Is Your Story Written Backwards or Forwards?

If you’ve researched writing at all, or read any of the many writing tutorial blogs out there, you’ve probably read that you have to write your novel backwards from the ending.

This isn’t a post to disagree or agree with that advice, but rather to explore it. Because this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. And I think there is another question closely tied to it:

Is your story a vegetable plant in a garden or a meal at a restaurant?

(Yes, I’m hungry but there is also deep meaning in this metaphor so bear with me…)

Some books are like a good meal at a restaurant. You enjoy it while it lasts, but when it is over you move on. Other books are like vegetables in a garden–you go back to the same plant over and over and find new fruit on it.

Examples?

Virginia Woolf’s “The Years,” was a restaurant meal for me. I wanted to try something new and I thoroughly enjoyed the flavor of her exquisite prose. But the characters were wanting in depth, there was no real plot, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with or fully understood her themes. If I read it again I have little expectation to get anything new out of it: just the same flavors.

Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” is a vegetable garden for me. The questions raised in that book are timeless, and every time I come back to it with more life experience on my belt I appreciate a different aspect of it.

Granted, people will have different tastes and opinions for which books are 1-time experiences and which books are good repeats. But I do think some books (and stories) have characteristics that make them more subject to fall into one category or the other.

For example: There is no denying that thrillers/mysteries/suspense novels give a far different experience the first time than the second. It is the whole idea of the “unknown” that keeps the audience addictively engaged. All stories play upon the audience’s curiosity to find out what happens next, but these genres depend upon it. I think some stories are specifically crafted for the first time viewer/reader and some are crafted for the repeat.

M. Night Shyamalan is a story teller who plays on the first-time viewer. I’ve only watched three of his movies, and I was kind of coerced into two of them because I really don’t like scary movies. But one thing I noticed is that the people around me would be absolutely terrified in the middle of the movie, but by the end they would be like: that was lame. And I don’t think I’ve heard any of my friends say, “Let’s watch that Shyamalan movie again.” Shyamalan is really quite brilliant at playing with uncertainty and the unknown. (From what I’ve seen) He focuses more on the fear itself than on “scary things.” But that means the second time around, all of the adrenaline is gone because you have all the answers.

But then we have “The Lord of the Rings.” I have friends who re-read the books and re-watch every year. Obviously they already know the ending. They know all the plot twists and can quote most of the lines. But they keep coming back to it. (I do too!) It’s because there is a meat and a substance there that never grows old.

Now, back to my original question. Is it important for the author to know the end of his/her book from the beginning? It’s usually helpful.

But here is the main issue I have: some authors are trading in substance for trickery.

They write a quick-read action and adventure story, but in order to make readers/viewers come back they embed the story with things that only make sense once you’ve reached the end. Have you read stories like that? Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it is fun to reach the end and find out a surprising twist and think: this changes everything! But it has to be handled correctly. Because honestly other times I feel tricked. And then I get grumpy like Nacho…

If you’ve read my blog at all, you’ll know that what I call reader trust is very important to me. You want your reader to be emotionally invested, right? I think that’s what we all want as authors. Well, it seems pretty unfair to trick them or make them feel like idiots after they’ve invested in your story. I’m trying to think of a couple of examples.

Ocean’s 12 comes to mind. When Ocean’s gang makes a bet with “the Night Fox” about who can steal the Faberge Egg, I was rooting for Ocean and the gang. But I wanted to be in on it. But the movie is written so that the audience is duped right along with their enemies. Granted, the first movie delivered its climax similarly. But at least the audience saw the pieces of the puzzle along the way even if they didn’t understand them. In the sequel, the key piece of the puzzle isn’t even shown so there is no way for the audience to have an “aha!” moment at the end.

So here’s my two cents on┬áthe best way to pull off a game-changing reveal at the end:

  1. Plant hints along the way so the reader feels like you’ve led them there and they are not blindsided.
  2. It shouldn’t invalidate previous events, only illuminate them. In other words, all those scenes that you wrote knowing the reader didn’t have all the information need to have a substance of their own.

    Leave your reader exclaiming, “Wow, I had no idea!” or “That makes so much sense!” not “It was all a lie!”

 

And my final thoughts:

Even if you compose your story from end to beginning with all sorts of clever twists, you need to make sure that every part of the journey is worthwhile in itself.

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