Writing a Flashforward

I’m fascinated by story structure, particularly by stories that are not perfectly linear. I love reading parallel plotlines, stream of consciousness narratives and stories with reverse chronology. I’ve experimented with all of these forms. And that means I’ve written a flashforward.Flashforward

A flashforward is a scene that takes place outside of the current timeline of the narrative. It’s the opposite of the more popular flashback technique. The flashforward is not the same thing as foreshadowing. Forshadowing is usually subtle and often missed by the casual reader. A flashforward puts it all out there, telling the reader that the current timeline of events (if left unaltered) will inevitably lead to the precise future events the scene describes. This scene is often so shocking the reader must learn how current events drove the characters toward this controversial moment.

The TV show How to Get Away with Murder makes fantastic use of this device as a teaser. Once you watch the opening scene it’s almost impossible to stop watching. You must understand how the characters arrived there. Murder mystery writers have been using the flashforward as a teaser/hook for decades, and it’s the most common use for this technique. Not everyone enjoys reading this kind of flashforward, and some writers feel it cheats the reader, or destroys tension by giving too much away. The other popular flashforward is the “where are they now” story ending. Many people don’t consider this type of scene a true flashforward because it’s chronologically appropriate, but it’s such a common scene that I wanted to mention it. Ending with a flashforward in the last chapter can help tie up loose ends. Or it can show how the characters went on to live long and happy lives. Romance novels use this type of flashforward all the time.

Here are 3 other ways to use a flashforward in your stories:

1. To build plot intricacy: Whenever the action moves forward or backward in time, it creates story complexity. While flashbacks can be bypassed by the reader as extraneous backstory, flashforward scenes seldom are because they often include important clues to the coming climax. The skillful use of flashforwards will build up layers of meaning and gives insight into cause and effect. Weaving events from different timelines and/or featuring future characters into one central story narrative helps expand on the nature of these relationships over time. We get to see how they characters grew and changed as a result of their current experiences. LostPosterThe TV show Lost included countless flashforwards, they were tantalizing clues and even red herrings to the show’s final outcome.

2. For comic relief: One of my favorite books is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Addams. This book makes use of a narrative falshforward. While often including events in and out of chronological order, this book still manages to make connections between even tiny events in strange and thought-provoking ways. sherlock_holmesThis type of flashforward also shows up in the movie adaptation of Sherlock Holmes featuring Robert Doweny Jr. as Holmes. In this film Holmes is often running best and worse case scenarios of his future actions through his head as he puzzles out the clues and decides what actions will produce the results he desires. The events happen rather quickly and seem laughable until Holmes activates his plan and everything falls into place like clockwork.

3. As the incentive for character change: Charles Dickens used the flashforward with his ghost of Christmas future in A Christmas Carol. By seeing his own death and the lack of regard paid to his demise, Scrooge is motivated into action. His character changes in a way that seems impossible when the story opens. Scrooge will now do anything, even make sacrifices in his current timeline to create a disruption in his destiny. The knowledge of future events, revealed by means of a well-placed flashforward can create some fantastic stories.

A few other examples can be found in: Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to name a few. For more examples check out TV Tropes or Goodreads for a list of books featuring multiple timelines, which often include the use of flashforwards.

Do you have a favorite book that uses the flashforward? If so please share in the comments.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

9 thoughts on “Writing a Flashforward”

  1. I think the flashfarward is one of the hardest techniques to pull off in stroytelling. Yes, it can create tension and expectation, but it can just as easily kill it. I’ve seen many authors use the flashfarward very poorly and it did kill my enjoyment of the story.

    I think in the end it’s the same as the flashback. We hav eto ask ourseves and very hard: do I really need it? And most importantly, do my readers really really need this?

  2. I’m a huge fan of How To Get Away With Murder. Shondra Rymes (spelling?) does a fantastic job of keeping our focus glued to the screen. She makes it look so easy in all her series. Scandal is another good one.

  3. Thank you for this interesting blog post. What’s your opinion of first or third person narratives where flash forwards are concerned? I think if you’re writing in the first person past tense then your narrator has “lived to tell the tale” and can narrate events with the benefit of hindsight. This means they can hint at things still to happen, thus building suspense. This is harder in the third person without the author coming across as an intrusive omniscient narrator. Kate Atkinson does it brilliantly in “A God in Ruins” though, often moving between past, present and future within the same sentence. She’s a genius!

    1. Hi Margarita, I would agree that it is easier in first person POV. When I think about the ways I’ve see authors do astounding things with a timeline those are often some of the best examples. However, I didn’t mind the narrator jumping in to give me important information. I wouldn’t like it to happen all the time, but I hate the excessive use of the flashback too. Knowing where and when to use one is critical. I haven’t read A God in Ruins, but it just moved to the top of my reading list. : )

  4. Thanks for this. I am tangling with the possibility of one of these in my own WIP. The murder scene without revealing the killer. It is hard! Especially if you have male and female suspects.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I can think of many examples where a character has a drean, prophecy, or vision of the future but incorrectly interpetes it.

    The Canadian television show “Motive” made the use of a flashforward their trademark. It takes the standard police/detective show and turns it on its head by identifying the Killer and Victim in the first five minutes. What could be a gimmick works because we try to figure out the Motive rather than just the identity of the killer. The focus is not forensics but human relations. A Whydunit, if you will.

    1. Hi Robert, I love a good Whydunit! Guessing the motive is always entertaining. I’ll look for that TV show. Thanks!

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