Why Starting With a Flash-forward is Cheating

First, definition. A flash-forward is when the story jumps forward from the present time (you know, like a flashback, but the other way around).

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Now if the reader keeps going, they'll eventually get over that feeling and get invested in this new present. But not all readers will keep going. The trick to hook the reader doesn't always work.

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:
  1. 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).
  2. Be intentional about what you reveal in the flash-forward.
The Firefly episode "Out of Gas" is a great example of flash-forward (seriously, go watch it RIGHT NOW). Part of why it works is because we see so little. We only know that the ship is dead in space and everyone is gone except the captain (who's bleeding from a stomach wound). So not only do we want to know whether the captain will live, but we also want to know how things got so bad to get him in that state. Where is everyone else? Are they dead? Who did this to them?

Have you seen flash-forward done well? Where (and why, do you think)?


Andre said...

The movie Veronica Guerin starts with a flash forward. In said flash forward, she gets murdered. I feel this works really well as it lets you focus more on why she dies rather than wondering whether or not she dies. Probably another large contributing factor to this being ok is that it's a historical/based on fact movie, and historical movies seem to be able to get away with that a lot easier than most would.

Steve MC said...

Battlestar Galactica did this a lot and did it well - an opening scene and then "Three Days Ago."

But it sounds like Firefly did it first. Don't remember that episode, but will check it out later on YouTube.

And oh yeah, the series Flash Forward, suitably enough, started the first episode that way.

Lindsay Kitson said...

Nnedi Okorafor's "Who Fears Death" (won a ton of awards) starts with a short flash forward. I think it's used more as a framing device, to give the reader a clear idea of what to expect from the story. It's not a firefly style flash forward at all, just one scene, but she only introduces the main character, no other characters, and doesn't introduce the main antagonist, so it doesn't spoil anything.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Oh that ep of Firefly was sooo good. But in the hands of any lesser mortal than Joss Whedon, I think this device is REALLY hard to pull off. Even my fav crime show NCIS does this on occasion and it's just no good.

This is also the reason I really don't care for prologues.

Cap'n Heine said...

The TV show Revenge did this on the first episode and then did it again on the episode that caught up with that flash forward. Sort of a "Here's some clearly interesting twist to look forward to" and then "Remember that twist we showed you? No? Here's a reminder". I thought it was done really well.

Anonymous said...

Twilight does this well. The flash-forward was vague enough, I think, to pique your interest without giving anything away. (And yes, I'm a Twihard and not ashamed of it.) :)

Steph Sessa said...

I've actually been struggling with this idea for a while! I've been toying with the idea of how to set up the fantasy world and the flash-forward seemed like a good idea, though I've been re-reading it and think it might be off, most specifically because it takes out a lot of the tension. Thanks for the post!

vic caswell said...

a million times yes, this post

Nancy Thompson said...

I can't recall any books I've read with flash-forward, but I do watch Southland every week and they always start with a tiny little glimpse of a scene that takes place about 2/3 of the way into the episode. It used to confuse me, but now I know what I have to look forward to. I think the point is to tease with the slightest glimpse possible.

Peggy Eddleman said...

Ah! That's so funny! As I was reading, I was trying to think of times when it really did work, and "Out of Gas" is the only one that came to mind. SO VERY WELL DONE. Oh, my gosh. It should be the text in how to do it well. Or maybe the reason why it shouldn't be done, because non-Joss mortals can't pull it off.

Melodie said...

I agree with Nancy - flash forwards work much better visually. Unless you're writing a sci-fi time travel, tho, I'm not sure how it'd work as a hook to a hook.

Matthew MacNish said...

I used to have these bits in my novel - not exactly flash forwards, and I didn't open with one, but notes from my MC's journal after he's grown into an adult. Then in a phone conversation with a potential agent, she pointed out something that really was a head slapper.

It took all the tension out of nearly every action scene. Not that life or death is the ONLY kind of stakes that matter, but knowing for absolute certain that the protagonist lives - because he later writes these journals - pretty much takes death right off the table.

Carrien Blue said...

The other good flash forward in Firefly starts with the captain sitting naked on a rock in the middle of a desert saying, "Well, that went well."

I don't remember what the episode was called though.