Sunday, April 5, 2015

Flash-Forward Technique in Narrative Writing for IGCSE or AS English Exams

Last week a student wrote to the Nardvark with a simple request: Can you show me an example of flash-forward technique in a narrative?

Always the first to rush to the aid of a fellow student, Nardvark promptly printed off the email, folded it into a paper-airplane (or aeroplane), and sent it whizzing into the mirror. He then waddled into the kitchen where he  made himself a peanut-butter, mayonnaise, and pickled-radish sandwich. 

The Nardvark did not know at the time, but the mayonnaise was off, and when the resulting bacteria met with the acetic acid from the pickled radishes and the protein in the peanut butter, a chemical reaction took place. As Nardvark scarfed the sandwich, his brain chemicals changed and he developed the uncanny ability to see into the future.

At first, Nardvark did not realize he was suddenly blessed with such a fantastic gift. He noticed he was getting low on pickled radishes, so he grabbed some change out of the swear jar and headed down to the corner store.

As he waited for the last customer to exit the store so he could enter through the open door without having to exert any energy pulling it, his arm brushed against the exiting customer's arm. An image exploded in his head so violently that Nardvark fell over. 

Lying on the sidewalk (pavement), Nardvark clutched his suddenly nauseated stomach and thought about what he had just seen in his mind's eye. A ship, a space ship, that resembled a giant shiny metal cucumber, skimming the surface of the Earth. Several more metal-cucumber-like space ships followed it. People ran screaming in all directions as the ships shot hot green lasers in all directions, blowing up houses, skyscrapers, factories, and subway stations. 
A giant cucumberesque spaceship wreaks havoc in New York - AP News stock image

What could have caused this frightening scene? 

The gentleman who had brushed up against the Nardvark at the corner store's doorway stood over him, a look of concern on his face. He extended a hand.

"Are you all right? Let me help you to your feet."

Gratefully, Nardvark grasped the man's hand. At that moment, a surge of electricity seemed to pass between them, and in it Nardvark saw the future through the man's eyes. The man holding his hand as he lay in front of the corner store was a Dr. Everett Chang of Harvard's Space Technologies Faculty. Dr. Chang, in Nardvark's vision, flicked the screen of a large computer that had just picked up a signal from outer space. 

"Greetings, Earthling," said a sexy voice from the computer's speakers. "We come in peace."

Dr. Chang flicked again and gleefully sent his response. "Earth welcomes you! What time will you arrive?"

"Around dinner time Tuesday, if that works for you."

"Sounds good," said Chang.

With a pained effort, Nardvark pulled his hand out of Chang's grip. Chang looked at him in shock. Nardvark realized he must have a terrifying look on his face, knowing what he now knew about the future.

Nardvark got to his feet and brushed himself off. He turned to Chang.

"Are you Dr. Everett Chang, of Harvard's Space Technologies Faculty?"

Dr. Chang answered, "How did you... I've never met you before in my life! I'd remember a person as..."

"Watch it," Nardvark muttered.

"As interestingly shaped as you," Chang finished. 

Nardvark nodded. Interestingly shaped would do. “Dr. Chang, have you recently made contact with an interstellar species that promised to visit the Earth in peace next Tuesday around dinner time?”

Chang recoiled. “No, I have not! How do you know about my work?” He took a step back.

“I think it had something to do with the combination of peanut butter, mayonnaise, and pickled radishes. Anyway, Chang, you absolutely must not allow that creature to visit Earth.”

Now Chang frowned and placed his hands on his ample hips. “And why not? If interstellar creatures contact me via the Magnum super computer radio telescope port, I will most certainly invite them to come to Earth. Why wouldn’t I? It would mean a Nobel prize for me!”

“No, Chang! Listen to me! It will mean war and destruction! Those creatures lie!”

“How do you know?” Chang asked.

“How do I know anything?”

At this, Chang smirked and walked away.

“Chang!” Nardvark called after him. “Chang!”

It was no use. Nardvark would have to save the planet. He picked up a few items at the corner store and then went home and concocted another sandwich, because one cannot be expected to fight crime on an empty stomach. Then he got on the number 84 bus, which fortunately stopped almost right in front of his house, and within less than an hour was entering the lobby of Harvard’s Space Technologies Faculty.

He found Chang on the name board beside the elevators and took the elevator up to the seventh floor. Around the corner, he paused outside room 706, his hand on the doorknob. This was it. From within he heard the bleeps and bloops of Magnum, the super computer.

Nardvark slammed his way into the room, whereupon Dr. Chang, his hand poised at the screen, and several undergrad assistants looked at him. One of them snickered. At that moment, the recording sounded, just like in his vision: “Greetings, Earthling. We come in peace.”

All the undergrads gasped in unison. An evil smile crept across Chang’s face.

“No! I can’t let you do it!” Nardvark lunged at Chang, knocking the stout professor over with sheer momentum. The computer repeated the message, a little agitated.

Nardvark and Chang wrestled on the floor for a few minutes, but Chang was obviously the stronger of the two. Each time Nardvark touched the man’s skin, he had another sickening moment of terror as the cucumber-ships sprayed Earth with their cruel green lasers.

Just when it seemed all was lost, Nardvark had an idea. He crawled under Chang’s desk and found what he was looking for: the power bar! With a flick of his wrist, Nardvark heroically yanked the plugs out of the power bar.

“What tha’!” The startled voices of the undergrads chorused their chagrin, as Dr. Chang dropped to his knees, head in his hands, and wailed.

“My Nobel prize! Waahh!”

“That’s right!” Nardvark pulled the power bar out of its wall socket and swallowed it without a second thought. “Let’s see you plug Magnum the super computer and all its components back in now, sucker!” He cried triumphantly.

And so it was that the Earth was saved and another hero was born.

As this demonstrates, flash forward, also called prolepsis, can be used in narratives to give the reader a bit of a peek into a character's motivation, or to create a non-linear story line. That means instead of the events of a story unfolding chronologically A, B, C, D, they might be presented D, A, C, B. Have you ever read Cloud Atlas: A Novel ? Well, you should. It's kind of cool how it jumps around through time, but everything ties together in the end. 

Flash forward is different from foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is just a hint at what might happen in the story's future. Flash forward is full-on, specific jumps through the story's timeline to tell the reader definitively what the future holds in store for the characters. Except in this case, Nardvark was able to save the day and change the imminent future. Supernatural elements or religious visions can also provide fast forwards in a narrative. Or, you could go with plain old-fashioned time travel.

Flash forward's opposite is flashback, aka analepsis, in which the writer takes the reader back into the story's past. This can be done through a character's dreams or memories, a dialogue, or maybe descriptions of objects. It's a little easier to work into your story, since everyone has memories and a past, but very few people, living or fictitious, can see or travel to the future. 

This little story is 1081 words and has all the elements of a narrative: a main conflict, characters, plot, setting, dialogue, description... Click here for more posts about writing narrative for IGCSE or AS exams.