story craft #16 Flash-forward Openings

MJG Story Craft, Writing 0 Comments

What do you think about stories that open with flash-forwards?

Consider the movie Fight Club.

Ed Norton brandishes a gun and conducts a bizarre conversation with Brad Pitt. They are in a dimly lit skyscraper looking out over a city’s night skyline. We are totally engaged and intrigued. What the F is going on? Who are these guys, and why are they talking like this?

Smash cut- and we’re yanked back to the beginning. If we want answers to our questions, we’ll have to watch the whole movie.

push / pull

Let’s call this a pull opening, because it pulls you through the story rather than pushing you. It’s a little flash-forward that acts like a teaser trailer for the main event to come. Perhaps it stands in for a weak push opening- the more regular inciting incident that kicks off the story actual. It dangles the best carrot the story has before us, just out of reach and barely comprehensible, and makes the promise that all this will be ours.

It’s a standard enough plot device that we’re all familiar with it. I spotted it used recently in Limitless.

Bradley Cooper stands on a high ledge freaking out, psyching himself to jump, while behind him a door gets smashed in and he vows something like “I’d rather die than let them have it.”

Smash cut to Bradley all dowdy in the role of ‘failed writer’, and a slow burn beginning.

It’s a common technique, but is it any good?

Pull Opening PRO and CON

Pull sets the stakes and excitement from the start, intriguing us in the characters involved not because we know or care particularly about them, but because they’re in extreme situations that intrigue us.

In both of the above examples, the hook is suicide. Why would anyone commit suicide? It’s a strong hook, one that we are probably hard-wired to want answers to, especially if the person is seemingly lucid at the time. Would the suicide of Virginia Wolfe in The Hours work as a pull opening? No, because we’d be cheating ourselves of the enormous emotional pay-off, since her suicide is so integral to her character’s development. It would also-

Remove the tension

Flashforward / pull openings can suck a huge chunk of tension out of the air. Sure- we don’t know what will happen AFTER the point we’re shown, but everything up to that point is rendered pretty inert. Obviously the characters will survive that far. Pull stories make the story discontinuous, and leave us with a puzzle to be unlocked rather than a true investment in the central characters.? We are not rooting for them, we are just waiting for the puzzle to be resolved.

The puzzle being- how did they get to that point?

We watch to find out. In effect, the storyteller is telling us- my characters and story are just not interesting enough on their own- so here’s a puzzle to chew on.

Flashforward fails

– 1. An easy fail is the self-titled, canceled TV show flashforward, whose whole premise depended on pull. There was a flashforward for the whole world, lots of exciting special fx as everyone passed out, with choppers crashing and the like, and then… what? Dull characters with dull lives, and not really much of anything to do but keep on going on about the same flashforward. It screwed itself as a TV show, since TV shows hope to last for seasons. Can we the audience really wait for years and years to find out what the F is going on?
Answer, no.
– 2. Not a fail next, but a contrast. LOST, though more packed full of narrative gimmicks than a Pinata, did not open with a flashforward. It opened with a very strong push, the plane crash on a desert island. Such a strong idea that J. J. Abrams went on to re-use the same idea in Super 8. The first season of LOST was all about the fallout of that momentous push, and is considered by many to be the best season.
– 3. Inception. Do you remember this? Of course the whole movie is a Chinese puzzle box- so perhaps it made sense to open in a Chinesey-feeling pagoda, with di Caprio facing off with an ancient Ken Watanabe, having a confusing conversation.
Was the story not convoluted enough, that you had to start with a flashforward?
– 4. Saving Private Ryan. We open (or at least see early on) on an old man standing by a grave. We close with this same image at the end. It bookends the story, possibly misdirects us to think the old man is in fact Tom Hanks, so when the realization comes at the end that its Mat Damon, it has more kick. But is it also kind of a cheat?
– 5. Forrest Gump? We open on Forrest telling his story. I have no problem with this, since its basically just a visual voiceover- not an action-packed trailer to pull us in.
– 6. The Hudsucker Proxy. An early Coen Brothers movie that starts with a character, yup, committing suicide.

Lots more great examples and discussions at this page.

Conclusion

I can’t really argue that flashforwards don’t work. Perhaps they work for a different kind of film- one that is more puzzle than proper story. They do suck our investment in the characters away, and invest us more in plot machinations. Inception may be a prime example of this- that story left me very impressed, but also quite empty on the inside.

Like wise with Fight Club, it’s hard to say I cared about Ed Norton. He didn’t really do anything in the movie anyway. It was more about the world and anarchic ideas happening around him.

I got into thinking about this because of my novel. For a long time I thought I didn’t have a strong opening. I considered throwing in a flashforward at the beginning, to spice things up, but it never felt right. I don’t want my story to be a puzzle- I want it to be a proper, invested emotional journey.

So…

Could Ender’s Game have survived a flashforward ending? In many ways that’s the book I want to write. A flashforward would obviously ruin it. There are definitely problems with setting a certain kind of opening with pull beginnings.

My answer is just- make the push better. That’s what I’m working on now.

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