How do flash forwards work?

Due to popular demand, I’ve been asked to revisit this subject because it seems to be causing a few headaches for quite a number of writers who are trying to grasp how to use them and where to use them in their narrative.
Firstly, flashforwards, or prolepsis, to give its proper name, are quite different from flashbacks, so writers should understand the differences and how each one works with the narrative, specifically in the way they relay information to the reader.

The flashback, or analepsis, that we are all familiar with is a narrative device that allows the character and the reader to step back into a defining moment in the character’s past; one that directly affects the situation in the present. It assists with the main story and can also help move the story forward.  Flashbacks are used for all genres.
Flashfowards, however, cannot be used in most genres. Why? Because the future has not yet happened. Common sense tells us that we cannot write about something that is yet to happen in the same way we use flashbacks, so you can’t ordinarily flash forward. You can, however, foreshadow what may come, as a way of hinting to the reader likely, significant events.

Of course, that does not mean you can’t use them at all, because you can, but unless you are specifically writing a science fiction or fantasy based story, flashforwards play no part in normal narrative.
But why can’t I use one crime love story or my crime thriller? Who says so? What’s the difference?

As with most of fiction writing, it’s not necessarily about writing rules, but rather the use of common sense.
In simple terms, the past is always accessible, because those events have already taken place, so you can flashback at any time. The story logically follows series of chronological events.

The only time you can flashforward, however, and break chronological events, is if the genre and type of story allows it – i.e. sci-fi or fantasy stories, or stories of time travel, where the realms of physics - space, time and dimensions - can be manipulated to suit the story.  They are not bound by normal conventions.
If you were to write a flashforward into your conventional genre crime novel, romance, western or historical novel etc, then you would be breaking the order of chronological events by showing a future that is yet to happen and therefore killing any sense of surprise for the reader, and plot twists would be pointless.

As already pointed out, you can allude to future events by using dream sequences or a character’s personal imaginings etc., but actual moments and events in the future for your characters haven’t taken place, therefore you can’t forward wind to those points.
So how do they work?

They work only if the conventions of the story allow it.

Flashforwards should be handled just as carefully as flashbacks. In other words, the writer needs to understand why a flashforward should take place, and why it is intrinsic to the progression of the story arc. Writers shouldn’t place flashforwards into the narrative in order to make it look good or to simply ‘pad out’ the story. 
Like flashbacks, flashforwards need careful consideration; that means they must be placed at the right moment in the story; they need to reflect what is happening in the main plot in the present, they need to somehow move the story forward and above all, they must make sense to the reader.

If the story needs a flash forward, it needs to directly relate to the main story and themes; it needs to be placed correctly, at the right moment, for the right effect. This is vital to ensure continuity within the story.  
It also needs to directly relate to the main character in the present.

Probably the most famous example of flashforward is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is transported by spirits to visit a future yet to take place. This happens because he has removed normal conventions by using ghosts and time travel to achieve this effect. This falls within the realms of the fantasy fiction genre.
So in other words, they can be used to express future events, as long as the story type or genre allows it.


·        The flashfoward needs to relate to the plot and the main character
·        It needs to move the story forward
·        It needs to be placed at the right moment within the narrative
·        It must relate to the main character in the present

Writing flashbacks can me troublesome, but flashfowards are harder to achieve, so it’s wise to give them careful consideration before you attempt any.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone for stopping by, and to wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a prosperous New Year.

AllWrite will return 4th January 2014.


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