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.


Good Things in the Works for “Writing to be Read”

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I’m so excited! There are changes coming for Writing to be Read. Last week I gave you an introduction to the newest addition to the Writing to be Read team, Jeff Bowles, who will be giving us a monthly writer’s Pep Talk. Since that post, even more good changes have occurred, and I’m pleased to announce that Jeff will be migrating Jeff’s God Complex blog to this site and sharing even more valuable content with us, two Wednesdays a month.

For Writing to be Read and its readers, that means Wednesdays will be awesome! Robin Conley will still be providing her Monthly Memo with great writing tips, and Jeff will provide his monthly Pep Talk. On the two Wednesdays left, Jeff will prov Jeff’s God Complex content. Now, if you want to know what God Complex content is, I’m not sure if I can explain, other than to say Jeff’s posts are unique and can go in any direction, but they are usually about writing. If you want to know more, you can check out Jeff’s posts on  Jeff’s God Complex. I think you will see why this is so exciting.

In addition, Jeff has agreed to provide one gaming review per month in the Friday reviews, and I’m hoping Robin will provide one film review per month, as well. Never fret. That leaves room for at least two book reviews per month and will allow me more time to do them. If you want to pick up more writing tips from Robin, or you’re looking for some of her great writing prompts, check out her blog, Author the World.

One more thing that I will be looking forward to, and I hope you will, too, is a series of author interviews I’m planning to run taking a look at what works for each of them. No one thing works for everybody. Hopefully, in these these interviews you will find some ideas that work for you. So be on the lookout for my Writing that Works interviews, which will be coming soon.

Overall, I think these changes will greatly improve Writing to be Read and make it a more well rounded blog by providing a greater diversity in content, allowing me to offer a little something for everybody. I hope you will all drop by frequently to see what’s new. Or better yet, subscribe to email and get notification to your inbox each time there’s a new post, so you never miss on what’s up on Writing to be Read.


Who is Robin Conley?

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It occurred to me that although I introduced Robin Conley as my cohort in the M.F.A. program when she first began doing guest posts for Writing to be Read, I really didn’t give a lot of information about my friend and former cohort, who happens to be a very talented writer with a sharp eye for what does, or doesn’t, make a story work.

When she was introduced in my M.F.A. cohort at Western State of Colorado University, there was one amazing thing about her which stuck in my mind. She had challenged herself and her writing abilities by writing a short story a day for a year, and called it Project 365. Not only did she challenge herself, but she took it public. She got the idea as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University in 2010. Robin explains how Project 365 came about,

“ …we were reading a book of plays called 365 Plays/365 Days by Suzan-Lori Parks… her work inspired me to try something like it for myself to help me push myself to write every day, and to try new styles of writing. There weren’t any rules except that I had to write a complete story every day… as long or as short as necessary to tell the story, but the purpose… was trying something new. I played with genres, new characters, new styles (minimalism, surrealism, literary vs. genre, etc.) In order to keep myself on track, I started a twitter account (@Jminspirations) at the same time and a blog, and forced myself to post every story on the blog and then put a link on my twitter account.”

I found this to be amazing. Talk about inspirational. Wow!

At the time, that’s how I thought of her, the amazing girl who did the short story challenge. But over the past four years, I’ve gotten to know her better and she’s become a good friend to me, and in a way, she’s become my writing partner. We are working together in some of our writing endeavors, including her guest posts here. Through our Etsy store, Writing the World, we offer critiquing and proofreading services. Robin does guest posts for us, besides writing for her own blog. In addition to her own writing, she currently does writing for hire, volunteers as a script reader, and is teaching a couple of classes in screenwriting. (I think she may do some babysitting, too.) Besides being skilled at the craft, she’s smart and witty, and a she has a wonderful sense of humor.

I wanted my readers to know a little bit about Robin, so you’ll have a better idea of who you’re getting your weekly writing tips from. There’s no better way to tell you about her than to let her say it in her own words. The post runs a bit long, but Robin’s answers were so good, I couldn’t bring myself to cut much of them. I’m hoping after reading the following interview, you’ll be able to see a little bit of what I see in Robin, who I’ve come to know and consider a friend.

Kaye: We’ve already talked some about Project 365. How has that writing experience helped shape your writing career?

Robin: Project 365 was a strange part of my life that really pushed me to be a better writer. Every time I thought I wouldn’t be able to come up with a story idea, I somehow found one. It was stressful, and there were a lot of days where I wanted to do anything but write. Sticking with it taught me more about my writing than anything else I’ve done. By the final few months, I’d learned a lot about my process and my writing and I learned how to write no matter what else was going on.

So far, at least 2 of the stories have sprung into novels, and there are at least a dozen others that I also plan to turn into novels when I have the time. Many others I’ve revised and am working on sending out to publishers in hopes of finding a home for them. Of course, there are several that are just pretty crappy and probably won’t be used for anything other than as a “learn from my mistake” sort of thing, but that’s to be expected when doing so much in such a short time.

Kaye: What works have come out of the 365 stories?

Robin: One of my favorite stories that sprung from the 365 challenge is my Tour Guide that was part of my thesis novel, Labyrinth of the Dead, which I wrote for the MFA program. The world she is a part of was a pre-existing place I’d written about before, but the Tour Guide was a new character that I decided to play with while doing the challenge. She works in the underworld as a guide for the newly dead and leads them through the orientation process, so to speak.

Another story that came from the challenge has become a mystery novel, Indecision Killed the Cat. It’s about an anxiety-riddle woman who believes her troubled brother is missing, but no one believes her because of his past history of running off, and her irrational and unreliable way of thinking.

Kaye: In what way, if any has the challenge helped bring you to the point you’re at now?

Robin: Doing the challenge helped me grow more confident in my own writing. It let me explore genres and stories that I had been thinking about, but hadn’t tried writing in.

One of my main goals with the challenge was to help me focus. Before the challenge, I often found it hard to work on longer projects because I had so many ideas in my head and I felt overwhelmed by them or distracted… Now when I go to write I know exactly what I need to do in order to get started, where before I’d waste a lot of time. It really helped me be the writer I am today.

Kaye: What kinds of things influence your writing?

Robin: I’m influenced by everything. I love learning how things in the world work: people, jobs, cultures, nature… I love learning and I love watching how things are interconnected. When I write, it’s all about taking little details and connecting them in such a way that they tell a story. Every part of my life, every little thing I’ve interacted with every day, helps me tell stories.

Sometimes the smallest thing can inspire a story for me because it’s all about perspective. The way someone holds a beer bottle can be significant and inspiring. I know, it sounds silly and dramatic, but it’s true. It may inspire me because of the attitude, or the way the person is interacting with the bottle. Are they gesturing with it like it’s an extension of themselves? Or do they carry it like it’s nothing more than object? These kind of small details can make me start to wonder about a person, and before I know it, I’m no longer thinking about that person, I’m thinking about a character. Every character has a story, and I love finding out what it is. So once I have a glimmer, I have to delve deeper. Essentially, the answer to where stories come from for me, is simple: they come from curiosity. I want to know more, so I write until I find my answers.

Kaye: What’s your favorite genre to read? To write?

Robin: About 60% are books recommended to me by friends or family. I have several people who pretty much give me everything they read because they know I like to check out all types of stories as research for writing. If someone I know wanted to read it, I’m curious to see it for myself. My preferred genres are the classics, urban fantasy, horror, and anything involving zombies. In general, though, I’ll pick up any book that either has a character or plot that catches my attention, and I usually read several books at once. Right now I’m currently reading:

  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • 21st Century Dead Edited by Christopher Golden
  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  • The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley

In writing, I seem to lean toward telling stories that involve some form of fantasy, or something involving horror or supernatural elements. While these types of stories are my favorite, I end up writing in a wide variety of genres because what usually draws me to wanting to write a story is the character or a particular conflict. I like to follow the story and take it wherever it leads me instead of trying to focus too much on one genre or style.

Kaye: Like me, you hold a duel M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with emphasis in both genre fiction and screenwriting. What prompted you to spend the extra year to add that additional screenwriting emphasis?

Robin: I love telling stories, and I love absorbing stories in any form (movies, music, oral storytelling, plays, books, etc.) When I took my out of concentration course for the fiction program I decided to take Screenwriting because it would help me expand my ability to tell stories. The more mediums I am familiar with, the more options I have when I choose to tell a story. Plus, when I took the Screenwriting class I just really fell in love with the visual format and wanted to know more, so I decided to add the extra year in order to learn as much as I possibly could about screenwriting before I graduated.

Kaye: What is the biggest challenge for you when writing short fiction?  Or when tackling a novel length work? • What is your biggest challenge when writing a screenplay? • Have you ever played with poetry?

Robin: Short Fiction – condensing the story. I love getting lost in characters and worlds, and finding a short story is often hard for me. I really have to force myself to focus on one small part of the story and make it matter, without getting lost in the bigger story.

Novels – I think I most struggle with the outlining and preparing to write stage. I hate the pre-writing stuff and always want to just get started, but I find that the pre-writing really helps me write faster and clearer so I force myself to do it.

Screenwriting – During my first drafts I really focus on the plot and getting that to work on the page first, which means my protagonist’s personality often gets lost even though I know it well. Future drafts are often all about bringing that personality out and fixing character stuff, which is a slow and tedious process for me.

Poetry – It was my first foray into writing. It was awful stuff that will hopefully never see the light of day again. These days I simply appreciate poetry and admire those who have the skill. It’s not my strong suit.

Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction, genre fiction, or screenwriting?

Robin: I’m kind of torn on this these days, because I love the visual format of screenwriting, but I also adore getting lost in the world of a novel. I think for me, which is my favorite really depends on what story I’m working on at the given moment and which medium it seems to fit best.

Kaye: Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?

Robin: The main thing I can think of is that in my first draft I really focus on getting my plot down first and writing the motions of the story, while drawing character out comes second. I know my characters in advance before writing, but they don’t always come out on the page well in the first draft since I’m focused on plot. Doing it this way helps me write faster, and gets the plot all out on the page so I can look at it and see what is and isn’t working, because sometimes you can’t tell until it’s written.

I look at it as being similar to drawing. First you do a rough sketch to plan the drawing (outline), then maybe you do the structure of the drawing in black and white (plot), and then you go through and add color (character and finer details). Writing this way lets me really focus on my plots and make sure they are logically sound before I really delve into bringing out the character elements and some of the smaller details that help bring a story to life. The key, though, is knowing your characters really well first so they fit the plot.

Kaye: We’re offering some proofreading and critiquing through the Etsy store. What’s your worst pet peeve when reading or critiquing a book or story?

Robin: 1. When the author writes a character doing something for the sake of getting the plot to go where the author needs it to go, rather than staying true to the characters.

2. When critiquing and someone sends me something that is clearly a first draft and I can tell they haven’t read it over. It’s one thing if we’ve talked about sending the first draft for some specific reason, but it’s another to send something to someone asking for a critique when you haven’t even done a basic revision pass. You may only get one critique, so don’t waste it by sending something that is filled with mistakes you could catch on your own!

Kaye: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Robin: I have a lot of random hobbies and like learning new things, so what I’m up to is constantly changing. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to knit, and relearning some Spanish. In general, I love reading, movies, anything involving animals or nature, traveling, and photography.

That’s it, folks. I hope this interview has given you a better idea of who Robin Conley is, and instilled confidence when she offers writing advice. If you have questions for Robin, leave a comment to this post.

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