Turning My Book on End

I’ve heard some good exercises to improve plot or structure, but I read a book recently that gave me a new notion—a notion that threatens to turn my book upside down.

David Ball, in his “Technical Manual for Reading Plays,” called Backwards & Forwards argues that the way to read a play for meaning on stage is backwards, not just forwards.

He says that the play is “a series of dominoes: one event triggers the next, and so on.” He invites the reader to think of arranging dominoes on end, close enough together, so that if one is knocked over it knocks over the next and then the next.

If you read a good play forwards, you won’t notice this causality. That’s because if Event A triggers Event B, you know moving forward, that Event A could have triggered a whole array of other things.  But it didn’t—it triggered Event B.

If you start reading from the end—the last event (let’s call it Event Z), then the event which caused it (Event Y), then the event which caused it (Event X), you can see that you couldn’t have Event Z without Event Y occurring, and you couldn’t have Event X without Event Y.  So while reading forwards gives you a variety of options and thus adds mystery to the story, reading backwards is a series of “of courses” as you trace the play backwards.

While Ball makes a distinction between reading a play for performing on stage and reading a play as literature, I would suggest that his method for reading works for writing a story.  One caveat is that more unique and unusual variations on chronology make it more difficult to understand Ball’s point, but I think his argument is valid at heart of any story.

So why does it turn my book upside down? To analyze my structure backwards, I have to start with the end. But I don’t have an ending yet!  Since it’s not a novel, I can’t manufacture an ending. I haven’t decided if I’ve lived the last event or if it is still in my future. Until I do live it or decide I have already lived it and know what it is, I can’t work backwards on structure!

However, I can take the last event I’ve written and read backward from there, searching for cause and effect and revising where needed.

Have you ever read or analyzed your own or someone else’s story backwards?


Just a reminder that I have a story in the Midlife Collage contest this week.  To find my story go to Midlife Collage  OR Facebook page.  Remember: it’s “Still Photo” by Luanne Castle.  Please comment after my story and “like” it with the Facebook link if you have a Facebook account.  You can tell them which story you want to win in “closing arguments.”


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

16 responses to “Turning My Book on End

  1. jeannieunbottled

    This is intriguing. I have not tried doing this, but I have often seen what will happen in a story due to an author’s foreshadowing. I’m currently rereading a novel, “Good Faith,” by Jane Smiley. She gives many clues (in the forward trajectory of the novel) that can lead the reader to expect downfall for all. I don’t know if the clues are heavy handed or not, but I know who the amiable fiend is in this story — and how he undermines and corrupts everyone else. Maybe the “pleasure” for the reader is to see all this happening, little by little, and to be powerless to stop it. Now, back to reading backwards: the reader knows the end and can trace back a path of choices and circumstances. He or she can wonder what would have happened if another choice had been made, but the reader is still powerless to stop the chain of events. Thus, reading forward or backward, the reader is powerless…except in his or her efforts to understand.

    • Luanne

      The book sounds fabulous. Yes, powerless to stop it–like in a movie where you shout out a warning to the hero.

  2. I “read backwards” for my work all the time — because I am often challenging someone else’s assumptions, and as you say, it is a fabulous way to figure out if X led to Y.

    I’m glad to hear that you are having trouble deciding where to stop, too. That dilemma has made me hault my writing somewhat, even though realistically it has an ending…

    • Luanne

      What do you mean “realistically it has an ending”? That is going to bug me if I don’t know what that means :)!

      • It’s about a dog. He died. But I don’t want to include that. I haven’t yet gotten over Old Yeller’s death when I was 6. And I never read dog stories because the dog always dies. Not mine. Goliath will live. So therein lies the dilemma …

        • Luanne

          But in books like Marley and Dewey (the library cat) the animals do die eventually. It’s part of the genre.

          • I know. But I had to let him go once. I don’t want to do it again. It’s my story, so I want to pick the ending. And I have never read either book because I know how it ends.

            • Luanne

              I understand. It seems to me that writing has a lot of power. You can write the book as if he never had to die. There have got to be a lot of readers out there, too, who would love a good dog story but don’t like to read books with sad endings.

  3. Maybe I would write better and make more sense if I did write backwards.

  4. Wow, an intriguing idea. Like you, I’ve had that conflict over whether or not I’ve lived my last scene in my memoir…I finally decided I had…but this concept could potentially change how I build up to it. I find myself writing more in a “patchwork”; picking some important scenes to develop (and leaving out a ton of others), and then putting in just enough “connective tissue” to make sure the reader sees how these things are related. Writing memoir must be a different animal than fiction, I think, because I don’t think of my story totally chronologically. One major organizational theme in my work is bringing out elements of or patterns in my life that became clearer to me as I aged. Something might have happened when I was 17, but I didn’t realize the significance until I was twenty-five…and so, for instance, I find myself commenting on the age 17 stuff from the 25-year-old point in the book. Don’t know if this makes sense, but it helps me to reflect on my own process:) Thanks for the ideas!

    • Luanne

      Yes, it doesn’t feel chronological! Because individual threads or themes kind of collapse on themselves (in a time sense). And you’re right that sometimes it’s because you don’t realize the significance until later. I too started with specific scenes and then I tried connective tissue, but that tissue is now getting cut in a lot of places, so I’m still evolving what works for me (obviously). Sigh. Thanks for your insights, Lindsey!

  5. Fascinating thought. I’ve not done this, but mostly because it’s a rare play or story I read more than once (no matter how excellent) — and I wouldn’t want to “ruin it” by knowing the end at the beginning. But I love how you pull apart structure to try to get at the heart of the craft!

    • Luanne

      Oh, I know–I couldn’t bear to start with the ending on the first read of a story. I’m not one of those people who peeks at the ending. I know there are plenty out there who do!! But for my own book, to start from the back and see if it’s tight enough–that is going to work good for me, although it’s already proving very difficult.

  6. I am pretty traditional and get easily confused, I hope that you choose going from beginning to end, unless you use a few flashbacks. I am not sure if I could write this way, but admire your seeking unique ideas to format your novel.

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