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You can find my initial trials here, and, based on feedback, version two here.

I was trying to create a sort of 'flashforward' opening (please don't cite Sawyer) for a novel. That is: of the 45 chapters being edited for the novel, the paragraphs linked to are the zero chapter. They'll be available again in chapter 44 followed by the recap and the cliffhanger for the next book in the serial. I later found it was called in medias res but that didn't help me find quality examples. Especially ones that'd work with a Hard SF novel.

According to that, what examples would you cite for this kind of effect? Having a scene from the ending be the Prelude sequence and everything told from the point it started until it lead to the Prelude.

Edit: I want quality examples of this, preferably by reputable writers. I want the advice for writing long novels; neither novelettes nor TV shows. Yes it's an old and possibly tired technique but I asking for the right way to do it.

If you couldn't grasp this, think of Nolan's Inception.

And if possible, cite older (out of copyright) titles so that I can get them from Project Gutenberg. I may already have some modern titles you may give as examples, but I seriously doubt it. If you can include the excerpt of the text you meant, that'd solve it.

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Watch TV. Seriously. It has been everywhere this year. I'm coming to hate it as a narrative device. You get the teaser, you're dropped into the story in medias res, and then after the credits you get "[X amount of time] earlier..." and the rest of the episode is building back up to that point. Honestly, most of the time it strikes me as a lazy way to build up suspense. –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 29 '11 at 13:30
    
@lau I wouldn't say so. TV is a really? bad example for this... And since it's going to be a serial, the 'ending-point' I've posted isn't preceding the climax; it's actually the first part of the cliffhanger after the climax. The rest of the story has its own plot with consequences that lead to a climax in chapter 43 (since I already mentioned that) and later what should be the second part of the serial... Still, I'm asking for quality examples for a hard SF novel; I can't say I saw anything on TV close to that. –  Mussri Dec 29 '11 at 15:54
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Perhaps this would get more answers on the Literature site? –  Neil Fein Jan 2 '12 at 7:22
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I don't think "in media res" refers to opening with a flash-forward and then immediately falling back to the "beginning"; rather, it expresses the idea of beginning the story at the point where conflict arises. This is in contrast to beginning the story as a build-up to that conflict - which often makes for a very slow start, even if it seems necessary to understand the conflict (there are other ways of dealing with this problem). –  Standback Jan 3 '12 at 6:41
    
This suggests why it's non-trivial to find quality examples of the technique - basically, it's not very good technique. It adds a big bang at the beginning, which is nice, but then it falls immediately back into the "slow build-up towards conflict" trap. I've run across this very often in new writers - who know they need to start off with something enticing, but haven't learned yet how to make all their story enticing. In published work, not so much - I'm sure there are examples, but it might be hard to find good ones. (And Memento doesn't count :P) –  Standback Jan 3 '12 at 6:45

3 Answers 3

Check out Vonnegut -- Slaughterhouse Five for a more traditional version, or Galapagos for a more quirky version.

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From TV Tropes ("In Media Res" and "How We Got Here"):

  • Fight Club starts with Tyler Durden holding a gun in the Narrator's mouth, then goes back to the beginning and catches back up.
  • Kill Bill Volume One opens with The Bride killing victim number two before jumping back to explain how she got to that point, the film ends with the killing of victim number one.
  • Each book of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga opens with a preface that is actually describing a scene that happens near the climax of the story.
  • The Red Mars trilogy opens the night of the assassination of John Boone, the first man on Mars, then jumps back about twenty-seven years.
  • Christopher Nolan's films seem to specialize in this. Batman Begins start the story proper with Bruce Wayne in a Tibetan prison before flashbacking to explain how he got there. The Prestige begins with a shot of a pile of top hats scattered in some woods followed by Michael Caine performing a magic trick to a little girl, both of which only pop up in the last third of the film. Inception begins with Cobb washing up on a beach before being dragged to meet an elderly man. The film spends most of its running time recounting how Cobb ended up there.

However, as I've mentioned in the comments, this is a problematic technique. It's meant to offset the slow build-up to conflict, but in practice, it often merely delays that slow build-up. The reader reaches the slow bit a couple of pages later, but unless the flash-forward is extremely powerful and its significance to the story is (and remains) immediately obvious, the flashforward scene seems unrelated and is soon forgotten.

To all that, add the difficulty of presenting a compelling scene before introducing the setting and characters (TV Tropes calls this "Lost In Media Res", and for good cause). This is a difficulty I certainly think the critique pieces you posted suffered from.

One example I'd consider successful is the opening of Dan Simmon's Endymion - the first four pages, available in this preview. For the most part, it's less of a scene and more of a monologue - but this allows the author to toss in some teaser-ish details, particularly the idea of "making love to a messiah," and the twin death sentences. No less importantly, this lets him explicitly introduce the tone and feel of the story. It's so explicit it's almost clumsy, but he keeps it short, and peppers it with powerful, immediate details to look forward to. The Schroedinger's cat box is at once both very easy to grasp even when knowing nothing of the world, and also extremely significant (it's the narrator's death penalty; it's also bizarre and ingenious, making us wonder why on earth - and in the setting - this contraption has come to be used). It should be noted the narrator returns to this flash-forward repeatedly throughout the books, so we never forget about it.

Hope this helps :)

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Flash-forwarding is also called 'Prolepsis'. There are examples in classical literature, mainly in the form of prophesy. For example, Oedipus is told that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. I know that I have seen it elsewhere in SF, but haven't found a specific example for you yet. It seems like the technique, not used as an interlude, might be more commonly found in short stories.

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I'd think this fits more into being direct foreshadowing. Which isn't really what I'm looking for. –  Mussri Jan 1 '12 at 9:04

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