A flash forward occurs when a writer “flashes” into the future to depict something that has yet to happen to the characters at their contemporary moment. It is the opposite of a flashback which shows the reader something that happened in the past. A flash forward might occur at the end of the novel to show the reader what the future has in store for the characters or it might occur within the novel as a part of a character’s imagination or reality. One person might be thinking about what could happen in the future with such clear imagery that it feels like another scene, rather than just a thought in someone’s head.
Explore Flash Forward
Definition and Explanation of Flash Forward
A flash forward provides readers, and sometimes characters, with an insight into the characters’ futures. Although this technique can occur in any genre, it’s most common in those that already have something otherworldly about them, such as science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, and more. It’s not within the human ability to see into the future so when writers add a flash forward into a piece of writing it emphasizes the differences between the literary world and reality. It should also be noted that postmodern novels, such as those which seek to challenge traditional literary conventions and the linear nature of most novels, short stories, and plays, have also been known to make use of this technique.
Examples of Flash Forward
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the protagonist is capable of moving through time and visiting scenes from different parts of his life. He doesn’t control where or when he goes and is a perfect example of how some novels seek to push the boundaries and rules of fiction. Here are a two lines from the novel that depicts Billy Pilgrim’s lack of control over which part of his life he’s going to live next:
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.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
One of the best-known examples of a flash forward can be found in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The short story follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a cruel, greedy, and miserable man who on the night before Christmas is shown images from his past, present, and future. It’s not until he sees the future that he realizes the necessity of making changes in his life. The flash forward shows him his death, the fact that no one cares that he’s passed on, and how instead of mourning, those who noticed him die are better off for it. Here are a few lines from the story when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is asking Scrooge to consider his own grave:
“No, Spirit! Oh, no, no!” The finger was still there. “Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at his robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse! Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Commonly considered to be Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a novel firmly situated in the genre of magic realism. Throughout, the characters experience time differently than one does in everyday life. There are several occasions in which characters are able to make prophecies and predict what’s going to happen in the future. This is noted in the first paragraph.
Ways to Use Flash Forward
While there are many different ways one might choose to use flash forwards, here are few of those that are most commonly chosen by writers.
- A prophecy coming to life.
- A character experiencing hallucinations of future events. This might be imagined or real.
- A character with the ability to see/predict the future.
- A vision of the future meant to alter a character’s attitude/actions.
As mentioned above, it’s easy to incorporate flash forwards into stories that already have a supernatural element.
Flash Forward and Foreshadowing
Although both literary devices are concerned with the future, they are different from one another. A flash forward shows something that’s actually going to happen if events aren’t altered (such as in A Christmas Carol) while foreshadowing refers to hints or clues the writer inserts into the text that alludes to what’s going to happen. One is clear and the other is just a suggestion of happiness, sorrow, etc. Foreshadowing allows the reader to get a look at what kind of themes or events the future pages of the story, novel, etc. are going to be concerned with.
Why Do Writers Use Flash Forward?
Although flash forwards are less common than flashbacks and foreshadowing, writers use flash forwards in literature in a variety of interesting ways and for different reasons. They allow the writer to be more flexible with their narrative. This is especially helpful when a story is nonlinear, to begin with, and the narrator moves from the future to the past or present regularly. Whenever flash forwards does happen, readers are treated to something that they don’t get to experience in everyday life. No one can see into the future, so when a writer allows a character to, or allows the reader to see into a character’s future, it creates a singular moment in which literature transcends reality.
Flash Forward Synonyms
- Vision of the future
- For the future
- Flash ahead
Related Literary Terms
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
- Foreshadowing: hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based on science.
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
- Imagery: the elements of a story that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.