Flashbacks and Flashforwards?
Plunge your protagonist deep into trouble from the off, mess him up sideways from every angle, and don’t give him a whiff of relief. How does he respond? And more importantly, why does he respond the way he does? Herein lies the value of well-worked flashbacks and its lesser-spotted cousin, the flashforward.
Books (and movies) that kick-off with some version of “Once upon a time” put me to sleep instantly; unless, of course, it’s a movie featuring a green ogre with a Scottish accent, and you know he’s irreverently going to tear strips off every fairytale you know. And there’s only one book that can start with the words, “In the beginning…” So unless you’re writing Holy Text, steer clear.
It takes a writer of great skill and courage to start a novel with a slow, chronological build-up of character, plot and action to keep my attention—especially in the young adult genre. And as an author, I’m aware of my own limitations; I don’t have the tools to pull it off. Nor do I want to. (I absolutely adore Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings, but there were times during Frodo’s long, arduous journey to Mount Doom that if I read one more description of the sun westering and waning, I’d steal the Ring myself. I want to believe that this was Tolkien’s point, and so kudos to him.)
Granted, a book doesn’t have to start off with fists flying, bullets blazing, or someone about to be chomped in two, but I do think that a story should start with something happening. Something that gives the reader a reason to engage with the book, to answer the question: Why do I care about this character and this tale? And having achieved this, using carefully selected flashbacks and flashforwards, the author can expand the story and give clues to why the protagonist responds the way he does.
A good flashback seamlessly introduces the reader to a past event, explaining the development of a pertinent character trait or flaw in the protagonist while providing necessary backstory. In ‘Eden, Dawn,’ the Prologue begins with a flashback, but I also use one in Chapter 7:
Another night, another nightmare. This time, the specifics haunted me.
I remember the fear.
The panic was tangible. Terror animated every waking moment.
And dread kept sleep away.
The rising temperatures on Earth were gradual at first, but then started to escalate. Rapidly.
The polar ice caps melted, and the oceans rose. Fast. So quickly.
Prime coastal land disappeared overnight.
Millions drowned in their beds.
The deserts expanded and the agricultural industry came to a standstill.
The world economy collapsed.
It had been teetering on edge for a long time, held in place by a thousand last-ditch compromises to keep it altogether. Then it just slipped off … into the black hole of mayhem and gloom.
With food and resources scarce, violence and war scarred every neighbourhood and every nation. Desperate people do desperate things.
Had anyone kept their integrity? Maintained their innocence?
Then The Plague … a super virus, of Biblical proportions, brewed in the cauldron of antibiotic dependence, aided and abetted by a hydra of viruses unleashed on the planet through multiple nation-versus-nation conflicts, and their manic and flagrant use of bioweapons. Killing millions. And … Mum.
Dad said that I have her blonde hair and blue eyes.
Why can’t I remember her? Not even in my dreams.
Not only did I want to amplify on Earth’s horrific last few days, but I leaked in a snippet of description of the protagonist, and also poked at one of his defining sore points, his inability to remember what his mother looked like.
While flashbacks are critical to structuring a narrative and building suspense, flashforwards are another important tool. Through carefully framed flashforwards, the author can reveal the aspirations or fears of the protagonist, offering hints as to what drives him forward. Here is a loose example from Chapter 12 of ‘Eden, Dawn’:
Another prolonged pause followed as we both stared towards the mountains in the north.
“You can see them so clearly from here,” I broke the silence, happily changing the subject.
“Beautiful,” said Judd.
“In a haunting way,” I added.
The four highest peaks, snow capped but for two moons in summer, looked like the ragged lower jaw of a planet-munching behemoth. In the dense jungle shrubbery in which our camp was tucked, our view of these mountainous canines was obscured. Here at main camp—the hub of what little collective life the clans shared, the foliage more worn with the extra traffic traipsing through it—we had a postcard-perfect view.
“I wonder what’s out there.” Judd’s voice was laden with a moment of longing like a caged bird pining for the wide-open skies.
“One day perhaps.” I too felt overwhelmed by a sudden bout of wanderlust; a deep-seated desire to flee the trouble brewing no doubt spiked the desire. “One day, we’ll get to explore them … and this god-awful planet.”
“Yeah,” Judd sighed heavily, “ten years is a long, long time … pinned back in survival, trapped along this narrow little stretch of the river.” There was a tang of resentment in his words—the bitterness of one broken, browbeaten. Suppressed.
“Maybe the Mzees will have some update on Operation: Future Forward, some news on forward progress?” I asked rhetorically, knowing Judd knew no more than I did.
The protagonist’s desire to explore the planet gave me the opportunity to introduce the strategic plans on the boil in the mind of the leaders of the human colony.
Incidentally (SPOILER ALERT), both ‘Eden, Dawn’ and the second book, ‘Eden, Noon,’ both end with flashforwards, conflicting flashforwards that reveal both the protagonist’s hopes and fears, a bewildering contradiction that is only tied up in the final book, ‘Eden, Dusk.’