How flashforwards can make your characters more loveable

A Study of Arrival

Caution: this post contains spoilers for Avengers, End Game and for Arrival. Both of these movies came out quite a while ago though, so here’s hoping you’ve seen them. If you haven’t, and you want their mysteries preserved, proceed at your own risk…

Writing is all about empathy, whether you realise it or not. We, as authors, want to craft characters that our readers empathise with.


Because it keeps readers reading, which in turn keeps writers in the business of writing.

photo of woman holding book

Empathy, as I am sure you already know, is the ability to share in or understand the feelings of another person. When we’re writing, this transfers to: the ability to share or understand the feelings of a character.

If we didn’t have empathy for characters, then we wouldn’t care when the temple door starts to grind shut, potentially locking Indiana Jones inside it. We wouldn’t care when Tony Stark (spoiler) dies in Avenger’s End Game. We wouldn’t care when Black Beauty gets sold to a cruel master that works him to the bone.

But we do care.

And that’s because we empathise with these characters.

Now, I did my study in empathy and anachrony for my master’s thesis. My goal was to understand how a non-chronological narrative structure affects the reader’s capacity for empathy with a character (and whether it does) and one of the really interesting takeaways from that was: as long as the reader knows the character’s goal, they will empathise with her suffering, because they know that the suffering is what prohibits the achievement of that goal.

And this, my friends, is where Arrival comes in.

Arrival promo image, c. Paramount Pictures 2016

Now, I haven’t read the book “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang yet (as soon as I have completed edits on my manuscript for my agent (!!) it will be the first book I read). So these observations are based on the movie alone.

Arrival, in short, is a movie about a woman, Dr Louise Banks, and her attempt to make first contact with aliens arriving on Earth. She is a doctor in linguistics, versed in a multitude of languages, and it’s her knowledge that helps humans communicate with the alien species dubbed Heptapods. But I don’t want to focus on the plot too much here. I want to focus on the structure – the order in which the events are presented to the viewer and how they impact empathy.

Character Goal and Empathy 

At the beginning of the movie, we see her daughter dying. This is presented in jump cut scenes, where her daughter is born, then she is perhaps eleven, then she is five, then she is older and on a hospital bed. This allows us to see Louise’s relationship with her daughter throughout her life, simply by using analepses (a flashback).

What the movie does here is tap into a very human emotion (grief) and present a very easy situation for the viewer to empathise with. We feel bad for Louise because her daughter died.

We can also use this event to explain some of her actions in the early scenes: she seems disconnected, telling her mum “I’m the same.” Importantly, we can’t hear the other half of this conversation so we make the assumption her mother is asking how she is after the death of her daughter. We see Louise giving a lecture at University when there are only a handful of students, we see her going into work the day after the aliens have landed. All of this we rationalise from the death of her daughter – her work gives her purpose, her work gives her meaning, why wouldn’t she be at work?

All of these are empathy markers.

We need to know why a character is acting a certain way in a novel – it has to be sensical in some way.

If I wrote a book about a man who was afraid of heights and then suddenly had him take part in a charity bungee jump, it wouldn’t make sense. The reader would need to see him overcome his fear, or get blackmailed, or threatened before his decision to do the thing that scares him makes sense – and until this makes sense, they can’t empathise with him.

When the government shows up (the inciting incident) telling Dr Banks to get on a plane and tell them what those damn aliens want, she has her story goal. Find out why they are here. Find out what they want. This is the true empathetic marker in the movie – the goal that is thwarted – and the one we empathise with the most.

What kind of goal do we need to make readers/viewers empathise with our characters?

Both Robert Olen Butler and John Yorke distinguish between two levels of desire, or yearning. Yorke expresses this as the difference between movies that stay with you when you leave the theatre and those that provide instantaneous, but not lasting, entertainment.

Butler describes this (perhaps unfairly) as the difference between genre and literary fiction. Genre fiction, he claims, is interested in wants at a micro-level: I want a house, I want this man to fall in love with me. Literary fiction speaks to us at the meta-level, the macro-level of these yearnings: I yearn for meaning to my life, I yearn for an identity. 

Dr. Louise Bank’s desire falls into the micro-level: I want to be able to talk to the aliens. This is why the scene with the bomb in the room is so tense. Because she’s getting somewhere and before she gets the zinger – the answer she has been after – the bomb goes off and the conversation ends. It is a classical example of goal > goal thwarted.

The second beauty of her goal is that it is also her conflict. The more she communicates with the aliens, the more she learns, the more the government wants to blow them to smithereens. The more suspicious the populus gets. It’s beautiful – master craft at work. 

Chronology, anachrony and empathy

But what’s really interesting in this movie is revealed at the climax. That those flashback (analepses) are actually flashforwards (prolepses). Her daughter, who we have already seen die, hasn’t been born yet. She has not had the relationship with her daughter’s father break down yet, because she hasn’t started being romantically involved with him yet. None of it has happened, all of it is to come.

This presents some very interesting questions to the scholar of anachrony and empathy but most importantly – to writers.

Typically, when we present a prolepsis, it turns the inherent question of the novel on its head. Rather than asking what is going to happen we ask why it’s going to happen or perhaps even how it’s going to happen.

Take Big Little Lies. We know pretty early on that someone dies (the what) but we don’t know who, or how, or why. It gives us a glimpse into the future, enough to generate tension, enough to keep us asking questions, but not enough to wrap the entire plot up with a neat bow and hand it to us on a platter.

What Arrival does, in presenting its flashforwards as flashbacks, is masterful.

Firstly, it generates empathy for a character based on an event that hasn’t happened yet. We suffer the death of her daughter with her – not realising that all the while she has no idea who the girl in her dreams actually is.

Secondly, it creates empathy when we realise that she doesn’t know what she’s seeing (we know it’s her daughter, we know she dies – surely she must see that, too?) and thirdly – finally – it creates empathy when we see her make the decision, right at the end of the movie, to choose that path anyway. Despite the suffering she knows it will bring. The suffering we have already seen.

That is why you sit there on your sofa, watching the credits roll, your mind a storm of questions. That is why the characters linger, the story lingers.

Empathy – and its masterful presentation with an anachronous narrative structure.

Now this was a short, and very brief, discussion of one film. Want to read more about anachrony and empathy and its relation to the craft of writing? Check out my research. 

Academic vocabulary glossary:

Prolepsis = any narrative manoeuvre that refers to an event that will take place later (e.g. in the future)

Analepsis = refers to an event that before the present point in the story (e.g. in the past)

Anachrony = all forms of discordance between the temporal orders of narrative and story

Now obviously this example isn’t a masterpiece in written form however what it’s showing is that having a barrier between your characters in the guise of small talk can actually tell the reader a whole lot about them, their relationship and what might’ve happened to it.

Think about dialogue as being something you can fill with juicy tidbits for your readers: even when your characters are talking, it should be pulling double time in characterisation as well as moving the plot forwards. If your characters need to have a straightforward conversation, think about ways you can make it interesting. If Sally is approaching Kim about her wanting to have kids, how does it impact the tension if the conversation is about what to have for dinner instead? Symbolism is a powerful, powerful tool in our dialogue, and we should use it.

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