Hook Readers With a Sneak Peek

This week’s video discusses how to hook readers with a “flashforward” at the beginning of your novel, similar to the one Edna Ferber used in Show Boat.

Video Transcript:

As many followers of my website probably already know, I am not a big fan of prologues or other gimmicky framing techniques for the beginning of a book. Primarily, this is because I don’t like the idea of making the reader begin the story twice. However, there are exceptions. One of the exceptions that occasionally works is the flashforward. In a nutshell, what this involves is opening with a tense scene that takes place late in the book, ending it with a cliffhanger, then backing up to explain how the character got to that point. Done right, this technique can create that wonderful insatiable curiosity in the reader, encouraging him to read on and discover not only what happens next, but what happened to begin with.

This technique is on my mind right now because I just finished reading Edna Ferber’s beloved historical novel Show Boat, which is a leisurely, nostalgic, sometimes rambling account of a young girl growing up on a Mississippi riverboat in the late 1800s. The beginning of the story contains pages upon pages of backstory—including how the protagonist’s parents met and married, her birth, and, finally, her family’s purchase of the show boat. By itself, none of these events are gripping enough to convince most readers to keep reading. But Ferber was clever enough to give readers a hook before feeding them the backstory.

In this instance, the hook involves an opening scene in which the protagonist is a grown woman, struggling through the difficult birth of her first child in the midst of a terrifying flood on the river. Ferber grabs her readers with her setting and her courageous character and not only makes them question whether or not the character will survive, but also makes them wonder how the character got into this situation in the first place. And the result is a first chapter that hauls her readers in like a fish on a line.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever used a flashforward in a story?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I am using this technique in my very first novel. I worried that with all the tension in the first few pages the reader would feel let down with following chapters. I am still concerned about that and keep returning to those early chapters to ensure their own intense interest. We’ll see.

  2. I’ve never used it, but I’ve seen it done and when it’s done well, it’s very effective. Maybe someday I’ll try it.

  3. I have not used the technique but I’ve read books that have and it from a reader’s standpoint it works.

  4. @Donna: When in doubt, ask the betas! The flashforward certainly doesn’t always work. But so long as there’s enough of a connection between the flashforward and the following chapters for readers rest assured that you’re going to return to the original scene – and so long as the flashforward offers the necessary payoff when you do reach it – you should be fine.

    @Anne: I’ve never had cause to use it myself – yet. But it’s a useful trick to keep in our bag of tools.

    @Mshatch: The only time it doesn’t work is when the tension in the flashforward turns out to be a letdown, due to a natural fizzle or, even worse, the realization that the original danger was something other than it originally seemed.

  5. Yes, I have a number of times.

  6. Fun! I’ve never had cause to use one myself, but I always enjoy them when they’re done well in other stories.

  7. I’ve never tried it, but it sounds like loads of fun. 🙂

  8. With the right story, I think it would be too.

  9. I’m trying it with my novel, which has the stories of two MC’s woven together. I’m hoping that by starting with a flashforward with one, then jumping to the other’s story, I’ll hook the reader. Betareaders seem to like it.

  10. Hmm? As fate would have it, I am currently working on a project which started w/ a very short prologue. After having just viewed your vlog post, I’m realizing that perhaps I seem to like beginning all of my books that way. Perhaps it’s time for a change. I don’t know what I might do as of yet, but you’ve definitely got me thinking. Thanks for the advice.

    -Jimmy

  11. Just one cautionary mention: as with all cliches, don’t do the “and she thought back to how it all began…” I saw someone (not published, thankfully) do this to a character who was walking down the line to her execution. Any thinking back to how it began would be horribly brief and snap-shotty, more of a despairing “it began so innocently…”

    What my novel is doing is actually the reverse: it’s showing flashback that the reader won’t recognize as flashback until halfway through the novel. It’s quite fun, I think, though I haven’t gotten feedback specifically on it. I’ve got two readers, maybe I’ll ask them….

    As always, fantastic post; whether flash-forward, or flash-backward, you’ve got me coming back for more!

  12. @ED: Trust the betas! If you like it, and they like it, that’s a good sign that all is going well.

    @James: Prologues are a valid literary technique that can often be used to great effect, but, more often than not, they’re abused. So I would always advise to “skip the prologue” unless you feel it’s just absolutely vital.

    @Daniel: A-flashback-that-the-reader-doesn’t-know-is-flashback… sounds tricky. But, if you can pull it off, it also sounds wildly original and intriguing. I hope it works, because I love the idea!

  13. I ended up adding one to a YA paranormal novel. The novel is action packed, but it was important to show the character before her life changed. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I rewrote the opening chapter, it didn’t represent the tone of the overall book. The flashforward provided a taste of what’s to come.

  14. Sounds like perfect instance. When you can use the flashforward to not only hook readers with an exciting scene, but, even better, use it to introduce tone and character, that’s exactly when it *should* be used.

  15. I’ve read many books that have used it and when I get to the first chapter I’m excited to know how the story will evolve. I personally haven’t tried it but as regards the book you mentioned, Show Boat, I’m going to see if I read it because you got my attention.

  16. It’s a little different from the movie, if you’ve seen that, but, all in all, I enjoyed it.

  17. I’ve done a few flashfowards, but never successfully. It’s hard for me to concentrate on building the story, while remembering the hook I left behind.
    thnx for another thought-provoking article. 😀

    btw: I promised a friend I’d do a bit of advertising for her. She’s a freelance editor (with a high recommendation from all her current clients) looking for more authors to work with. Check her out @ http://www.emilyfaggion.com/editing

  18. Thanks for the link! I’ll be sure to check it out and share it if I feel it’s something my readers can benefit from.

  19. I think this is perfect. The original idea I had for my first chapter seemed dull and just didn’t feel like it would work or connect well. A flash-forward seems like a it could be the answer to my problem and I know exactly which scene it would flash-forward to.

  20. Done right, flashforwards can be a lot of fun for both writer and reader.

  21. Just a quick note: this post starts out “I am not a big [[fan?]] of prologues or other gimmicky framing techniques” …

    I was just Googling this technique, because one of my novels (on Smashwords) starts out with rather a weak back-story / introduction, and I want to rewrite it with a Flash Forward. I was wondering how to do it; subtitle it the way it was, or just jump into it without a chapter heading?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for catching the typo!

      Sometimes it’s useful to indicate the date/time as a header at the beginning of the chapter, so readers can see for themselves. Usually, though, it’s the transition back to the past that’s most important. A header such as “Twenty Years Earlier” is usually all that’s needed.

  22. Robert Plowman says:

    I recently discovered you site; what a wonderful resource. Thank you for putting it together. I use a flash forward/sneak peek of an action scene in my WIP. I labeled as a prologue, but thanks to your topic on that, I attached it to chapter 1. Question: my story is 1st POV past tense, but for the sneak peek I use present tense. What are your thoughts on this, and on changing tense for dramatic effect in general?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s one of those things that can work well, but can also feel like a gimmick. So it really just depends on how it’s presented and whether it works or not. If you’re uncertain, I’d run it by a couple beta readers to get their initial reactions.

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