Monthly Memo: The Flashback vs. The Flash Forward

 

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In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.

 (Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)

Flashbacks:

A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.

Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:

This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.

 

Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:

This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.

 

Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:

Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.

 

Flash Forwards:

Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.

This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.

Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)

When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.

 

Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:

When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.

 

Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2

When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.

 

Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:

This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.

The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.

 

Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)

This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.

 

Distinguishing Between the Two:

Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening?  To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.

If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.

Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.

One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.

 

Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:

There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.

A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.

The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.

 

Final notes

Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.

Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.

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Monthly Memo: 3 Uses for Flashbacks

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Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”

In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.

So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?

Openings

If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.

  1. You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense.  A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
  2. A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
  3. A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.

 

Memory

Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:

  1. The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
  2. A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
  3. Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.

 

Mystery

One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:

  1. Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
  2. The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
  3. The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.

Final Notes:

The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.

Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Monthly Memo: From Outline to the Page

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Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is taking the outlined idea and turning it into words on the page. It’s great to know that X and Y need to happen, but how do you make them happen in writing? How do you take that character and bring him to life? How do you take that villain and make her fun yet terrifying? How do you unravel those conflicts in words? There are a lot of different methods for bringing a story to life, but here are the few that I find help me the most when moving from the outline, to the page.

Character

Before I begin writing a character I spend some time figuring out at least 3-4 concrete details about his or her personality. I think about their dominant personality trait that people see, their core moral value that guides most of their decisions, and a personality trait that they have that’s a flaw. I also sometimes figure out a minor personality trait that most people may not notice, but it’s a core part of who that character is. Beyond that, I like to find one physical trait I see very clearly to help me visualize the character, and I like to understand at least one solid relationship they have with someone, be it family or friend. The other two things I think you should figure out is what the characters main goal in life is, and perhaps what they’re afraid of.

I think these core details give you enough that you can easily visualize the character and write them well without having to figure out every last ounce of the characters life. These details give you an overall sense of who they are, and as you work out more while writing you can develop the character more clearly. If you need to do more to figure out the character in order to write them, try doing a free-write so you can ease yourself into the character’s voice. If you write 3-5 pages in your character’s voice, you’ll learn a lot about them and find it easier to write the character’s voice for the story.

Setting

To get your setting from outline to page, I think the important thing is to ask yourself what’s important about the setting. What about it is vital to your story? Why does the story need to take place in that specific spot? If you know these details then you know what elements of your setting to emphasize in your story. The more important a detail is, the more you want to describe it unless you’re trying to keep it subtle for some sort of plot reveal. At the very least, when writing a setting I feel you should give enough detail about it to help create a solid visual image in your reader’s head. You want them to be able to visualize where the characters are, how they’re moving throughout the scene, and why we’re in that specific place.

Plot

The hardest part of taking your outline and bringing it to the page in my opinion is how to portray the plot. You have your outline that says “Amy goes to the park. Amy runs into Ryan. They fight. Amy leaves upset.” If you write it that way, that’s an incredibly short story and has no real depth or development. So how do you write that short sequence of events and make it interesting? What parts do you expand on and what do you rush through?

For the first step in your outline “Amy goes to the park,” you want to show Amy’s mindset, give a sense of the setting, and establish some form of a goal for why she’s going to the park. Is she meeting someone? Is she trying to find some privacy? Does she have a kid she’s taking to play? Set the tone of the scene, and choose your tone with the thought of how it will change in the upcoming scenes in mind. Then as you go to the next scene, “Amy runs into Ryan,” start thinking about the implications of that scene. How does meeting Ryan change Amy’s mood? How does their interaction start? How do they meet up? On purpose or accidentally?

As you go into the final scenes, “They fight, and Amy leaves upset,” start to think about how to transition there as well. What upsets Amy? How quickly does she leave? What’s the environment around them look like? The questions can go on forever, but it’s important to focus on things that involve the tone, the setting, the characters, and the sequence of events.

Final Notes

If you’re really struggling to transfer your story from outline to page, remind yourself that a story isn’t just about action and a sequence of events. The details you bring out in the story will help take your story from an outline of X and Y happens, to something that has depth and is fun to read. So explore the layers of your story and try to bring them out. Remember, it’s often easier to remove details if you put too much rather than trying to add more later on. So write and explore, and see what kind of story evolves.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.