1. RabidChipmunk
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    RabidChipmunk Member

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    Beginning a Story With a Flash Forward

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by RabidChipmunk, Apr 15, 2012.

    The story I'm currently working on involves a young woman who finds a ancient stone attached to a necklace, and after she unwittingly puts it on she finds herself dragged into a three-way war for its retrieval.

    My issue is, the beginning of my story is a little dull. It mostly involves my main character sitting on the edge of a pier wondering if she should kill herself when said ancient stone falls out of the sky and into the water in front of her. It works for the story as a whole, but I worry that readers will find it cheap that a story shifts from teenage angst to epic fantasy after said fantastical stone literally falls out of the sky.

    To amend this, I wanted to have the first chapter of my story be a brief flash-forward of an event that happens much later in the story. Notably, the protag's house is destroyed, her brother is killed and she just committed her first murder after someone she long thought to be her friend betrays her. The flash forward would begin right after said murder occurred, with the previous details being filled in, and would end with her realizing that she can't trust anyone and she must never let anyone have her necklace.

    I thought introducing the importance of the necklace, alongside the tragedies that its presence inflicts, would help keep the reader interested. I also thought that the inclusion of some small details (the protag kills her friend with a blue-bladed sword) that are quickly answered towards the beginning (the blue-bladed sword belongs to the primary antagonist, how she actually gets it is revealed later) will help show that I'm not just being lazy about this.



    So for the tl;dr version, how do you guys feel about starting stories off with flash forwards? And if you find them okay, what are some pointers on how to do them properly?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Begin the story with the action. Don't start with the dull parts, and don't go back to them. Toss the dull parts in the compost heap.
     
  3. Phoenix Hikari
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    Phoenix Hikari Contributing Member

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    If the start you've selected seems dull to you then don't go with it. Toss it aside, find something more interesting to start your story with. There is not always a fixed beginning, change it to suit your story and at the same time draw the reader in, that's very important.

    I actually see that starting the story with someone thinking about committing suicide is very boring and off putting and starting it with something from the middle is a good story-killer. Find something in your story that provokes conflict, how did the item come to fall from the sky? were there two things fighting over it and it slipped? was it tossed down by a God or a creature that wishes to see conflict? Maybe you should start from there and not your main character. It's never a rule for you to start with your MC.
     
  4. PeterC
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    PeterC Active Member

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    It works for me. Jumping around in time has the potential to be confusing and that goes double when it happens right at the beginning of the story. That's something to keep in mind.
     
  5. Floatbox
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    Obviously, the turmoil of the suicidal mind can be interesting and worth exploring. If you've ever been to such depths as to contemplate suicide yourself, you know it can be a horrific, profound, surreal experience. However, it is an experience the beginning writer (and suicide is extremely popular with beginning writers) should avoid. It is just one of those subjects that can only be tackled effectively by the confident writer who has something interesting to say about it.

    Also: the only way to begin IMO is to begin with what is emblematic of the story's essence. It can be an idea, an image, a character, an action, a tone - what best represents the story you are about to tell?

    Also: you've got the right idea with how to keep a reader interested, which involves asking questions and promising answers later.
     
  6. Pea
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    Pea super pea!

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    Cogito is right. It hurts, but cut out all the boring scenes and chapters. The book will be better for it.
     
  7. Lenaj
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    Lenaj New Member

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    i like your idea of the story. And for dull parts I have an idea...

    instead of your character looking in water and thinking, you can make here drowning already, so you won't have dull beginning. you can mix her physical and emotional state, and make very interesting story. there you can say what happened with here friend, and why she was in water in the first place. and after magical stone splash into the water she emerges on surface, and story begins :)
     
  8. RabidChipmunk
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    I was iffy on the suicide thing to begin with, and I'm thinking I'll not go that route. I have experienced what it's like to be suicidal, but I don't feel like I can accurately move those feelings to paper without making the character seem too whiny. I know that, sometimes, it's the smallest, most irrelevant things that make you feel like you can't take it anymore, but to people who don't understand what that's like, I don't feel like I could make them understand. So I feel it's best to just write what I know I can write.

    And Cogito, I guess saying that part of the story is "dull" isn't quite accurate. It's not dull as in it's painful to read, but it's simply not interesting enough to grab the reader by the balls right away and say "DON'T YOU DARE PUT THIS BOOK DOWN." I get what you mean when you say that every part of the story must be interesting (I remember you making the shark analogy: stop and you die), but not every part has to be more interesting than the part that came before, right?



    Also, something I feel I should've mentioned, one of the reasons I liked the flash forward option is it that, once I return to the present, I can show the audience how my main character's life was like before the MacGuffin of Doom was introduced. That way the audience can sit back and watch just how it changes her life throughout the course of the story.
     
  9. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd advise against the flash forward. Along with the other issues discussed, a flash forward can have the effect of making the part of the story that chronologically precedes the flash-foward time, feel like backstory. A short prologue of backstory is bad enough; you really really don't want to effectively have chapters and chapters of it.
     
  10. RabidChipmunk
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    Yeah, I'm starting to feel the flash forward is a no-go. So I'll start mulling over my other options, but just for the sake of expanding my abilities as a writer, does anyone know of a good book/author who has used flash forwards well? I've had limited exposure to them and I'd like to see an example of them when they actually work.
     
  11. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    If a part of your story feels dull, but you want the general idea of it in, make it interesting. Figure out what you can do to spice it up.

    As for starting with a flashforward, it can work, or it can be botched, like anything else. So you'll have to use your own best judgment with whether or not it's going to work for your story.
     
  12. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Instead of starting at the suicide or a flash forward, why have you not considered taking the story BACK? Start at the point where your character breaks. What was that last straw that made your character snap and drift off to the edge of the sea, looking to take her own life? This way, you have a chance to make us care about your character, and thus making the "sit around by the sea and think a lot" scene interesting because now we actually care what she thinks, and the dropping of the necklace will be a relief for the readers, we'll take the necklace as good news - just to have you slowly reveal to us its dark side and make us dread it.

    Like in the Hunger Games - Collins didn't start right at the reaping. She started us off with Katniss hunting just to build the premise and sense of the people and the world, so we'd actually care by the time the reaping started and dread for the characters' fates. She didn't start bang on the action point - but she started not far before it.
     
  13. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    *head desk*

    NO NO NO!! That's just writing backstory of the backstory!

    Bollocks to the backstory. If the inciting incident is your MC finding the necklace, make that the opening of your story. How it and she both came to be in the right place at the right time for this occurance to happen is almost irrelevant, but if you REALLY need it, slip it in later.

    Write action, and write forward.
     
  14. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think what Mckk suggested wasn't so much a flash back as a suggestion to begin the story a little earlier, with the event that eventually made the character sit there and be suicidal when she finds the necklace. that way there wouldn't be any need for a flashback or backstory, and the reader would have something that made them relate to the character.
     
  15. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    Yes, exactly - lets go further back in the story to show how the character got to be where she is when the story originally opened. But wait, why stop there? Lets go back further, to show how she became the kind of person who would react that way to the circumstances that led her to feeling suicidal... maybe it stems from an incident at school where she was stood up for prom? Maybe THAT incident brought back the abandonment issues from when her father walked out on her - I know, lets show her as a 6 year old girl waiting for daddy to take her to the park, only he never comes home...

    Lets not start down that road, shall we? Because once you start explaining things by 'just beginning the story a little earlier', where does it end? Backstory doesn't have to consist of explaining past events in the present narrative. It can also take the form of starting your story too early. You have to learn to recognise the impulse to do that, and resist it.

    Start with the inciting event. Write forward.
     
  16. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    well, let's not exagerate here, I'm not saying you have to write chapters and chapters or even pages after page of this, just let the reader know how the character came to sit there when the inciting event occurred. That to me is not backstory, it's just beginning of the action. A page or two would be enough to accomplish this and present the character for the reader. Starting with things plopping down from the sky seem a little too abrupt to me.
     
  17. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    Disagree - a few pages of intro before the inciting incident is the definition of tedium, and absolute death to a publishing deal. But if you DO manage to snag an agent they can probably just lop it off without much ceremony, so no harm done.
     
  18. thecoopertempleclause
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    thecoopertempleclause Contributing Member

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    Agree. You have precisely one page to hook a reader or a publisher. That first page had better let everyone know what the conflict is, what the stakes are and why they should care. Nobody wants to know the story of how a guy became the guy that something exciting would eventually happen to. Despite how films are made, you don't need a diary of your protag's everyday life before something happens to him. If you think that stuff is vital for the character, drop it in bit by bit as you go along (exposition is the watchword).

    Oh, and to the OP: That could work as an opening, only don't do 'wondering'. Have her actually attempt to take her own life, then have something else stop her (fantasy can be rife with outside forces). I'd read a book which opened with the hero stood on a bridge two seconds from stepping off. That's a great arc for a character, someone who's given up on life, but finds a reason not only to survive, but a way to enjoy life again and do something important. But I think it's vital that she's already made the choice to die (middle-ground is for wimps). Then just take your time returning purpose to her. Hell, give her a death wish for the first hundred pages.
     
  19. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I still think you guys take the saying "start with action" just a liiiiiiittle bit too seriously.
     
  20. RabidChipmunk
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    I'm starting to question whether or not to make her suicidal or not. On one hand it would definitely make her a more defined character, but on the other hand I question my ability to discuss suicide in a way that doesn't feel tacked on. We'll see.

    But flash forward or no, I plan on having her story begin with her flailing about in the water after trying to retrieve the MacGuffin rather than have her sit there mulling it over.
     
  21. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why not try a couple of different approaches and see which you like the best, which feels more right? And if you have a critique partner they can probably tell you which of them works best.
     
  22. thecoopertempleclause
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    thecoopertempleclause Contributing Member

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    I think a bit of dark humour goes a long way with serious subjects, although this might just be an English thing. Yes suicide is a serious matter but there's still room for comedy. I for one would consider it imperative to down about a litre of laxatives before killing myself given that when you die, goodbye sphincter grip. I wonder if people obsess about how they'll look when they're found. Couldn't you have the MacGuffin hit her on the head when it appears or something?

    Also, I love it when people use trope language. People who know the difference between MacGuffin and Phlebotinum. On which note, your 'flash-forward' is actually called in medias res.
     
  23. RabidChipmunk
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    Would it technically be in medias res? Because I know in medias res is starting a story in the middle, but since the "flash forward" isn't so much the beginning as it is a hint of things to come... I don't know, I'm not great with literary devices (I had to look up Phebotinum :p )

    But yeah, I love dark humor. If I keep the suicide route, what I expect to happen is she wants to kill herself on the pier, finds the MacGuffin, decides that it'll be her good luck charm (she's just looking for a reason to live at this point), and then nearly drowns trying to get it. Dark humor is universal :3
     
  24. thecoopertempleclause
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    In medias res is when a narrative begins at a point later in the story's chronology, almost always to a place of intense drama and/or action, before reverting to the inciting incident and telling the story of how they got there. Often gives an opportunity to setup expectations which can later be subverted (characters turns evil, character dies are the most common).
     
  25. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    In media res means you are beginning the story where the action picks up. Just switching the order of scenes around is still trying to play the story from the original starting point, but trying to capitalize on the later action to kick start the story.

    The problem is that you are still holding on to the plodding preliminaries. In media res means you chop off the preliminaries and bin them. Where a data item from that time is truly needed, you introduce it when it's needed, but you leave all the fluff surrounding it in the trash.

    The other thing about a flash forward is that it's nearly always used to produce a cliffhanger. Sometimes that works well, other times it looks and smells like a stunt in a cheap suit.

    If you're worried about boring the readers with the preliminaries, you're probably right. And that won't change by sticking it back into the story later.
     

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