Second, clarification. Flash-forwards by themselves are not cheating. They're a perfectly valid literary device that goes in your toolbox with all the others. I'm specifically talking about starting a story with a flash-forward.
Third, disclaimer. Starting with a flash-forward can be done well. This post is about why it usually isn't.
Got all that? Let's move forward.
Here's what it looks like. You're reading an awesome action scene. The MC is hunting the villain, terrified that, if she doesn't find him in time, the villain will turn her little brother into one of his Zombie Ninja Minions. She must be on the right track because she is suddenly ambushed by three ZNMs. She beats one off in an awesome display of intelligence and martial arts, but the other two grab her, force her off the edge of a cliff...
The chapter ends. You turn the page, desperately wanting to know what happens only to discover the next chapter starts weeks before. The MC is with her little brother, both happy. Nothing is wrong. There are no Zombie Ninja Minions. The MC is not an awesome martial artist yet.
Writers will often do this to start with action or to hook the reader. They want the reader invested in some moment further in the story so they'll read through the whole beginning to get there. There are some problems though:
- The reader is forced to start the story twice. If your regular beginning isn't good enough, don't add a more exciting one. Fix the first one.
- A lot of tension and surprises are gone. We know about the ZNMs, and so feel nothing when the MC first discovers their existence. Likewise with when her brother is kidnapped. And we know that, no matter what horrible things happen to her between now and the flash-forward, nothing permanent will happen to her until then.
- Even though the opening is a flash-forward -- and the next chapter is the present -- the reader will feel like everything leading up to the flash-forward incident is backstory. Really, really long backstory.
This doesn't mean you can't do it. As I said at the start, it can be done well. Not having done one myself, my tips to do so are rudimentary:
- Your second beginning (in the present) has to hook the reader just as much, if not more, than the flash-forward beginning (just like any other prologue).
- Be intentional about what you reveal in the flash-forward.
Have you seen flash-forward done well? Where (and why, do you think)?