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.