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The Introduction: Flashback versus Flashforward
Welcome back, everyone! Here’s another nifty guide to composition writing. Today, we’re looking at the opening lines of our narratives: the introduction.
I’m sure that all of you are already well-versed using in gripping hooks for your story. Therefore, this entry will be looking at something more unconventional—the flashforward technique. Already, I can sense the raised brows and sceptical looks. Flashforward? You mean flashback, right? Well, not exactly.
Flashforward is exactly what it sounds like: you send your readers into a scene that’s further into the narrative that what has already happened. When used in the introduction therefore, it becomes the case in which the readers are plunged into the midst of action, with little clue about the conflict or predicament that’s occurring.
Sounds bizarre? Frankly, this is a technique that’s very commonly used in popular film and media! If you had ever seen The Emperor’s New School, you would be familiar with this. Kuzco, being the drama king that he is, loves to entice his viewers by dropping them in a highly riveting scene, before pulling back to the very beginning of the episode. If you had seen Deadpool, for instance, you would have seen the same technique being used in the opening as well! Beyond a doubt, we are much more used to seeing this on the silver screen. However, we can use this method to elevate our writing too.
Before we dive in any further, however, let’s do a quick recap on flashback, which makes explicit reference to an event that happened in the past. Oftentimes, there’s almost a formulaic structure to it. It begins with something like,
“As I picked up the dusty photo album in my drawer, my gaze fell on a photograph taken ten years ago. Immediately, memories of the past started flooding into my mind.”
and concludes with
“‘Time for lunch!’ Suddenly, the sound of mother’s voice drew me back to reality. “Coming!” I yelled, putting the photobook down.”
As reliable as this framework is, be mindful when using it in your writing. As much as the flashback is easy to memorise and replicate in your compositions, it is usually inappropriately used, resulting in an overall detriment to your story! This is especially so if you let the flashback framework cut into an interesting beginning and a satisfactory resolution. Let’s put this into an example to see what I mean. Imagine that you were reading a short story entitled “an accident”, and the introduction and ending looked like the following.
“As I picked up the dusty photo album in my drawer, my gaze fell on a photograph taken ten years ago. Immediately, memories of the past started flooding into my mind.
That Sunday morning, I was strolling in the park.”
“A blur of red zoomed towards me, but I did nothing, knowing that it was all too late. Reflexively, I let out an ear-piercing shriek just as the convertible made direct impact with my body.
‘Time for lunch!’ Suddenly, the sound of mother’s voice drew me back to reality. “Coming!” I yelled, putting the photobook down.”
Can you see how the sections above feel choppy and incomplete? When using flashbacks, it is the tendency to think that a tantalising hook is no longer necessary. At the same time, the ending seems to cut right off just as the story takes an exhilarating spin. In other words, if you truly want to incorporate the flashback into your writing, be reminded that the five-part story mountain is not at all compromised! Otherwise, the flashback, which now cuts into the overall quality and thoroughness of your story, becomes a fruitless exercise.
In contrast, the flashforward bypasses the above problem. After all, this technique demands that we use snippets from the climax—or the falling action—to draw our readers in. Ultimately, your goal is to ensure that the opening lines are exciting or suspenseful enough to reel in and maintain readership. Application of this technique is straightforward enough—build drama using dialogueand feelings!
It is commonly said that first impression matters, and certainly, this applies to story writing too. With reference to the topic, “an accident”, again, let’s see exactly how the flashforward improves the general interest value of the introduction.
“‘Look out!’ Panicked screams pierced the air as the blur of red zoomed towards me. In that instance, everything seemed to unfold in slow-motion. Even as I registered the fact that a head-on collision as such would be calamitous, my body remained resolutely immobile. In the face of danger, I was nothing but a helpless puppet.”
To complete the introduction, don’t forget necessities like who, what, when, where. You need to supplement your readers with these orientating details so that they can understand the overarching premise of your plot. Provide a brief overview of your plot, essentially! See the example below to see what I mean.
“That fateful day, I had a close shave with death due to my preoccupation with my phone. Thereafter, I learnt the hard way that I should keep my wits about me when I cross the road, as opposed to scrolling through the mind-numbing whirlpool that is social media.”
At the minimum, because we had already planned out how the climax looks like, we take less time to inscribe it upon our page. At the same time, the flashforward vastly reduces the chances of us going off-topic, and minimises the likelihood that we change parts of our stories based on sudden whims.
Moreover, the flashforward is also a useful tool in helping us pace our narrative accordingly. This, nevertheless, should be tied in conjunction with a proper planning process. Since the climactic sequence has already been outlined, how should we then bridge the missing gap from the beginning, right up to the climax? We are forced to really think about the relevance of our beginning scenes, and learn to pick them wisely.
Take note, however, that the scenes which you had used in the flashforward need to be expanded in its entirety in the actual climax. By that, I mean that you should embellish the scene with more detail in terms of feelings and actions, so that your readers get a more in-depth understanding of your fictional reality. See the bolded sections below to see the additions to the actual climax!
“‘Look out!’ Panicked screams pierced the air as the blur of red zoomed towards me. In that moment, the din of tyres against asphalt was a thunderous roar against my eardrums. In that instance, everything seemed to unfold in slow-motion. Even as I registered the fact that a head-on collision as such would be calamitous, my body remained resolutely immobile. In the face of danger, I was nothing but a helpless puppet. A strangled whimper escaped my lips even as a million dreadful thoughts ran through my mind. “I’m going to die,” they screamed. After what felt like mere moments later, an excruciating pain exploded in my hips as the convertible rammed squarely into my torso.”
Structurally, your composition will look like this:
Climax (expanded version of flashforward)
Intrigued? Experiment with this technique in your own writing! Think of the most exciting scenes in your story, and then drop bits of them into the very beginning. This is more straightforward than you think it is. With sufficient practice, the flashforward method may even become a mainstay of your literary repertoire!
Designing a Three-dimensional Character
Hello everyone! Welcome to a quick guide to composition writing.
Today, we are looking at one of the most exciting parts of story writing: character-building.
Without a doubt, characters are one of the most important elements of a story. How else are we going to dive into a completely different world, if not through the mind of a character we care about? Of course, here lies the crux—how do we create characters that our readers care about? Let’s explore some nifty tips and tricks below!
It is often said that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and certainly, there’s much truth in there. After all, it is much easier to see the ferocity of Godzilla through an image, as opposed to imagining this reptilian monstrosity in our minds. Since we can’t exactly draw anything in our compositions, it is vital for us to paint vivid ideas in our readers’ minds through language. If the original characters in our stories can be clearly visualised by the readers, then it means that we have successfully completed our mission! One sure-fire way to get a fleshed-out character will be to use the PAL framework.
Personality: what are some obvious traits of your character?
Action: how does your character react in a given situation?
Looks: how does your character look like?
For personality, think about some of the most noticeable qualities of your characters. Would you describe them as “shy” or “outgoing”? Then, think about the kind of actions that align with these traits that you had outlined above.
What about their looks? Instead of saying that your characters are “ugly” or “beautiful”, focus on a specific (?) Perhaps your character favours a battered baseball cap, or has a face shaped like an American football. Use precise descriptions like these to make your character come to life! Paying attention to details like clothes, hairstyle, and build of a person immediately makes your characters pop out! Also, see how the actions help to reinforce the personality of the character in the example below, as well as ways to include details on looks more naturally.
“The bespectacled (looks) girl flushed a bright shade of magenta (action) as she introduced herself to the rest of the class. As she continued to stutter and trip over her words (action), I noticed that her hands gripped the sides of her too-long skirt (looks), the fabric wrinkled into tight balls of blue. (action)”
To add depth, remember that no character is perfect. See Gaston from Beauty and the Beast¸ for example. Supposedly, “there’s no man in town as admired as [him],” but still, Belle detests him. Certainly, we can understand why. Gaston is arrogant. Perhaps because he is handsome and brawny, but he thinks that the world revolves around only him!
However, compare him with the many princes of fairy tales. What’s the name of the one in Snow White? Or the one from Cinderella? Do they even have any memorable qualities, other than to be the “happily ever after” of the princesses? Gaston’s flaws therefore, makes him a much more believable character. After all, we have all encountered people whose noses are constantly in the air, simply because of some seeming superiority!
On the other hand, we have on the other end of the spectrum, Shrek. Being an ogre, who, even in the realm of magical creatures, is considered ugly, he is far from being popular. In fact, he put himself in a self-imposed exile by living in a swamp far from the other magical beings so that he would be free from their critical eye. In fact, because he is considered ugly and uncouth, his father-in-law even overlooked Shrek’s bravery in rescuing Fiona from the dragon, and wanted him killed!
More often than not, readers prefer such unconventional characters. Shrek is loud, rude, and has dubious hygiene habits, but at the same time, he is courageous, loving, and resilient. His moral strengths are balanced by his less-than-desirable appearance, and for that, Shrek remains one of the most enduring characters to this date.
Therefore, when creating your own characters, remember to include some imperfections—be it moral or physical—in them for a more realistic touch!
As writers, we have absolute control over our stories. Our characters are basically as exciting (or boring) as we make them out to be. However, what if we truly do not know where to begin? For a start, consult your immediate surroundings. How would you describe your best friend, or your grandmother? How would they react to a situation like that in our climax?
Alternatively, use any sort of media—films, video games, cartoons—for inspiration. After all, it is much more time-efficient to use a pre-existing character. Recently, I can’t get my mind out of Encanto, so let’s see how we can incorporate some of its characters into our stories!
In Encanto, the main character, Mirabel Madrigal, is the only person in her family without a magical gift. Therefore, when she learnt that her family’s powers were fading, she has no other choice but to rely on her wits and resourcefulness to get to the bottom of the mystery! Given that she is a person who loves her family greatly, how would a character with these personality traits react if a misunderstanding sprung up between her and her feisty older sister, Isabella? Alternatively, imagine this: what if a character like Bruno, who is awkward and shy, is the new English teacher to a boisterous class? The possibilities are simply limitless!
Ultimately, our goal is to design memorable characters who help to further dramatise our stories. Given that we have the freedom to pick inspirations from our favourite media, you may even want to fuse different characters, along with their unique strengths and flaws, together.
Inspired? You can try this on your own at home too! Pick a character from a book, a movie, or even a video game, and break him/her down using the PAL framework. Then, put him/her into the landscape of your story! Note that the kind of background and context that your story demands may differ, so remember to modify aspects of these film-derived characters accordingly! How would Elmo react if, let’s say, his wallet was missing? Or what would happen if Piglet has to give a speech to the entire school? Set your imagination ablaze, and write away!
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