I. What is a Flash-forward?
In literature, film and television, a flash-forward is a short scene in which the action jumps ahead to the future of the narrative. It takes a narrative forward in time from its current action. The term arose in literature as the opposite of a “flashback;” combining the words flashback and forward to give name to the technique with the same idea but in reverse. Flash-forwards usually reveal something significant about a character, plot, setting or idea by showing what is going to happen before it has actually happened. They present parts of the plot to the audience that are certain to happen later in the story—in one way or another. Because they reveal action before it occurs, flash-forwards build anticipation in the audience and a desire to follow the story until it reaches the outcome that they know is coming.
II. Example of a Flash-forward
Read the following short narrative:
She woke up to the sound of the ambulance. Her head was throbbing, and her face was resting in a warm, sticky pool. The touched her forehead and brought her fingers in front of her eyes. ‘Blood,’ she thought to herself.
TWO HOURS EARLIER
‘I’m late. I’m so late. I’ll never make it on time.’ she thought to herself. The woman grabbed an untidy stack of papers from her desk, picked up her purse and heals, and ran out the door of her office. Once she reached her car she tossed her shoes and everything else into the passenger’s seat, threw the car in reverse, and sped out of the exit of the car park without paying.
Now, assume that the stories continues from the section paragraph above, leading up to the woman’s accident. The second section is the current narrative. The first section that describes the woman waking up is a flash-forward of the action that will come later in the story.
III. Importance of Flash-forwards
Flash-forwards are important because they reveal significant parts of a story that have yet to occur, which heightens the audience’s interest and anticipation about the plot’s outcome. They are a valuable literary technique particularly in terms of their ability to grab the audience’s attention and build their enthusiasm. Flash-forwards add a creative and atypical element to a traditional storyline by showing what is to come—a thing that most stories strive not to reveal. There is little more exciting in film, TV or literature than knowing what is going to happen to a character, place or thing, but not knowing quite when or how it will occur.
IV. Example in Literature
Perhaps the most well known flash-forward in literature is from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In this story, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; each one takes him to visit a different period in his life. In the following passage, Scrooge and the Ghost have traveled to the future—
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.
The book has flash forwarded beyond Scrooge’s future—in this scene, he is looking down upon his own grave. After this, he and the Ghost return to the present where the story continues in where Scrooge actually exists in time. The future he has just seen, he learns, is only a flash of what could happen—so long as he changes his behavior.
V. Examples in Pop Culture
FlashForward is a television drama whose entire premise is based on a form of flash-forward. In the series, there is a two-minute “blackout” during which everyone in the world loses consciousness; thus when they wake up it feels as though they have flashed-forward in time. This clip depicts the blackout as it happened to the character Janis—
All people who survived the two minutes experienced a vision of the future, which are also depicted as flash-forwards. In this scene, Janis sees herself pregnant and having an ultrasound. When we return to Janis in the present, as she is waking up from the blackout, we see that she is not pregnant—but now, the audience has seen that she will be in the future.
TV series and movies sometimes use flash-forwards to create anticipation in the audience. This episode intro from the TV drama Breaking Bad shows the main character Walter White’s house in a flash-forward of what will come later in the season:
The clip shows the house in an extreme state that the audience has never seen or heard of before. It is clear that this is the future, not the past, because the images—i.e., the two body bags—are too extreme to have never been addressed in the show. It gives the audience a clear picture of the aftermath of some sort of destructive event, but it doesn’t reveal the details. We don’t know who is dead inside the body bags, or how they got there, or if Walt was involved. After this opening scene, the story goes back to the present, leaving the audience waiting with anxiety and anticipation about the disaster they know is coming.
VI. Related Terms
A flashback is a short scene that shows the past, typically by depicting events that are relative to the current plot, setting, or characters. Flash-forwards and flashbacks are similar literary devices in that they both move the narrative from the present to another time. The difference is that while a flash-forward takes a narrative forward in time, a flashback goes back in time, often to before the narrative began. The purpose of flashback is to provide insight and understanding about current events or to assist with characterization.
Foreshadowing is a literary device that gives the audience hints or signs about what is to come, through imagery, language, and/or symbolism. Foreshadowing and flash forwarding are similar in that they reveal things about the future. However, foreshadowing only hints at the future, while a flash-forward actually shows it by taking the narrative forward in time.
In conclusion, a flash-forward is a creative literary device that can add a unique perception to a story. Rather than waiting until the end to reveal a story’s outcome, a flash-forward develops anticipation and enthusiasm about how the plot will unfold; which in turn makes the audience feel more invested in the story’s details.