Flash Forward

Definition of Flash Forward

A flash forward in literature is a scene that take places chronologically after the current action and shows what is to come. Flash forward examples can be real, imagined, projected, or expected scenes that will happen later. The definition of flash forward is the same as that of prolepsis, which means “to anticipate” in the original Greek.

Difference Between Flash Forward and Foreshadowing

Flash forwards and examples of foreshadowing are similar in concept, though have very different functions. A flash forward shows an actual occurrence, often complete with scenery, dialogue, and so on. Foreshadowing, on the other hand, refers to clues that an author gives about what will happen later. Foreshadowing does not include a depiction of the complete scene, but just a sense of a theme that will reoccur, highlighting a minor character who will later become important, or dropping a few hints about how a conflict will be intensified or resolved.

Common Examples of Flash Forward

The technique of using a flash forward example is more common in film and television than in literature. It is generally easier to show the change in time in visuals than in words with a few editing tricks and effects. For example, the recent Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. feature many such examples where Sherlock is able to read a scenario, predict exactly what is about to happen, and act in accordance. The audience sees this flash forward slowed down with a voiceover thinking through each action, then once again the sequence of events in real time, just as Sherlock predicted it.

Several television series also make extensive use of flash forwards, such as the following:

  • How to Get Away with Murder
  • Six Feet Under
  • Breaking Bad
  • Damages
  • Lost

Significance of Flash Forward in Literature

Flash forward examples are much less common than foreshadowing or flashback examples. This is because we all have flashbacks in normal life—it’s a regular occurrence for most of us to see something and be reminded of something else that has already happened. Foreshadowing results from more authorial control, but is still found in many different genres. Examples of flash forward are generally only found in certain genres, however. There must be an element of flexibility when it comes to time and chronology in a narrative that features flash forwards. None of us is able to see into the future so perfectly as to understand exactly what will come to pass, and neither would we trust a standard narrative that would alter the rules of time so as to show exactly what the future will look like. Instead, examples of flash forward are found in some science fiction stories, and novels that deal in the supernatural. Some postmodern novels also use flash forwards to challenge the traditional structure of the novel.

Examples of Flash Forward in Literature

Example #1

“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.

(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

One of the most famous examples of flash forwards comes from Charles Dickens’s classic tale A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits, representing the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. Each shows him pertinent scenes from his life. Through this device, Dickens writes what is to come for Ebenezer; upon seeing the creepy image of his own headstone, Scrooge is finally convinced to change his ways.

Example #2

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

Gabriel García Márquez uses many elements of the supernatural and magical realism in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of which is an elasticity of time. Some characters are able to makes prophecies and predict the future. The very first line, excerpted above with the following few lines, is an example of flash forward because we see a striking image that will come to pass, but which is beyond the chronological time where the novel actually begins.

Example #3

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

(Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut)

Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, is set loose in time, and visits scenes from earlier and later in his life. As the excerpt above shows, Billy doesn’t have any control which part of his life he will live next. This is an interesting example of flash forward because time is dismantled as a structural tool, and the reader is unmoored from any sense of the “present.”

Example #4

The one image he never escaped
(as the blue filter began to creep in)
was Greg Stillson taking the oath of office. It was being administered by an old man with the humble, frightened eyes of a fieldmouse trapped by a terribly proficient, battlescarred
barnyard tomcat. One of Stillson’s hands clapped over a Bible, one upraised. It was years in the future because Stillson had lost most of his hair. The old man was speaking, Stillson was following. Stillson was saying
(the blue filter is deepening, covering things, blotting them out bit by bit, merciful blue filter, Stillson’s face is behind the blue … and the yellow -. – the yellow like tiger-stripes)
he would do it ‘So help him God.’ His face was solemn, grim, even, but a great hot joy clapped in his chest and roared in his brain. Because the man with the scared fieldmouse eyes was the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and
(oh dear God the filter the filter the blue filter the yellow stripes)
now all of it began to disappear slowly behind that blue filter – except it wasn’t a filter; it was something real.

(The Dead Zone by Stephen King)

Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone features a character, John Smith, who is able to see the future of others just by touching them. This clairvoyance allows him to understand not just what is definitely going to happen, but what might happen if no one puts a stop to it. He gets a bad sensation about the political hopeful and fascist Greg Stillson, and goes to one of Stillson’s campaign events in order to touch him and get a sense of what will happen. In the excerpt above, Smith is horrified to realize that Stillson will become president of the United States if no one stops him.

Test Your Knowledge of Flash Forward

1. Which of the following statements is the best flash forward definition?
A. A scene that takes place chronologically after the current action in the narrative.
B. A technique in which an author hints at what is to come later.
C. A device of showing some event which happened before the current point of the narrative, either something that the audience has already seen or one as yet unknown to the audience.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Flash forward examples are more common than flashback examples.
B. Examples of flash forward are most common in certain genres such as science fiction, supernatural stories, and postmodern fiction.
C. Flash forwards don’t show exact details, but merely hint at what’s to come.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Is the following quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude an example of flash forward?

Aureliano gave her a look that wrapped her in an atmosphere of uncertainty.
“Somebody is coming,” he told her.
Úrsula, as she did whenever he made a prediction, tried to break it down with her housewifely logic. It was normal for someone to be coming.

A. Yes; Aureliano is correctly predicting what is to come.
B. No; this quote has nothing to do with the future.
C. No; this is a normal prediction that anyone could make, just as Úrsula notes, and does not detail a scene that will later occur.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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