If this went on for pages, then I'd start wondering why a name wasn't given and start thinking this didn't matter, as this wasn't the main character.

Overall, this opening is a really good example of good writing that depends a lot of personal preference. I liked this, and would keep reading it, but as I mentioned, I’d be annoyed when it jumped back in time. Other readers would love the tease and have no problems with it at all. And others would skim past this, clearly seeing it’s a fast-forward and knowing none of it matters so go ahead and skip it.

I’m a firm believer in fast-forwards being a bad idea, because 99% of the time, they only matter to those who have read the story. They feel like they should be exciting (because they are when you actually get to them in the book), but until readers know and care about the characters, nothing in the scene actually matters and it’s too vague to pique interest. And if it does pique interest, (like this one does), when the story changes, the reader will feel cheated that the story that interested them isn’t what they thought it was.

So this is a tough snippet to diagnose, because yes, I liked it, but it also has the potential to hurt the actual start of the story. It’s going to be a judgment call on the author’s part as to what they want to accomplish with this opening. I’d suggest asking:

Why do you want to start here? Is this because the actual opening is boring and you want something hook readers until your story "gets good?" If so, fix your actual opening. The same problems will be there to stop readers reading no matter what you stick on the front of the book.

Do you feel this is going to actually create mystery and tension for the story beyond a “I wonder what that’s all about?” way? (be honest) If so, then it might work and you can keep it.

What’s the point of readers seeing this particular moment first? Why is this the first thing they need to know?

If you cut this scene from the opening, what is lost? Do you need that?

Is this moment in the story a moment you want to use to hook readers with as the story builds toward the climax? If so, showing it now means there will very likely be no surprise later, and it won’t work to create the wanted tension.

Only you can tell if this works for your story or not. I’d suggest splitting this between a few beta readers, some with and some without this flash-forward, who don’t know the story to read it and see how they feel about it. If the flash-forward works to draw them in and they have no problems shifting back in time, keep it. If they get hooked without it, cut it. If they like both, do what feels right to you.

Readers, please share your thoughts, as this is a personal preference issue and the author could use multiple opinions to help them decide what to do (grin).

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. I'm generally not a fan of fast-forward openings. If they're good (which this one is) then I feel deflated when the story backs up, which is a bad way to begin a book. The author is then working from a deficit. Too, I tend to view them as code for "My actual opening sucks so I'm putting this in its place instead." Again, a deficit.

    I also understand that some people like them and that's great—for them.

    I liked the writing here and didn't have a problem with the lack of dialog. In fact, I loved the voice. I liked this so much that I'd be dying to know what comes next (and would be annoyed I have to back up a year). From the standpoint of those who like these kinds of openings I'd say, "Well done."

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  2. I think the writing does a good job of getting me invested in the character. I like her wry wit. Didn't have an with no dialogue in this. It still works for me at least. I'm curious to know what led to this moment in the character's life. So, I guess the flash forward worked for me at least.

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  3. I despise flash forwards, in books, movies, tv, the whole shebang. The vast majority of them feel like the writer apologizing for the boring slog I'm about to endure. They're promising something awesome or meaningful is coming and trusting that will convince me to stay, rather than doing the work of making the story interesting from the start.

    If I opened this as a kindle sample, I'd read on. I'm interested to know what happens next. But as soon as the timeline jumped back to the past, I'd delete it. Just the mere existence of the flash forward destroys my trust in the storyteller.

    But you know, what makes one person grind their teeth will entice another. Work on answering Janice's questions about the point of your flash forward. If it strengthens your story, that's what counts.

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  4. I also get turned off by going backward in a story. Pick a lane and drive!

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