Look Forward, Not Backward, to Pull the Reader In

september-c-fawkesA lot of writers have the tendency to look “backward” when writing. They might use a lot of flashbacks, they might have a character think “back” on things, or they may simply refer to events that happened in the past. Sometimes they may even backtrack and reiterate what has already played out on the page, or repeat information the audience already knows.

As writers, we love looking backward. Part of this is because from our perspective, when we understand a character’s past, we understand the character better, or alternatively, when we understand what events led to the current point of the story, we better understand the story. From a writer’s perspective, we may even feel more powerful emotions by linking back to the past regularly.

Looking “backward” in a story isn’t necessarily wrong. It has an important role in storytelling. Maybe we do need that flashback, for example. Looking back once in a while also adds authenticity–after all, we all look back from time to time in our personal lives, and a story should be bigger than what’s on the page. Your characters should have an existence, a history, before the first chapter.

However, unlike the writer, most of the time, for the reader, looking backward is not nearly as interesting or as effective as looking forward.

Often as writers, we think, if the audience can just see the significance of the past, they’ll be drawn into the story. In reality, looking forward does this innately and more powerfully.

The past has already happened. It can’t be changed. Which is why you will hear many writers speak out against flashbacks.

But the future–that hasn’t happened yet. It can change. So when we look forward to it, the audience automatically gets drawn into and invested into the story.

This creates anticipation and tension. Two elements (that to some extent overlap) that will get the audience to turn page after page.

This is essentially why hooks are so important. Most of the time, hooks get the audience to look forward to, or in other words, anticipate something

Thankfully, looking “forward” in a story is actually easier than looking backward (remember how I said it’s innately equipped to draw in the audience?). One way to do it is by simply having a line where the viewpoint character thinks about what could happen. It might be something as direct as this:

I was afraid that if I told him the truth tomorrow, he wouldn’t like me.

reader interestSee how that automatically has us anticipating that something bad might happen? Now we need to turn the page!

Other times the line might be more indirect, building off the context of the story, but whatever the case, the viewpoint character is anticipating what might happen, so we are too.

An alternative approach is to give a summary line about what does happen, which begs for more information. For example:

To her dread, their alliance only made things worse.

Wait, what? This alliance we just read about makes the situation worse? Now as a reader, I’m looking forward to learning how and why–to getting more information–and I’m wondering, what will the consequences be if things are worse?

In my mind, there are two main, important categories that really draw the audience in:

1- We get the audience to dread (or fear) something might happen.

2- We get the audience to hope something might happen.

Both categories are very effective. One is negative and one is positive. But both cause the audience to look forward and therefore anticipate and therefore read more. Readers may worry something bad is going to happen to the character or story. Or they may pray something good will happen.

Get readers to anticipate what comes next using HOPE!

In the writing world, we indirectly talk about the first category a lot. It can bring in a lot of tension. Think about it. This is where all the advice about “risks” and “stakes” comes in. What does the character or world have to lose? In a good horror story, we are drawn in by the fear that a character might die, or worse.

We don’t talk as much about the second option, which can still be very effective. Hope is a powerful thing. This is where all the advice about giving your character a goal or something he cares about comes in. It works because it gets us to hope for an outcome. In a good romance, we hope that the characters fall in love, or better.

And sometimes, you may be appealing to both of these simultaneously.

In most stories, category one is probably most effective, but don’t ignore category two, which is often underestimated.

Utilizing both regularly in your storytelling will get the audience to turn page after page. That’s really how page-turners work–by getting the audience to look forward.

So next time you feel tempted to look backward in your story to try to make it more effective, stop and consider if what you really need is to look forward.

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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This entry was posted in Empathy, Experiments, Flashbacks, Pacing, Reader Interest, Reading, Resident Writing Coach, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Look Forward, Not Backward, to Pull the Reader In

  1. Pingback: How to Preserve the Magic of Your Story (Hint, Keep Secrets) | Just Writerly Things

  2. Pingback: How to Preserve the Magic of Your Story (Hint: Keep Secrets) | Just Writerly Things

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  4. Nicco Cobb says:

    As a former reporter its hard to grasp the need for arcs, hooks and flashbacks. This author breaks the chunks down to digestible morsels and nourishes the author in me. So very understandable. I now have to grapple with abandoning my short punchy sentence structure and open up to the real artistry of painting with words.

  5. I love this advice! It is definitely something I need to put into practice more in my writing. Thank you so much!

  6. Thanks for having me again!

  7. John says:

    Great advice on how to give your story some forward momentum, September! Do you think it’s helpful to withhold background info from the reader until it absolutely need to be revealed?

    • Hi John!
      As a general guideline, I think that idea is really helpful. However, as long as it’s not overdone, and it’s placed appropriately, sometimes sprinkling in some background info can make the story feel more authentic and well-rounded–like it’s bigger than what’s on the page or in the book.

      I think the problem comes when the writer overuses it and misuses it thinking it will work as a draw to keep the reader reading. But especially for any beginning writers, that is a good guideline to follow.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. Great post, September. Hope is so very powerful!

    A long time ago, Becca wrote a post on the 5 emotions that all stories should have, and the one that was non-negotiable was hope. The characters need to have hope, and the readers need to have hope. Without it, there’s no reason to read on.

    As people, hope is a necessary ingredient, and so it should always be present in fiction, especially as one of our goals is to make the reader experience what the characters are experiencing. Lost hope is something that will happen of course, and we’ve all lost it at some point so we can identify with that feeling, but finding it again is unbelievably powerful and feeds us in times when there is no other sustenance.

  9. :Donna says:

    This is an excellent article and I agree with John in that I don’t mind flashbacks when they’re purposeful and not overdone. They typically reveal the reasons behind the “whys” in relationships and behaviors of the characters. But without question—FEAR and HOPE! Thanks, September 🙂

    • Yeah, I agree too. I actually love a good (and properly done) flashback, but in unpublished work, I often see them overused to try to get the reader invested. Fear and hope are more effective for that, typically. Thanks, Donna!

  10. oanne Calub says:

    Every time I read author blogson hooks I rework my first chapter again.Must be fifrteen times now,I was te to much time editing and at this rate will get the book done. Digusting me. Seeriously considering a coach. Your article opened my eyes. Tme for help.Thank you.

  11. Migdalia Torres says:

    Thank You for such a wonderful article. It helps to know what you should be looking forward too in writing. I thought that backflash was the way to go, but this article clarified it. FORWARD!!

    • Migdalia,
      I’m glad it was helpful! Thank you for reading and commenting. Flashbacks can be very useful in certain situations but looking forward innately draws the reader in and should be utilized much more often.

  12. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    The standard writing advice is indeed to minimize flashbacks, but, as a reader, I don’t mind which way the author looks or what else they do, provided they make it interesting.

    • Hi John!
      I’m totally not against flashbacks either (in fact, I actually kind of love them), but like you touched on, they need to be interesting and well done. When helping authors with unpublished work, however, I find they often are overused and not properly utilized.

      If you or anyone is interested, I have an article about when and how to best use flashbacks here: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2018/07/breaking-writing-rules-right-dont-use.html

      A properly handled flashback can be very effective and impressive.

      • JOHN T. SHEA says:

        Indeed, September! I also noted I was commenting as a reader rather than writer, as there can be a difference. I’m more tolerant as a reader than as a writer, since my writing must pass muster with publishing professionals before it can reach its ultimate audience.

        Professionals have various rules which do not seem to be shared by most of the reading public. Whether those standards are higher or merely narrower is another day’s debate. But I would like to please as many readers as possible, including professionals and lovers of rules.

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