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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As head of security for the recreated Saints and Sinners, it’s Luca “Lucky” Luchazi’s job to keep the brass and the clients alive when a series of mysterious accidents befall the casino, starting with the death of his friend and mentor, Charles Vega, the previous owner of Lucky Sevens. But Luca isn’t feeling so lucky anymore. The casino has changed hands, changed its name and changed everything, the woman he loves won’t speak to him, and if things don’t change, he’ll be out of a job, or maybe out of his life.
Many of us have visited Vegas and seen Sin City with the cast of neon to dazzle our view. Lucky Sevens, by Cynthia Vespia, tells the story from the inside view, the angle few of us ever see. It’s the story of those that make keep the cogs moving any way they can and try not to get caught up in the machinery. When it was Lucky Sevens, run by his friend and mentor, Charles Vega, it seemed like a pretty good place to be. Now, he’s not so sure. The new boss is connected and has big corporate money behind him, the mysterious deaths that have occurred in the hotel lately all seem to be connected and black magic seems to be in the air. It’s up to Lucky to uncover what is really going on, but the question is whether he can do it before his luck runs out.
Lucky Sevens is an entertaining read that offers a different perspective on the Vegas scene, showing that it isn’t all bright lights and cash flow. Everyone wants to come out with the winning hand, even behind the scenes where the stakes may be higher than anyone realizes. Take a walk through the Vegas underworld with Lucky Luchazi, but tread carefully. You never know who’s lurking around the next corner, who can be trusted or who’s going to come out on top.
Wow! It’s 2014 and I just realized how long it’s been since I published here, I’ve been busy earning my degree, along with the many other demands that life places on all of us. But hard work and dedication pays off. In fact, since I began the MFA program at Western State Colorado University, I’ve produced rough drafts for two novels, which I’m now working on revising. The first is a western, Delilah, and the second is a middle grade mystery, The Adventures of Ann and Kinzi. I’m currently working on a mythological fiction/fantasy/science fiction novel, with the working title, A Playground for the Gods, which I’m considering using as my thesis.
Delilah is a tough young woman who grew up on the Colorado frontier. On her way home to the San Luis Valley, she’s brutally raped and left for dead, sending her on a quest for vengeance. Her hunt for her tormentors leads her to the Colorado mining town of Leadville, where the colorful inhabitants work their way into Delilah’s heart and give her hope for a future she’d thought lost along with her innocence. Now she must stay alive and protect her new-found friends as she faces the many dangers of the western wilderness and the outlaw elements of the growing new Colorado territory.
The Adventures of Ann and Kinzi is the story of two young girls growing up during the depression. Their shared love of animals and the fact that they’ve both lost their mothers are the common ground on which cements their friendship. When strange things start happening at the McViddie farm, where they care for the horses, and one of their classmates disappears, Ann and Kinzi set out to solve the mystery and save their friend, but they must do it without being caught by the kidnapper themselves.
In A Playground for the Gods, Inanna is the goddess of love and war on a quest to save humanity. The foolish judgement of men and their misuse of the technology the gods have provided have brought them to the brink of self-destruction and convinced the gods that humanity is not ready to receive the secrets of long life and powers that would make them godlike. They’re preparing to find a new planet on which they hope to find a new species to bestow their gifts upon. Inanna must prove that humans are worthy of their godly gifts, and convince them not to leave humanity in such a mess.
That’s it. That’s my excuse for neglecting this Writing to be Read blog. Now all I can do is ask forgiveness from my readers and offer the promise that if they stick with me, I promise to blog on a regular basis in the coming year. I don’t foresee that I will abandon novel-writing, but I do plan to try to organize my time better, so I’ll be able to commit to at least two or three posts a month. I hope you will all join me for the journey.
I’d also welcome any feedback on which of the above stories capture your interest and why. Comments are always appreciated.
My husband asked me to help him build a storage shed and I agreed to the task. How hard could it be, right? Except that I am not a carpenter, and I was committing time away from my writing. Well, that’s not true either. I’m never very far from my writing. I’m always thinking about my writing in my head, even when I’m physically occupied with other tasks. So, although I was out hammering nails, my thoughts kept straying to how building this shed related to the YA mystery I am working on for my Genres II class.
The good solid twang you hear when you hit the nail head on reminds me of the feeling I get when I find an element the story is missing and added it in, knowing I’ve nailed it, (pun intended). But more often, I don’t get that direct hit, the story elements shooting off pell-mell into the forest, like the nails that I miss, or curling up like the nails that hit knots and won’t be driven forward, and I have to keep going at it from different angles until I am able to drive it home.
The story is sort of along the tradition of the Nancy Drew mysteries, with two young girls, growing up in the 1940’s as the protagonists. The story is three-quarters of the way finished, but I keep second guessing myself on what it is lacking. As I begin to pound nails into a new wall, I notice that I am starting on one side, with the intent to work my way to the other, yet I begin halfway up from the bottom corner. I wonder why I chose to start where I did, and it occurs to me just how many different places there are to begin on this wall, just as there is in my story. There is no hard and fast rule that a story has to start at the beginning, just as there’s no law that says you must start nailing a wall from the top right hand corner. With the wall, where I begin won’t really make a lot of difference in the end, but with my story it might. I toy with the idea of changing the point where I begin the story until I’m abruptly brought back to the here and now by the throbbing in my thumb after I missed the nail and hit it with the hammer. All these thought about writing are very distracting, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
I’m afraid of heights. It’s a fear I’ve been dealing with for the past thirty years. I believe the official term is acrophobia, from the Greek words that combine “summit”, “edge” or “peak” and the word meaning “fear”. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines it as an “abnormal dread of being in a high place”, although I’m not sure I would define it as abnormal. I like to think of it as a healthy fear of potentially dangerous situations. That being said, I am a firm believer in meeting my fears head on and overcoming them. I have forced myself to face this one on many occasions, yet it still keeps rearing its ugly head to challenge me.
When I agreed to help with this project, I knew that at some point I would be required to climb a ladder to help with the roof, but we weren’t to that point yet, so his request that I climb up and slid across the ladder he had positioned across the top, extending from one side of the building to the other to nail in a small board caught me by surprise. I had gone for four solid hours and was tired when I started out this morning, and I couldn’t muster the energy to fight off my fear. Instead something inside my brain just mentally snapped.
“Oh, no. Oh, no,no,no,” I said even as I picked up my hammer and nails and began to climb the ladder with tears streaming down my face.
“What? Just climb up there and pound in a couple of nails. What’s so hard about that?” my husband asked, absorbed in whatever he was working on and not really paying attention to my reaction.
“I’m going,” I said.
There must have been something in my voice that made him look up and take notice. “Are you crying?” he asked. “Really?” He was puzzled by my reaction because I usually just buckle down and do what needs doing in situations like this, without making a big deal of it.
I swung my legs over the vertical ladder and slid my butt across it. “No, I’m fine,” I said, hammering in two nails as quickly as I could. When I turned to slide back the way I had come, my body didn’t move. I was temporarily frozen. I’d had this happen before when I climbed out under a large cement bridge that spanned the Colorado River to get pictures of my party of rafters, so I knew eventually my body would respond to my minds commands to move, once I got control of my fear, but knowing that made the experience no less terrifying for the moment.
“Wait, I’ll get a picture of you up there,” my husband offered.
“No!” I said.
“It’s okay,” he replied. “You look good up there. Just stop crying a minute and look up at the camera.”
Having my picture taken was the last thing I wanted at that moment, but as I was stuck for the moment, there was nothing to do about it. So, I wiped the tears from my face and resolved myself to the fact that I would have a photo to capture the moment. My eyes remained glued to the top of the front wall however, because every time I tried to look down at him with the camera, I felt my fear rise once more.
“Oh, you decided to come down,” he said, as I finally emerged from the opening that would be the door. He had gone about his business, allowing me time to gather my courage and get myself down from above. “I thought maybe you were going to make a nest up there.”
Now, with my feet firmly planted on the ground, his statement made me realize what a great opportunity I had missed because of my dumb fear and it made me angry. There I was, sitting with a bird’s eye view of the forest around me and I hadn’t taken advantage of it. I’d been too scared to even notice.
That’s when I realized that I’ve been doing the same thing with my memoir. Writing the story of my son’s death and my own grief is a difficult task. There are many issues that the memories stir that I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with. I’ve been putting off doing the research for several sections for this very reason, because I didn’t want to rehash the pain that interviewing the people who knew my son would inevitably produce. My instructor at Western State, Barb Chepaitis, has emphasized that eventually I must face these memories in order to portray the story honestly, and I suddenly realized how right she is. By putting off the necessary interviews because I fear the pain they will bring, I’m depriving myself of the full picture, just as I deprived myself of that high altitude view that would have allowed me to see the world a little differently. Eventually, I’m going to have to do them to present an honest portrayal of the story I need to tell, and by putting it off, I risk losing track of the key players. It’s already been four years since my son died. His friends have all gone on with their lives. They aren’t just hanging around waiting to be interviewed by me.
That night, I got on the computer and sent messages to several of the people who knew Mike, asking for their assistance. Already, I’m going to have to track down some that I no longer know how to contact. Once I have this part of the research done, I still won’t have a finished book, any more than pounding in those two nails produced a finished shed, but it will bring me one step closer to having all the material I will need to do the job.