I began the “Reading For Writers 101” blog series (for a full summary of posts, click here) because I believe writers can learn so much from reading books. Well, the same goes for watching television shows or films. Hence, a new series:
Welcome! Today we’re going to learn how to effectively use flash forwards.
A flash forward is a scene from later in the story that the writer moves up front, often as the opening scene, to hook the reader/audience. It’s used in movies (Fight Club, Limitless) and TV shows (Alias, Damages, How To Get Away With Murder) where the story opens with the hero in a perilous situation and then rewinds back to the beginning and doesn’t return to that scene until almost the end of the show/episode/film.
Writers use flash forwards because they are exciting and immediately hook the audience with the question: “How did the hero get into this crazy situation?” But flash forwards are often criticized for three reasons:
giving away important plot points.
not connecting emotionally with the audience.
masking an otherwise boring beginning.
These are all valid criticisms, but there are ways to address these problems, and if flash forwards are done well, they can actually enhance a story.
Critique #1 – Flash Forwards give away important plot points.
You don’t want to rob the audience of the joy of figuring stuff out, or bore them because they know what is going to happen. Luckily, there are two ways to solve this problem. First, make the flash forward short on time and details, so the audience knows next to nothing and has fun trying to figure out how the story will get to that precarious moment. Second, make the flash forward misleading (a red herring), so the audience thinks they know what is going to happen, but it turns out it’s something else. Voila, surprise twist!
Critique #2 – Flash Forwards don’t work because the audience isn’t yet invested in the hero.
The wisdom behind this critique is that viewers/readers don’t care about characters in danger unless they’ve gotten to know them. The solution to this is fairly simple: make it short. If the audience doesn’t yet know the hero, don’t drag them through a long fight or chase or torture scene. We need to be invested to sit through something long. So keep it short (less than a minute for film/TV, or a couple pages for a book), then make the audience care about the hero in the very next scene while the flash forward’s danger is still fresh in their minds.
Critique #3 – Flash Forwards mask a boring story beginning.
The thought behind this is that if your story is strong then you don’t need to start with a scene from later. To put it bluntly, the story must be weak if the only way to hook the audience is with a flash forward. So the feedback that accompanies this critique is: strengthen the story and make the chronological beginning more intriguing. And this may very well be a valid note! Maybe the story doesn’t have a strong hook; maybe that’s why you felt you needed to start with a flash forward. Could you tell the story from the beginning? Would it still be intriguing? If yes, then why use a flash forward? Answer: tone and theme.
That last one is easier to explain with examples, so here we go:
Case Study: ALIAS
#1 – The pilot episode opens with a very short scene in which the heroine, Sydney, is being yelled at in Chinese by her captors. She speaks back to them but we don’t know what she is saying. They secure her and she looks scared. That’s it. Just a short and scary scene that makes the audience wonder what is happening, but doesn’t give any plot points away.
#2 – The very next scene juxtaposes the first scene brilliantly! Now we see Sydney in college, sweet and endearing as she worries about flunking her test. To make us care about her even more, her boyfriend proposes! Now that the audience is invested in Sydney’s promising life, they’re more worried than ever about her because of what they saw in that scary flash forward.
#3 – ALIAS is a spy drama. Yet before Sydney becomes a spy, she is an ordinary girl. This story could have been told chronologically, but opening with college student Sydney getting engaged doesn’t fit the tone of the show. The short flash forward with Sydney in spy mode primes the audience for an action-packed drama.
Case Study: HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER
#1 – The pilot episode opens with four characters arguing about what to do with a body. It’s murder, but the audience doesn’t know anything else, not who is dead, not who killed them, nothing. In fact, the scene ends with the characters flipping a coin to make a decision, but doesn’t reveal the outcome yet.
#2 – In the next scene we follow one of the characters from the first scene, Wes, the boy who came up with the flip-the-coin idea, and are introduced to the other three characters on their first day of law school. Scene 2 also gives us a reason to sympathize with Wes, and now even though we don’t know the details of the future murder, we’re rooting for Wes.
#3 – Like ALIAS, opening with a murder in HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER sets the tone much better than starting with the college campus scene.
Lastly, and most important, a great opening scene presents the story’s Big Question, but does not answer it (because you don’t want to give away any important plot points). So for ALIAS, the big question is: Will Sydney make it as a spy? And for HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, the big question is in the title of the show, and the flash forward opening literally makes us wonder how these four students plan to get away with murder.
Note: I don’t have a case study with an example of a red herring flash forward, but I’ve heard that DAMAGES does this exceptionally well. I will have to watch that show and report back.
So to review, you are effectively using a flash forward if…
It’s short on time and details, or is a red herring.
It’s quickly followed by a scene that makes the audience care about the hero.
It sets the tone of the show.
It presents the story’s big question.
Despite all this, some people just do not like flash forward openings. Janice Hardy over at Fiction University wrote a post about this, and the comments are filled with people criticizing flash forwards, even in ALIAS! So, you know, not everyone likes them. For me, flash forwards add an extra layer of mystery that makes the story even more enjoyable. I can never have enough mystery!
Like so much in storytelling, often it comes down to personal taste. That said, certain writing techniques get a bad rap for legitimate reasons, and it’s important to know why in order not to make the same mistakes.
So armed with this knowledge, go forth and write awesome flash forwards (if you wish). Because frankly, I love them.