30 November 2019

A Story in Reverse

I have always admired writers who are willing to take risks and try new techniques and venture out of their comfort zones. That's hard to do, and I respect them for it. Then again, I also admire people who compose classical music and carve ice sculptures and paint frescoes on the ceilings of cathedrals--but I don't try to do those things, and wouldn't be able to if I did.

As for writing, well, most of my short stories are traditional, past-tense, first- or third-person, once-upon-a-time fiction, the kind of stuff I like to read. I usually leave the stream-of-consciousness, surreal, hyperbolic, slipstreamy exercises to those who are comfortable with that kind of thing, and who--at least supposedly--know what they're doing.

But . . . now and then, once in a blue moon, I find myself clipping on a bungee cord and trying something new. My most recent attempt to wander off the grid resulted in a story I placed in the 2019 Bouchercon anthology, Denim, Diamonds, and Death (Down & Out Books). My story is called "The Midnight Child," and involves the robbery of an East Texas bank by a team of four seasoned criminals. The "different" thing about this story is that it has a nonlinear timeline. Nothing quite as weird as movies like Memento or Pulp Fiction (both of which I loved, by the way), but at least unusual.

Here's what I mean. My story consists of five scenes, the first of which is set at 5:30 p.m., when the team of thieves has already completed the heist and has gathered at a remote spot to divide the loot and go their separate ways. The second scene, though, takes place an hour earlier, at 4:30, when the team commits the crime and makes its getaway. The third scene is even earlier, at 3:40, as they're sitting together at a bar, going over last-minute plans and getting ready to leave and head down the street to the bank. The fourth scene is at 2:55, as they kill time at a nearby motel before driving to the bar. The fifth and final scene jumps ahead to 5:40, and picks up at the point where the first scene left off.

If you think that doesn't sound too interesting, I agree. It doesn't even sound like a story I might want to read. What happened, though, is that this crazy time structure allowed me to do some things in that first scene that needed further explanation--sort of a reverse foreshadowing--and by rewinding to a point an hour earlier and then continuing to back up in time, I could make those things clear, and eventually explain why everything was working out the way it was. Then, in the very last scene, only after these connected flashbacks cleared up most of what was going on, I was able to conclude with what I hope was a satisfying ending.

I had never seen things done quite that way before, but that was one of the reasons I found myself wanting to try it. As it turned out, "The Midnight Child" was great fun to write--a lot more fun, I think. than it would've been if it had been told in chronological order. I hope it's fun to read.

Will I ever do this again, with other stories? Possibly. If it seems that might be a good way to spin the tale. Certainly not every story would lend itself to this kind of writing. One thing I don't want to do, and that I believe some authors are guilty of, is to write a story that's different just to be different. I once read a novel written without ever using the letter "e." It was an interesting read (not one occurrence of "the" in the entire book), but it was interesting mostly because I wanted to see how such a thing could be done. It added nothing to the story itself. It seemed more gimmicky than innovative.

Another example: Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men--and The Road too, if I recall correctly--without using any quotation marks to designate dialogue. In my opinion, both were fine books (especially No Country), but not because of that piece of experimental style. I don't think the absence of quotation marks hurt the narrative, but I also don't think it helped. I guess it was memorable, though; I sure remember it. Maybe that was its purpose.

What about you? Have you, in your own fiction, played around with different storytelling techniques? If so, do you think your efforts were successful? Did you enjoy the process? Have you read stories or novels that broke these kinds of rules, or seen movies experimentally filmed? Did you like them? Would you try something like that in your own work, in the future?

Maybe this is all moot. Maybe all art is an experiment, and all artists are innovators.

As for me, call me irresponsible, or just stubborn . . . but I usually prefer the old way.


  1. This is a great thought-provoking topic for all writers, John, and we should all think seriously about how and why we do stuff. When we stop thinking about it, we can get stale.

    I constantly revise stuff, as I said in my last column here, but Postcards of the Hanging gained dozens of rejections when it was in chronological order, probably because it was my first attempt at a novel and it began very slowly. When I changed to flashbacks and flash-forwards (like your story), it worked much better.

    I remember that The Whammer Jammers felt flat and lifeless as I struggled through the first draft. It took me about four times as long as usual to hack out about fifty pages. Then I changed the whole thing from past tense to present tense, and the story burst into life.

    I'm one of those people who doesn't mind present tense. Maybe because I did lots of theater, which is always in the present tense. But some stories seem to lend themselves to the technique.

    I don't like flashbacks, as a rule, but I'm finding more reasons to use them in my own writing, and that is making them less unattractive. It's all about function, isn't it?

    Postcards is the only novel I've published in first person POV (a few of my short stories use it) and I wonder if I will do more. I love stories that use an unreliable narrator if they're done well, and maybe I'll try something like that. I recently wrote a story (still unpublished ;-) with a character who works as both a catalyst and a McGuffin. He appears and draws a lot of attention, but he's kind of a distraction from the REAL villain.

    If I don't experiment, it's like playing the same guitar chords over and over and the songs begin to sound the same. Of course, if they sell, that's not a bad thing.

  2. John, congratulations on your story getting in the anthology. And that’s an interesting take on how to do it. Every once in a while I try something different. Lately, I’ve written some stories that sort of jump around in time and do some other “weird” things. I think they work but until I start sending them out I won’t know for sure…

  3. John, I haven't tried a reverse story yet. Now that you bring it up, I'll have to study on the subject and see if I come up with anything. Sounds like an intriguing project.

    I have tried one modular story and one Rashomon style story. Neither one sold. Could have been the story itself, could have been the editor's likes and dislikes. But, they were fun to write and if the right circumstances come up, I may try again. After first trying a reverse story, of course. Like Steve says, otherwise it's like playing the same chords over and over again. Writing should be fun.

  4. Steve, I've found that I don't mind reading a story in present tense anymore. At first it was distracting to me, years ago--the first novel I remember reading that was done that way was PRESUMED INNOCENT, back in the (?) 90s, I think. But I've also found that it's hard for me to write in present tense. Probably because I keep lapsing into past. Sigh.

    Paul, I think I actually enjoy the time-jumping in stories and novels and movies, if that's done correctly, and when I find I enjoy something I'm reading/viewing, I usually want to try it out. There's a fine line, though, between doing that right and doing it in a way that's confusing. As you said, much of this stuff I do without knowing if I'm doing it correctly, and only when I submit it do I find out.

    R.T., the reverse storytelling doesn't always do the job--and I have found that the times I do something like that, I've already tried it the traditional way and found that it just isn't working. A lot of my so-called innovation happens by accident--I try this and that until it seems right. As for why a story gets rejected, I am not yet smart enough to figure that out. All we can do is try what feels right and stick with it, I guess.

    Thanks, guys, for the thoughtful comments.

  5. My latest in AHMM, "The Seven Day Itch", was an experiment where each scene - generally from a different (although 3rd person) POV - began with a reference to the last line of the last scene. At first, I thought, well, this is kind of gimmicky, but it worked, allowing me to play with more characters than usual. And it got published, so...

    Keep experimenting! You never know what will happen.

  6. Eve, that sounds great. And yes, gimmicky or not, if they bought it, it worked! I wrote one years ago divided into three equal parts, each of them in a different person's POV, and what I remember most is how much fun that was to write.

    I have not yet read "The Seven Day Itch"--looking forward to it!

  7. John,

    The story sounds really clever. It's great that with all your successes you're still willing to experiment with technique.

  8. John, I love to read this kind of post where a writer explains something different. Congratulations on your story being accepted for the anthology!
    Back when I was writing lots of short stories, being the contrarian I am, if anyone said "don't do this" in a short story, I'd start writing a story with the "taboo" rule. And, you guessed it, several of those stories were accepted. One of the "rules" used to be "do not use flashbacks." Another was not to change POVs. I've noticed that those "rules" are often "broken" now. And I think that's a good thing. As long as the writing is well-crafted, any way that serves the story should be used. Again, congrats! I know this story will always be special to you.

  9. Jacqueline, how kind of you. What a nice way to say that. The truth is, i seldom know what the hell I'm doing, so when something works I'm usually the most surprised person in the room.

    But it is fun, isn't it??

  10. Hey Jan! I agree, sometimes breaking the rules can be fun. I once read, in a how-to-write book, that a short story should never have more than one POV. And yes, I've heard the same thing you did, about flashbacks, etc. And I've heard you should never have more than a certain number of named characters in short story, and on and on and on. Sometimes you just have to do what feels right.

    Thanks so much for stopping in, here. Take care!

  11. Until last year, I think, I'd only written straightforward stories, first or third person, past tense. But I've been doing more experimenting lately, and you're right; it's fun. I recently sold an epistolary story to EQ, which I expect will be out in 2020 or 2021, and I've started writing stories with multiple POVs and other fun structures.

    As to "gimmicks," at the end of December, after Crime Travel has been out for a few weeks, I'm going to blog here about something unusual I did with that story, something I don't know if anyone will notice until I've pointed it out. It was hard to do, but I had a good reason for it ... and that's all I'm going to say about it now. You'll have to wait. Bwah ha ha.

    I bought the new Bcon anthology but haven't opened it yet. You've now enticed me to. Maybe tonight!

  12. Good, informative information, John. I like the nonlinear concept and have tried it a couple times.

  13. John, I think you can get away with a lot of things in a short story that would be annoying in an 80,000 word novel. I save short stories for my experimental writing. And again, experimental writing in the hands of someone who has had many publications with solid publishers, is something altogether different from the beginning work of a newbie writer. One thing I always tell my Crafting a Novel class: PLEASE don't rely on gimmicks. Just tell me a damn good story.

  14. Barb, you've enticed me too. Looking forward to reading that Crime Travel story, and looking forward to seeing that book "in the flesh." I have a feeling all those stories are gonna be fun--almost everybody likes time travel. As for trying new things, I wound up with a heist story in EQMM last year that was mostly humor. I was afraid that wouldn't work, at EQ, but thank God Janet liked it. Hope you'll enjoy the Bcon antho story. Let me know.

    Hey O'Neil. Thanks for the comment. I too have tried the nonlinear storylines before, with mixed results. But when it does work, it's sure a pleasure to write, and to read.

    GOOD POINT, Melodie. You're right, I think you can more successfully experiment in the short form. (I bet your Crafting a Novel class is a lot of fun!!)

    Thanks for the comments!

  15. Nice article, John, and I'm glad that experimentation is as rampant as it is. In my second novel, I had one of the characters arguing with the narrator. In my third novel, I tried writing it all in dialogue, which was only tricky in the gunfights. And my fourth and final novel was done all in present tense. The BOULD Awards anthology (both the 2018 and 2019 editions, and the one for 2020) encouraged authors to submit experimental, weird, bizarre short stories, and a lot came in. Also, I put out a collection of my own weirdest ones so far.

    Having only started writing in my mid-60s (age, not IQ), it's been a fun ride so far. I love pushing the envelope in whatever ways I can.

  16. Jake, congratulations on your successes, with experimental writing! I've got to check out that collection of yours, of weird stories.

    I agree that it's fun to test the limits (and break the rules) now and then.

    Thanks for dropping in!

  17. I love it, John! There's a story by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore called "Happy Ending" which opens something like: "This is the was the story ends." After a few paragraphs, we get "This is the middle of the story." The last lines, prefaced with "This is the way the story starts," put an entirely different spin on what we have just read! Me? I'm all for a little experimentation in fiction!

  18. Hey Jeff. I'll see if I can locate that Kuttner/Moore story. Thanks, and take care!


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