When to Write in Reverse

Memento (film)

Memento (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember that Guy Pearce movie Memento? Before I ever knew what it was about, someone mentioned to me that the interesting thing about it is actually the structure of the movie. In case you haven’t seen it (and I’m really not giving much away here), it’s told in reverse. That is, the first scene you see is the last scene of the movie, chronologically. And each scene is just a few minutes before whichever scene you just watched.

This is an interesting technique, especially when you realize it puts the audience in a similar frame of mind as Pearce’s character, who has short-term memory loss. I’ve always loved movies and books that mess with time. The most recent book that comes to mind is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I just can’t help but be drawn to stories like these; I think it’s in my blood.

Now, here’s the thing: when movies and books like these are still in the creation process, you wouldn’t want to watch or read them. That’s where the cutting room floor comes in; it’s the part of the creation process that is necessary but that the consumer doesn’t need to see. The final product isn’t messy but – if all goes well – seamless and sometimes mind-blowing in its intricacy.

Last week, I blogged about not being able to finish writing my novel on my own timeline because I got sick. But once I was well and able to get to work again, I realized that getting sick was merely a diversion from the ugly truth: I was stuck.

I hesitate to call this writer’s block because I still had plenty of ideas bouncing around my head, but the problem was how to write my way out of the current scene in which my character found herself. I realized that, even if I’d been perfectly healthy, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my book unless I could figure a way around my problem.

And then Memento popped into my head. Now, my story isn’t going to be told out of order, mainly because it’s narrated first person present. But Memento gave me an idea about the process of writing, and that was to write outside of the box. You see, I’d already written the end scene of the book weeks before. When scenes come to me, I get them down whether they’re in order or not because, otherwise, I’m likely to forget them. I knew where the story was going to end, but I’d lost my way. Unlike being lost on a road trip, however, I could jump right ahead to the end and forget the middle until I knew what to do with it.

All this week, I wrote in reverse. That doesn’t mean that I started with the last letters of each word but rather that I started with my last scene – the one I’d already written – and thought, What comes just before this? And I wrote it. The next day, I wrote the scene before that. And so on and so on, until today. Now, I’m writing right up to the scene where I left off. How could I not have known what my characters were up to?

It’s messy, full of repetitions, and I’m sure it will be a bear to edit. But it’s moving – even if it’s backward – to where it needs to go. My cutting room floor will be littered, but by the time I finish, the process of getting there will just be a cool story, not something someone can point to and say, “As you can see here, the author used the writing in reverse technique when her story stalled.”

I love writing by the seat of my pants. I know where I’m going, but the adventure is getting there, and it doesn’t have to be straightforward. I’ve had a lot of fun letting my story reveal itself in reverse. And even though it’s a little more than a week overdue, I am much closer to finishing (maybe tonight!) than I would have been if I had continued to plod forward.

So forget the rules. Drive in reverse for a while, and see where it takes you.

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2 thoughts on “When to Write in Reverse

  1. releaf1954 says:

    Yay for writing in reverse! I’m glad you’re un-stuck and on your way.

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