Rose's Jumping Into Writing #2: Writing Backwards

If you guys are interested in my collective Jumping into Writing series, the first post in this series is here.  I'll have a masterpost that some of you can link to later or just edit these with updated entry links as I go along.

 

So, I've talked about some of the things that help me in my writing pursuits, but one of the things that I've actually been brainstorming over the past week or so was how to pen an entry on the process of "writing backwards."  This is simple to do, but much harder to explain concisely.  =)  

 

Most people I've seen in the interwebs trying to explain this process pretty much say "DO IT, it helps so much," but they don't give examples of HOW they do it.

 

Well, you're going to get an explanation from me in terms of what it is and how to use it. Follow along with me in each section.

 

What exactly do you mean by "writing backwards"?

 

Exactly what it implies - taking a story, starting from the ending (or an end point to a scene), and working in reverse to the beginning.  Now, there are people who may do this without realizing it, especially if you are the kind of writer who jumps around, writing the scenes you're excited about, and then you attempt to link them together and you have to figure out "Okay, how do I work up to this scene or link back to something I previously wrote?"  But I'm going to show you sometimes what I do with working on a particular story.

 

Let's start small, and work up to something larger.

 

Working backwards for a scene

 

Sometimes if I'm really having trouble with figuring out what I want to write about, I'll start at a scene's ending and work backwards.  

 

If I start out writing a sentence like this:

 

Alex's gaze leveled at the knife in front of his chest.

 

You may think that particular situation is precarious (understatement), but you also may consider "What led up to that?"  I'm penning this as an end point to a crucial scene or chapter, so I have to consider the possibilities of where this crucial moment came from. Thus I can walk myself backwards from this situation.  But first, I'll consider a few things.

 

I'd work with this the same way I explained dissecting a sentence for a story in the last post I penned, using the story I came up with for Jordan as an example.  In this case, I can apply the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How? examinations to Alex's situation.

 

Who? Alex seems to be the viewpoint character in this scene, so I have to establish who he is.  Teenage Caucasian boy, around 15-16 years old.  Dark hair, gray eyes, not very tall for his age, slim - not physically strong.  At least this is the image I get in my head immediately when I'm thinking of the character in this particular scenario.

 

What? Alex is looking at a knife at his chest, so what does this mean?  Is he holding a knife, about to do something with it, or is he at the receiving end of the blade, as if he's being threatened?  What type of knife is it - dagger, kitchen knife, 8th century artifact from a museum?  I could brainstorm a lot of possibilities.  As I brainstorm the details, I can start taking steps backward.

 

His stepmother stopped chopping the tomato on the kitchen counter, juices dripping down the blade.  Turning on the faucet, she ran the cool water over the metal, seeds running down the swirl of the sink.

 

What's the connection between these sentences and the former statement?  Alex's stepmother has a knife, but is this the same knife that ends up with Alex?  How?

 

You can actually fill in details whenever and wherever you like during this process, but I'm going to continue filling in details based on these two statements.

 

We have another Who? since Alex's stepmother has been introduced.

 

Where? When? Context clues could show that Alex and his stepmother are in a kitchen, likely inside his own home.  We could make it around the evening. It's raining outside steadily, occasional thunder and lightning.  Again, these are details you can fill in as you're crafting your own scenes.

 

That just leaves crafting the Why? and How? of this particular scenario.

 

Let's take another step backwards.

 

"You know, I really don't like the tone you're taking with me," she said, the rhythm of her chopping against the counter growing more intense.  Alex felt his pulse quicken, blood rushing through his ears.  

 

Now we have something of a motivation, which could answer the questions of Why? and How?  I'm going to stop here with walking backwards through this scene, and start filling in details.  The rest is mostly connecting the dots.

 

"You know, I really don't like the tone you're taking with me," she said, the rhythm of her chopping against the counter growing more intense.  Alex felt his pulse quicken, blood rushing through his ears.  Her back was to him, her voice calm, but he had no way of knowing if her expression held the guilt her tone lacked.

 

He wanted to be wrong, he didn't want to confront her like this, didn't think he had any choice.  But what if he was right?  What if she had been responsible?  It didn't matter what his father thought - Dad was madly in love with her, found nothing she did suspect in the slightest.  His younger sister didn't even care just as long as they could take shopping trips together.  Was he really the only one that saw something off about her, let alone what he witnessed?

 

"I saw you," he managed.  "You were at the festival today, weren't you?"

 

She laughed, but it sounded forced. "I don't know what you're talking--"

 

"I saw you!"  Thunder rumbled in the distance outside, made his words seem even more sharp in the silence that followed.  His jaw clenched, hands balled into fists.  His fury gave him some courage.  "You were there, and you had something to do with sabotaging Mira's booth.  Did you think you could really get away with that?  What is wrong with you?"

 

His stepmother stopped chopping the tomato on the kitchen counter, juices dripping down the blade.  Turning on the faucet, she ran the cool water over the metal, seeds running down the swirl of the sink.  He watched as she calmly dried the blade with a dishtowel.

 

"You ask too many questions."  She turned to look at him, and even in the dim light of the kitchen, he could see the lighting reflect from the windows in her eyes as it flashed. Her smile held no humor. "Your father and sister don't have a problem with me.  But you - poor neglected, jealous Alex - you have to question me each and every time.  You know, this family would be a lot better without you to spoil it, wouldn't it?"

 

What have I done?  He took a step back, found his hip hitting the counter behind him.  It's a moment too long as he winced, recovering, but she'd closed the space between them just as quickly.

 

Alex's gaze leveled at the knife in front of his chest.

 

Probably a cruel cliffhanger, but that tells you what you can do with filling in the details to shape motivations, conflict, and scene just by building a series of statements and bringing them together.  =)

 

Now I'm going to try to show you how to work backwards with a much larger story set.

 

Working backwards with a larger/longer story

 

Working backwards beyond a scene - for a short story, an novella or novel - can be a more challenging task.  Some people may choose to start at the very end of the story, with the "happily ever after" so that they know where they're writing to. Others may start with the climax, where the protagonist may be at the very moment of peril signaling the turning point of the novel of the last act, and work backward from there.

 

If I'm taking the confrontation between Alex and his stepmother as a turning point of a potential novella or even a novel, I could look at the larger picture of events leading up to that particular scene.  Maybe in sketches of sentences:

 

Alex confronts his stepmother about it that night before his father and sister return home.

 

Alex witnesses his stepmother sabotage the booth at the festival, where someone ended up hurt.

 

Alex has a fight with his father concerning his suspicions about his stepmother, but ultimately can't prove anything concrete other than a bunch of coincidences and his gut instinct.

 

And so forth, where I can work backward to see how the story takes root all the way to the beginning. I may not know the full details of what may happen emotionally with the character and his interactions, but I get a sense of where to start penning Alex's narrative by working backwards with the overarching story.

 

If you want, try looking at a story that you really like - short or long, and going backwards through the narrative.  See what events lead up to the moments of truth or critical scenes.  Or if you can, try reading a narrative that actually is written in reverse chronology, and see how it works its way to the beginning.  You may be surprised how interesting a story can be when it unfolds, backwards and forwards.

 

Until next entry,

~Rose