Stories are like sharks – to stay alive they must keep moving

A simple trick for writing a compelling story  

One day I want to write a story that runs backwards. I’ll start with the protagonists in a mire of disaster, and then tick back through time, unpicking their mistakes, until they are blithe and bonny.

So I devour all I can about backwards narratives, and the other day I was listening to the actress Kristen Scott Thomas interviewed about her part in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. The play is a love triangle; husband, wife and wife’s lover. The first scene takes place after the affair has ended and the final scene ends when the affair begins.

Aside from indulging my long-range planning, her comments about playing the part clarified something fundamental that writers do when we create any story – backwards or forwards.

Scott Thomas said that Betrayal’s chronology stripped away the tools the actors normally used to carry them through a performance. Usually, the actor plugs in at scene one, and what they experience there carries them, changed, into the next one. This domino taps that domino. In each scene their character learns something, commits to something, discards something, and that sets them up for the next. Changing all the time.

This relentless momentum, the decisions and acts that cannot be undone, the words that cannot be unsaid, are the pulse that gives a story its life. It’s like a shark who must keep moving otherwise it will die.

That change in every scene is what the actor looks for. It might be gigantic or it might be just a grain. And it is what the writer must look for too.

Thank you, Mrpbps, for the picture. Does each of your scenes have that momentum of forwards change? Do you think there are any situations where a scene can coast without anything changing? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by taureanw on June 12, 2011 - 1:34 pm

    I like the idea of the backwards narrative. Looking forward to hearing how that goes!

    • #2 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 5:48 pm

      Thank you, Taurean! I’m searching for the idea that needs to be written that way. Don’t hold your breath, though. My stories can take years to mature.

  2. #3 by Susan Schreyer on June 12, 2011 - 2:12 pm

    I think we will lose our readers if we abandon forward momentum. I’m not saying each scene must be fraught with intense conflict and disaster. That kind of pacing would wear our readers out before they even got to the first plot twist! Certainly a backwards-told-tale would have forward momentum. If skillfully done, the reader would feel compelled to know how the characters reached each scene goal.

    Taped to the lamp above my computer I have a note that reminds me of the elements of a story — Scene and Sequel — and their component parts: Scene = goal –>conflict –>disaster. Sequel = reaction –>dilemma –> decision….which leads to the next scene goal. Whenever I get stuck that little note pulls me back to my path and helps me find my way.

    • #4 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 5:50 pm

      ‘A backwards-told tale has forward momentum’ – absolutely, Susan. That’s exactly the effect I’m aiming for (in this story I have only a theory for, not an actual story!)

      Like in dressage. Halt and even rein-back are forwards movements!

  3. #5 by elle amberley on June 12, 2011 - 2:27 pm

    Interesting idea. I do hope my stories have enough momentum, though sometimes the most subtle changes can be the key to a big finale…

    • #6 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 5:51 pm

      In some scenes subtle changes are enough, Elle. Otherwise we’d wear the reader out. But if nothing changes at all, we have to ask ourselves why the scene is there.

      Alexander has discussed this a little more below.

  4. #7 by Markh on June 12, 2011 - 2:39 pm

    As a wannabe crime writer, I find it a vexing process trying to write backwards, or at least fill in details that happened before the story even starts. Usually a crime has been committed at the beginning of the story — in a unique situation — and then I have to add the detail and motive that led up to that crime. All that stuff that happens off-stage — at least initially — all the decisions and emotions at the root of the crime. It can make my head explode sometimes, because it’s difficult to get the motive and situation fit with the story I originally wanted to write. I’m learning to be more organic in the way I approach this stuff — sometimes the back-story doesn’t fit the crime — but it’s incredibly satisfying when it all ties up nicely!

    • #8 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 5:55 pm

      Mark, that’s an interesting perspective. Crime and murder parachutes us in after some of the most dramatic moments have already happened. I can imagine that deciding what information to drip out when is a major headache. Most of us have to squeeze back story in somehow, but you have back story turned up to 11!

    • #9 by Mark Feggeler on June 14, 2011 - 1:55 pm

      Exactly. I am wrapping up my first murder mystery this summer and have found it a tremendously educational experience. I can easily see how, in the first chapters, I was struggling to stick to my detailed outline, but after 50 pages it loosens up because I simply let go and let it flow. Motives changed to suit the way the characters were developing. Some characters I was married to at first have now fallen out completely. Oddly enough, the very beginning and ending of the story have remained intact, despite the many tweaks along the way.
      As for forward motion, it is necessary to move the protagonist along, or have other characters moving on while the protagonist stays put. Motion is relative, after all. That said, I do believe not all scenes need to drive forward motion, but they must serve a purpose.

  5. #10 by Stacy Green on June 12, 2011 - 2:41 pm

    I have trouble writing backwards as well. I can map out later scenes, make notes, etc., but I have to get into the flow of the narrative and learn about my characters before I can nail a scene. The only way I can do that is to write the scenes that come before.

    But I can see the benefits, and it’s definitely an exercise worth trying. Anything that’s a challenge can only make us better writers.

    • #11 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 5:57 pm

      Stacy, I wasn’t thinking so much of writing the story in reverse order to play it forwards, I was thinking of writing it to play it backwards to the reader so that the characters get younger…. if that makes sense. Although some writers do start with their end and work out how they will get the characters there…

      • #12 by Stacy Green on June 12, 2011 - 8:42 pm

        Yes, that makes sense. I had a chattering five year old next to me this morning and wasn’t thinking straight, lol.

  6. #13 by Alexander M Zoltai on June 12, 2011 - 2:53 pm

    While I totally agree that there must be those decisional-action-points to keep the story alive, I’m not sure I would say it must happen in every scene…

    There are scenes whose purpose is to make the reader hang a bit in suspense (with, possibly, some backstory or such) or draw out some agony from a different perspective…

    What does Roz think? 🙂

    • #14 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 6:01 pm

      Hello, Alexander! Roz thinks… that sometimes these forward steps can be very small. Sometimes they are an advance of understanding (as you say, filling in back story or another character’s POV). But they are still progress. By the time that scene ends, the reader is a little further along (and not just in terms of pages read).

  7. #17 by Carol Riggs on June 12, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    Definitely must happen in a crime or mystery novel. Good reminder here, that things must progress. Not sure all mine do, so I will check as I’m revising…like, can I take that scene out w/o affecting anything? Big clue it hasn’t progressed anything. (boohoo) Sometimes it’s a character progression and not outer action, though.

    • #18 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 6:02 pm

      Hi Carol! Character progression definitely counts.

  8. #19 by Sally on June 12, 2011 - 3:23 pm

    There’s no such thing as a scene in a novel there just for the sake of it. Even if things appear to stay pretty much the same, or (as Alexander has mentioned) the scene is technical backstory, every scene will nevertheless change something about the story, or give the reader an insight in a way that changes what they thought had been going on up until that point. I myself did this quite consciously in my novel, whereby my main character has vague memories of a past life, and I let the reader think the whole story is about unravelling what happened in the past life. Then the beginning of my second act begins with a complete giveaway of what happened. The reader is then left in a position whereby they realise that there is much more going on than they had originally imagined, and they begin to watch the story unravel anew from the hitherto inexplicable actions of other characters in the story.

    • #20 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 6:04 pm

      Sally, I like the sound of your novel! And the way you boldly anticipate what the reader thinks you’re keeping until the end – and then tell them and take the story in an unexpected direction. Smart.

  9. #21 by Sally on June 12, 2011 - 3:28 pm

    Btw, isn’t crime fiction just backward narrative? Not in the final layout as such, just in that you tend to start with the crime and work backwards through the eyes of the detective or whoever is trying to solve the crime. Or have I missed the point?

    • #22 by rozmorris on June 12, 2011 - 6:06 pm

      I suppose crime fiction is backwards narrative, but what I meant was that the characters would tick backwards in time and get younger.

      The most famous exponent of backwards narrative in prose fiction is Martin Amis, in Time’s Arrow. It features a concentration camp doctor who creates people from clouds of ash, nourishes them and sends them out to live happy lives far away.

      • #23 by Sally on June 13, 2011 - 10:26 am

        Ah, got it.

  10. #24 by Jeffrey Russell on June 12, 2011 - 7:36 pm

    .that try to going am I .Hmmm. backward Writing .thoughtful and interesting so always are posts Your

    • #25 by rozmorris on June 13, 2011 - 7:06 am

      A pleasure to have you here, Yoda.

  11. #26 by Zelah Meyer on June 12, 2011 - 11:06 pm

    At the risk of turning in to someone who says “Alan says” all to frequenty – I do use his advice for acting a scene when it comes to writing one. That is, “Everything that is said changes you.”

    I presume, if the plot goes backwards, then the characters speaking still change with everything they say to each other, it’s just that, instead of acting differently to each other because of what was said and how it was said, they act differently because they lack the knowledge of what will come.

    So, they unlearn trust or mistrust, love or hate.

    It does indeed sound like an interesting style to write. It doesn’t appeal to me personally since I can’t help feeling it works better in terms of explaining why everything went wrong rather than why everything went right (and I like my happy endings!) However, I wish you well with it!

    If I ever have the time and fancy a challenge, I might see if I could make it work while starting with my pre-requisite happy ending and yet still keep the pace and interest going. That does indeed sound like a challenge!

    • #27 by Zelah Meyer on June 12, 2011 - 11:09 pm

      Note to self, setting up a blog account of your own does not allow you to edit typos in comments you make on someone else’s!

    • #29 by rozmorris on June 13, 2011 - 7:08 am

      Ah, but what Alan says generally makes such good sense!

  12. #30 by K.M. Weiland on June 13, 2011 - 4:12 pm

    Backwards narratives (and out-of-chronological-order narratives) are one of my favorite fictional gimmicks. Of course, the technique very manipulative, but I find it a tremendous delight to watch the story unfold in an unusual way and to feel the impending tension – since I’ve already been shown what the end will be. Outlining scenes backwards is one of my go-to methods for ensuring “domino scenes” that directly influence one another. Nothing shows a writer the gaps in his logic better than a little hindsight, and that’s exactly what working backwards provides.

    • #31 by rozmorris on June 14, 2011 - 6:57 am

      Hi Katie! I’m sure there’s tremendous power in telling the right story in this way. Although I think Mr Amis has probably hit the pinnacle.
      But behind the scenes I might sketch out a book in this way, like you – it’s a great way to get everything tightly knit.

  13. #32 by jjdebenedictis on June 13, 2011 - 5:58 pm

    In “Story” by Robert McKee, he calls these “turning points”. A turning point is an irreversible change. Because the characters can’t undo the change, they are forced to go forward from what has happened. That’s what propels the story forward–the irreversible changes: the decisions, revelations, and cataclysms.

    • #33 by rozmorris on June 13, 2011 - 7:17 pm

      Exactly. It might be a big turning point, it might be microscopic, but it draws the characters further along their path.

  14. #34 by Miss Rosemary on June 13, 2011 - 7:58 pm

    Even if you work backwards, the story must make sense chronologically. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of nothing not really making any sense based on a cool concept. So the forward momentum is never really lost at all.

    • #35 by rozmorris on June 14, 2011 - 6:58 am

      Absolutely. A concept on its own is not enough.

  15. #36 by Julie Musil on June 15, 2011 - 3:17 am

    I love the shark analogy! I’m going through my scenes right now, consolidating, expanding, or chopping them off. This helps me remember that each one should keep things moving forward. Thanks.

    • #37 by rozmorris on June 15, 2011 - 6:48 am

      Thanks Julie. Keep going forwards…

  16. #38 by Gene Lempp on June 15, 2011 - 11:19 am

    I’ve heard some good theories about “reverse engineering” a story. It seems a good way to ensure that your character and story arcs function, sort of a back check like in math. As for scenes, there must always be change of some form. If things stay static than what reason does the reader have to continue forward. Change is momentum.

    Great Post!

  17. #40 by Amanda Hoving on June 16, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    Very interesting idea, Roz. It reminds me of an old Seinfeld episode where they played the scenes backwards…although I’m sure you have something much less slapstick in mind. 😉

    • #41 by rozmorris on June 16, 2011 - 8:07 pm

      Thanks, Amanda. Yes I read that Seinfeld did that. Apparently ER did too.

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