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Flashforwards... Cliché and how to keep suspense?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by TheokinsJ, May 28, 2017.

  1. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    Hey all (First post in a loooooong time!),

    I wondered if anyone has ever used flash-forwards in their work, and how you managed to do it whilst still leaving the reader with suspense and wondering what comes next, even when they know the future? (A bit confusing, let me explain).

    In my current project, I had originally had the idea that my main character (A thief) escaped from a prison in his past life, and then the story would kick off 1 year after his escape. However, the idea occurred to me that perhaps the story instead, should kick off 1 year BEFORE his attempted escape.

    So... my idea was to have the first chapter of the book be his escape attempt with his friends (ie. the future, half-way through the story), where he attempts to get out of prison- but then during it all, something goes horribly wrong, and then he and his friends are fighting for their lives, and then... end chapter on a cliffhanger...
    Then, the next chapter starts from 1 year earlier, and then from there the story is leading up to that first chapter.

    I've looked around for some advice on this sort of thing; I've seen it done in movies and video games a few times, and I'm sure its been done in books as well, but a lot of advice given out there is generally "Don't tell the reader the future, otherwise there will be no suspense or no mystery or surprise". Would you have any suggestions on how to create suspense and keep the plot intriguing, even though the reader knows the future? Or would it be better to just forget the idea altogether and just have the plot flow in perfect chronological order, rather than having a flash-forward first chapter?
  2. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

    Does Terry Pratchett use a flash forward in Going Postal? I never finished it but Terry Pratchett fans rave over it.
  3. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    I think you can still have tension even if the ending is known. But you get a different kind of tension, and it leads to a lot of dramatic irony.

    E.g. Two people are having lunch in a cafe. You (the reader) know that there is a bomb under the table and that it's set to explode, but the two people at the table don't. Even though you know that the bomb will explode, you don't know all the details that lead to the explosion, and you don't know how the characters will react when they figure it out (or if they do).

    In general, I think the advice of "Don't tell the reader the future, otherwise there will be no suspense or no mystery or surprise" isn't all that important. Having an aha moment over your readers really isn't that important. If anything, knowing the end will INcrease the tension, since the readers are now perpetually awaiting the doom they know will come. Another example, the Final Destination movies. In each case, you know that somebody is going to die, but that just keeps you on edge. It's the same thing with any horror movie; if the redshirt is going down the stairs into the basement, you know that something is going to happen, and that's exactly why the tension is high in that segment. If the monster just pops out of nowhere with no hint that it's going to happen, it becomes a simple jump scare, and the time leading up to the scare isn't tension-filled at all.

    One final example, from my own experience: Sometimes I'd know something about a story before I experience it (through spoilers, blurb, or whatever way), but as long as it's not a twist, it doesn't bother me all that much. In a lot of cases, the 'spoiler' is the thing that makes me want to read the book or see the movie or whatever.
    In I am Not a Serial Killer, the thing that threatens the town is revealed to be a demon. But this is only revealed maybe half-way through the book.
    Before that, John (the protagonist) assumes it to be a human serial killer.
    But that fact is a big part of what made me want to buy the book in the first place.

    In short, I think if you don't go into too much detail in the flashforward (and don't give away any twists), you should be fine.

    BUT, though there isn't, in my opinion, any tension lost by revealing a future event, having a flashforward action scene at the beginning, and then holding back the ending until the end of the book might annoy readers (and having a slow start just after that also). And the false start could have the same kind of effect as a dream start. I.e. "Here's an exciting scene! And now let's go back so far that the excitement is almost nil."
    Ergo, be careful with it. A smoother way to do it might be to play the present and future off in alternating chapters. I.e. Chapter 1 is future, chapter 2 is present (or past or whatever), chapter 3 is future, chapter 4 is present, etc.
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I'd suggest maybe thinking about suspense and mystery as separate things.

    A few Writing Excuses podcasts looked at these and helped me think about them in a different way. Here's one: Writing Excuses 5.4: Creating Suspense | Writing Excuses

    Here's a part of it, in which Brandon Sanderson uses Dune as an example:

    'A great example of this distinction would be Dune. I've mentioned Dune often before because it does some very interesting things. The people who aren't themselves writers don't sometimes notice. Dune, of course, is an omniscient. We've talked about it being omniscient before. One of the fascinating things is when a character walks onstage who is a traitor or a rebel or something, it goes into their heads and they think, "I'm going to betray these people." That... on the books, sometimes, you might say, "Well, that's the wrong thing to do. You're giving away the mystery, you're giving away who the bad guy is, you're giving away all of their plans." But it works fantastically [....] it's giving up mystery for suspense. Oh, we know that this person is going to betray them and that they are in serious trouble. What's going to happen when the traitor comes out? Is he actually going to be able to pull off his dastardly plot or is he not going to? That sense of tension is just wonderful in that story.'​

    In a way...when you give up some of the information early, you can create suspense by causing the reader to wonder how things will turn out. Another example is the old Hitchcock idea of putting a bomb under the table. If you have poker players sitting around a table and you show the audience that there's a bomb under the table, but the characters don't know it, then the audience is going to wonder how it'll turn out. Will someone notice it? Will someone disable it at the last moment? Will some one person escape—walk out of the room to go to the bathroom or answer a phone in the other room? Or if none of these things is likely...still, when is it going to go off, and how much of the current conversation is going to occur before the bomb goes off? Let's say there's another character somewhere who needs crucial information; that character phones one of those poker players; we switch back to that poker game and the phone rings—will it be answered, will that information be given or will the bomb explode before that can happen?

    Edit: Ok, maybe I should relate this notion to your idea, heh...

    Basically, I think you'd need to reveal some things in your first chapter (like the previous example of the bomb, above) and leave the reader wondering what's going to happen.

    In this case, the "what's going to happen" bit is actually what's going to happen through the main course of the story—in the past.

    I don't know the full shape of the story you are writing, so I'll just give an example that doesn't fit your story, heh, by removing those friends in the first chapter.

    Let's say that in the first chapter, during the escape your MC thinks about how his situation's hopeless. He's the only one who can stop the villain—assuming he successfully escapes first. He's entirely alone and he doesn't know if he'll be capable of killing that villain even if he escapes.

    Then, flash back, and events in the past show him meeting up with and joining others who are committed to stopping the villain. During the course of the past events, he grows very close to these people. Maybe he falls in love with one. Those others have very emotional reasons for killing the villain; they are lovable characters; etc. The main parts of the book, those happening in the past, are the struggles of these characters, doing heroic things, desperately trying to succeed.

    But...because we readers know after the first chapter that the MC is alone, the only person left, we might be in a state of suspense because we don't know how things will turn out. Are these other lovable characters dead? Have they had a major falling out? Have other dire situations occurred that forced some of them to abandon this main quest?

    By the time we reach the present again, we might also be wondering whether the MC, barely escaping the prison, will be able to succeed. Maybe if the other characters, though full of exuberance, highly skilled, etc., have been swatted aside, our level of tension and suspense will be even greater now: escape from prison might be the far easier task. Killing the villain might indeed be impossible.

    (Don't know if this helps; just trying to give a general idea for how it might work. If those same friends are also involved in the escape in the first chapter, maybe other things would be revealed in that chapter. Maybe one of those friends is a traitor; at the end of the chapter, the cliffhanger is that friend killing one of the other friends or sounding an alarm for the guards or whatever. Then when you go back, the reader knows this friend is a traitor the whole way through and may be wondering the why of it, why's he a traitor. He could even be shown as sympathetic, lovable, whatever, so we wonder about his arc, i.e., how he changes into a future betrayer.)
    Last edited: May 28, 2017
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar


    Perhaps another route would be to reveal the MC near the end of his character arc, then when you flash back he's substantially different. A reader might then be curious to see the shape of his arc, how he moved from point A to point Z.

    For example, after you've shown him in the midst of that prison break, desperate, in the dire situation, trying to keep his friends alive, the first lines of the next chapter, in the past, might be something like this:

    Rattinger Borval, master thief of Haptown, had never so much as been spotted stealing a purse or kerchief, let alone been caught and put on trial. He watched the young street thief being hauled off across the street, struggling vainly against the burly watchman, and snickered. Even as a boy, Rattinger had known how to use the clutter and bustle of the market to avoid detection, how to step lively and wait for the right moment. Rattinger had been no ordinary thief, even then. He had no sympathy for bumbling fools.

    Basically, you'd be showing how the arrogant, self-interested and selfish thief ended up being caught and how he changed into the sort of person who'd fight for others (his friends.)

    I don't know how well this would work. Would simply beginning with the arrogant thief and gradually showing the change as events unfolded work just as well? (Note: not that I'm suggesting your thief even has this particular arc, hah. Just an example.)

    I think all these examples raise the same question. I'd think that some very specific reason for the early reveal would be necessary. Also, probably that early reveal would need to be of the sort that would color all the rest, be necessary for all the rest. Something the reader would keep in mind. (It could be forgotten otherwise, as the full book proceeds.)
  6. Russ

    Russ Istar

    Oddly enough I have a friend who has a novel out called "Flash Forward" that got turned into a TV series. :D

    But more directly to your question I think FF's can be a great technique and might even suggest they are a tad underused. They hook readers in and they want to find out how the character got to that interesting place in the FF. Done well they create curiosity about both the time before the FF scene and what will follow it.

    I think it is a good technique and commend it to you.
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Everything is good so long as it works. Personally I am not a fan of flash forwards, but they can still work. D.O.A. with Dennis Quaid. In TV series, such as Bones or NCIS you see these, and they can be fun to break the monotony of the typical drama structure, but they always make me say ugh. With no offense to Russ's friend, I wouldn't even tune into a show called Flash Forward nor even pick the book up. If I picked up a book in B&N and found the first chapter was a flash forward, it'd better be damned good for me to buy it. But if it is damned good, well, great.

    Most of the time they come off as gimmicks to me. So, on this rare occassion I'll disagree with Russ. And every time I've seen them in unpub'd WIPs, they're a real bad sign, someone trying to cover for something.
    Last edited: May 28, 2017
    Devouring Wolf likes this.
  8. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Sage

    Personally, I'm fine with flash forwards as long as they're not done in such a way that it seems like the author just so there can be some big twist at the end. You know, like when the first scene of a book is a Flash forward and it hints that one of the character's has died but at the end it turns out that wasn't the case. Or when you flash forward and one of the character's has turned evil, but then at the end it turns out its just all part of the plan.

    I don't mind those kinds of twists in general, but I don't think they justify a flash forward. I don't mind stories that start in the present and then spend most of their time in the past explaining how they got there. I just think flashing forward just to trick the reader, feels kind of cheap. Maybe that's just me though.
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    You're friends with Robert J. Sawyer? Nice. I loved his book Rollback.

    Any way, back to the thread. There's nothing wrong with revealing the future. Its how well you handle it that matters. IMHO revelation should bring up compelling questions, just like a story being told in normal chronological order. If the future gets revealed, you don't want your readers to just shrug and not give a darn.

    One of the reasons that flash forwards work well on TV is the audience is for the most part invested in the characters already, so the flash forward doesn't have to work on selling your characters as hard, and it just has to be interesting enough because people already know what that particular show is about.

    With a book, you won't have that sort of buy in from the audience or familiarity with the story concept. So, that flash forward will have to sell the characters and the story and present the reader with a compelling reason to stick around for the lead up. Not only that, you have to make sure the reader isn't thrown for a loop when you jump back to the present.

    You don't want your reader turning to chapter two and frowning because they think they might have missed a chapter or that somehow there was an error in printing.

    But like anything in writing, if you execute it well, it's a great story choice. But if you execute it poorly, it's a cheap trick.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  10. Eric Hawke

    Eric Hawke Dreamer

    If you can make the reader ask "but why? how?" it should mean the flash forward works.
    Maybe, say, during the escape, one of the main characters betrays his friends, leaving us pondering why he would do that. Furthermore, you want to reveal bits and pieces of the answer to this mystery throughout the story, so that there's a satisfying progression to the question the flash forward poses. The tv-series Bloodlines comes to mind, where someone - seemingly - kills their own brother. It gives every scene with this character some extra tension.
  11. Russ

    Russ Istar

    Yup. Rob and I go way back. You should look up where the idea for that book came from. It is a very touching story.
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Many's the time I've thought a sticky could be added to the Writing Questions and Worldbuilding forums:

    If your question is whether something can be used successfully for a story, the answer's always Yes.

    If your question is whether something should be used in your story, the answer's always Yes, No, Maybe.

    I do like the questions like the OP's: How to do something, what methods work or don't.

    I like the idea of flash forwards, but I don't know if I'll ever use one. Well, I kinda take that back, because my current WIP opens up, chapter one, with the MC waking and trying to remember a dream. The dream is mildly prophetic—I'm using it as foreshadowing. He falls back into the dream, falls asleep again briefly. But its details are vague, as many remembered dreams are. So a type of flash forward, even if not the sort the OP's asking about. BUT, I'm about 80% certain I'll end up deleting those two paragraphs or cutting them to a single line that doesn't have so much weight.
    Last edited: May 29, 2017
  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I'll use anything if feels like it'll work.

    I do have a 1 page intro, kinda-sorta prologue, which my editor talked me into. She wanted something fairly traditional, I broke the mold a bit. It's a monologue that fits in before a character awakes in an unusual circumstance several chapters and days after the first chapter. Which is also the first time we meet the character the voice is speaking to. I would have to call it an opening monologue that happens to take place a few days after the story opening and it serves as a prologue of sorts. I call it A Forgotten Voice for short, heh heh. This is as close as I've gotten to writing flash forward, but I wouldn't discount using it... but I'd need a real good reason.

  14. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I tried googling this up, and the only thing I could find was this interview. Author Tour Stop - Robert J. Sawyer - ROLLBACK - Norilana

    It's just brief statement where he talks about feeling years younger after losing weight, which I can totally connect with. Is this it or should I dig some more?
  15. Russ

    Russ Istar

    Yeah, it can be a little hard to find. Let me give you the outline.

    Rob is a prolific, talented and kind writing teacher who really invests in his students. That is how I got to know him. I did a week long course with him more than 15 years ago and we have been friends ever since.

    Anyways, Rob had a student in Calgary who discussed the high concept behind Rollback with him at a retreat they were at together. He told her he thought it was an amazing idea and suggested the plot twist that became the centre of the book to her. Unfortunately shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and would never write this book. Rob and Robyn and her husband had discussions about bringing this idea to life and Rob ended up writing the book with their gracious permission. Robyn was a great lady and is still sorely missed.
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  16. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Flash forwards can be effective when used to subvert reader expectations.

    Imagine your character, in a flash forward, performing actions that would lead the reader to believe she is a highly skilled cat burglar. The main story body after the flash forward might back up that assertion, but through the course of the story the character undergoes a change so that when we arrive back at the time of the "caper" depicted in the flash forward, it turns out the character is doing seething quite different from thievery. She's returning something she once stole.

    Here's another, taken from the hit TV show Breaking Bad...

    Every episode opened with cryptic images that seemed unrelated. By the episode's end, the viewer learns the connectivity between those images. It's a clever way to pique curiosity and give viewers the enjoyable task of forming those connections as the story unfolds. Granted, television is a different media, but the concept remains the same.
  17. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    Of course it always depends on execution. If not executed well, I as a reader will feel like you're flashing back, not forward, and I'm going to be anxious for you to return to the "present" (what you're thinking of as the "future"). After chapter one, I'd be thinking I was reading one very long back story dump while waiting for you to get back to the "present" of chapter one and get on with the story, especially with a cliffhanger ending for chapter one.

    I've tried reading other books set up like you describe, and I can't remember an instance where I actually finished the book. I told one author I stopped after four chapters, and he told me, "but you were almost to the good part." Well, the first chapter had me hooked, but then the line was cut for four chapters. Not nice. If you're going to set the hook and then cut the line, you better have another hook set up immediately.
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