Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
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.
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. The 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. This 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.
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.
View all posts by Robin Rivera