Starting at the End: Reverse Chronology

Don’t hold the term in the title against me.  I couldn’t find a consistent label for when a story starts at the end.  ‘Reverse chronology’ caught my eye a few times and I liked the sound of it.  Makes sense since you’re going backwards even though that’s not entirely true here.  You aren’t exactly running backwards here.  So, what are you doing?

This is simply when the first scene is the finale.  Even if there’s a little bit afterwards, the resolution is now known to the audience.  They have a general idea of the hero at least winning regardless of them either dying or appearing to die.  A twist in the epilogue doesn’t change the placement of the resolution here.  For example, ‘John Wick’ up there uses this tactic perfectly.  You don’t even know if he really won or is still on the run, but can’t go any further.  All you know is that it looks like his adventure is over.  Then, it goes back to the beginning to show what led to this outcome.

You may think this eliminates all of the stakes because you know the hero will survive what they’re about the face.  At least until you see the opening scene starting up.  This may be true on some level, but there’s a new type of suspense.  Mostly, you don’t really know when that opening scene will strike.  After all, you don’t really know if it’s the ending or a curveball.  It could be in medias res and there will be a recovery part before the final battle like in ‘Rocky III’.  Minus the in medias res with that example, but I hope you get my point about the type of suspense.  It’s only when we know for sure that the beginning is the ending that the tension vanishes, but that’s on a second viewing or reading.  So, it hits the mark for the first time.

I like these types of stories because of the mystery they cause.  Every scene can lead to the finale, especially if it’s an action one and the opening showed the hero having been brutalized.  You look for signs and clues about things happening, so you become engrossed in the details.  Character’s words and things in the background get more attention than they would if you were going from start to end.  It creates a sense of hypersensitivity that can really payoff.  Helps to put a few clues in there even they can’t be noticed until a second watch.  Easter eggs can really help a story like this get more longevity instead of being a one-time enjoyment.

Similar to in medias res, plotters and pantsers can both use this without much of a problem.  Plotters have their stories set up, so they just move a copy of the opening scene to the point where they need it at the end.  It’s up to the author to either make it a copy/paste or write it in a new way, but both work depending on how the rest of the story was written.  For pantsers, this gives them a target that they have no choice, but to reach at some point.  They don’t have to go straight as the crow flies here.  It’s possible to roam around and come at it from a surprising angle.  This can actually increase tension if some scenes look like they’re about to lead to the known ending.  Both groups can also go back to the opener and change it up if they find that the middle doesn’t really bring them to that exact point.  We aren’t perfect, so adjusts need to be made at times.

So, what do you think about starting a story with the finale?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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10 Responses to Starting at the End: Reverse Chronology

  1. It could be fun, as an experiment, to write a story completely backward. Like chapter 1 is “Yesterday,” chapter 2 is “Two Days Ago,” and so forth until you reach the starting point and then make “Today” the final chapter.

    Hmm, now I’m getting ideas.


  2. L. Marie says:

    This has been a great series of posts. I’ve read books and of course seen movies where this has been the case. I especially think of Memento Memento and Rebecca (based on the book by Daphne du Maurier). I thought the tension was well done in both films. I also read a young adult novel told in retrospect on the subject of abuse. Can’t remember the title of it. It was not as suspenseful to me because the character seemed too detached from the angst. And since the story was all about whether or not the character would be murdered by another character, there was zero suspense because obviously the character survived to tell the story!


  3. I love stories that start with either the finale or a scene before the finale. It is like a wake-up call that keeps the reader engaged throughout the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kind of media res, but with a twist. You’ve got me thinking now.


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