What Is a Reverse Narrative?
Though many narrative structures mimic a person’s conscious experience and move through time in a forward progression, a great number don’t. An artist can invent creative and engaging stories by manipulating time in bizarre ways. By examining the ramifications of telling a story backward, a definition of reverse narration surfaces.
Instead of presenting a series of situations, actions or scenes that follow in a linear fashion, a reverse narrative works backward through time, showing the effect before the cause, and the end at the beginning. The film "Memento" is a prime example of this technique. This presents the audience with a unique experience that can be disorienting because it does not mimic a person’s conscious experience of time.
Although there's no set equation for how to construct a linear narrative, certain fundamental plot points are accepted as essential. For example, a rising action leads to a heightened point or climax, and even though these points exist in many reverse narratives, they’re constructed in a different way. Even though the rising action will be where the falling action would be in a linear narrative, because the story begins at the end, the rising action comes at a time that’s familiar to the audience.
In general, the beginning of a narrative is reserved for introducing the characters, setting and providing a hint about the central conflict. Even though the reverse narrative begins at the end of the story, because the end is presented to the viewer first, it is this point in the story that serves to establish the foundation for the rest of the narrative. For example, Harold Pinter's play "Betrayal' introduces two central characters two years after their affair, the play's central conflict, in the first scene. Due to the manipulation of time, the beginning of the reverse narrative is the end of the story but the start of the audience's experience with it.
At the heart of a great narrative are a number of secrets pertaining to the central characters and actions. Since a reverse narrative begins at the end, there is potential for a great number of secrets to be revealed initially, but this doesn’t mean secrets can’t be kept and revealed secrets can’t be powerful. If the end of the protagonist’s story, the beginning of a reverse narrative, is that she’s pregnant, the entire experience could lead to the beginning of the story -- the end of the reverse narrative -- where it’s revealed who seduced the protagonist.
Jake Shore is an award-winning Brooklyn-based playwright, published short story writer and professor at Wagner College. His short fiction has appeared in many publications including Litro Magazine, one of London's leading literary magazines. Shore earned his MFA in creative writing from Goddard College.