Stories told backward?
December 19, 2011 1:53 PM   Subscribe

What are some books or movies where the story is essentially told backwards? Ideally, ones that put a big initial event at the end of the narrative.

Technically it would be reverse chronology, but most of these examples seem to put a big final event at the beginning, then work their way toward it in normal linear sequence.

I'm looking for stories that would start with a bang, if told in chronological order, but instead work toward (or back to) this event over the course of the narrative, so they end with a bang instead, in a more standard rising action-climax-denouement dramatic arc.

Memento is an obvious example, but that's a little more gimmicky than what I have in mind. Are there any examples of not-so-contrived ways to do this?
posted by gottabefunky to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
posted by cazoo at 1:55 PM on December 19, 2011

The Sixth Sense.
posted by Melismata at 1:56 PM on December 19, 2011

Was going to say Memento, but I see it is listed in the wikipedia article. As was Irreversible.
posted by matt_od at 1:56 PM on December 19, 2011

The Salton Sea kind of is. ish...
posted by matt_od at 1:57 PM on December 19, 2011

The Sparrow basically does this, with a few modifications (you know the outcome but not what happened to cause the outcome.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:57 PM on December 19, 2011

Oh yes, I misremembered that film, it doesn't start with a big bang does it?
posted by cazoo at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2011

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez comes to mind.
posted by la_rousse at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Contagion does that.
posted by fshgrl at 2:00 PM on December 19, 2011

Merrily We Roll Along is one of the first major stories to do this (and was a terrible flop) but it begins with a sold-out movie producer losing his last true friends and goes backwards through his life until the night that he met them and the trio looked forward to the future with hope.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:01 PM on December 19, 2011

The Accused doesn't quite end with the beginning, but it comes fairly close.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:04 PM on December 19, 2011

"The Betrayal" episode of Seinfeld (about Sue Ellen Mischke's wedding in India) comes pretty close.
posted by argonauta at 2:07 PM on December 19, 2011

Do you mean, any movie or book that starts with a scene in or around the climax and then cuts to a card that says "six months earlier" or whatever, and naturally leads into the opening scene and climax? Movies in which, essentially, the movie is an extended flashback? Because that's a lot of movies.

Citizen Kane, for one. Fight Club. Michael Clayton. It's A Wonderful Life (to an extent). Casablanca has some of that with the bits in Paris.

On re-reading, maybe you're asking for a more specific thing than I'm thinking of.
posted by gauche at 2:10 PM on December 19, 2011

Peppermint Candy
posted by cazoo at 2:12 PM on December 19, 2011

Response by poster: gauche, it's more narratives that save the big initial "bang" for the very end. Otherwise the dramatic tension would just plunge from there, instead of peaking toward the end as per usual.
posted by gottabefunky at 2:15 PM on December 19, 2011

That Seinfeld episode was inspired by the play Betrayal, which inspired the movie, Betrayal
posted by cali59 at 2:16 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think Heavenly Creatures does this, but it's been awhile.
posted by Flannery Culp at 2:16 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fight Club

Palahnuik's second novel, Survivor, takes the starting at the end a treatment to the extreme by numbering the pages and chapters backwards. The last page of the book is page one. I breezed through it when it was published and don't remember how true the reverse timeline bit worked. But at the time, I found it entertaining enough.
posted by birdherder at 2:18 PM on December 19, 2011

not a book or movie, but coldplay's video for the scientist.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:19 PM on December 19, 2011

There are certainly aspects of the (fantastic!) book Skippy Dies (spoiler alert: Skippy dies) that fits this idea.
posted by El_Marto at 2:20 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Martin Amis' Time's Arrow?
posted by notyou at 2:25 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve. It's a story about a couple who meet at three different times in life. It starts when they're in their 50s, then when they're in their 20s, and then when they initially met as teenagers.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 2:28 PM on December 19, 2011

Although "no-so-contrived" probably doesn't apply to the apparatus Amis pulls together to make Time's Arrow work.

Which is probably true of every novel MA has written.
posted by notyou at 2:28 PM on December 19, 2011

The Quick and the Dead is an uneven Sam Raimi Western, but near the end of the movie Sharon Stone's character reveals herself as the young girl Gene Hackman's character orphaned all those years ago. Thus initial event of conflict is presented near the end of the film.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:33 PM on December 19, 2011

@infinitewindow That particular plot device was taken - albeit with a gender reversal - from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.

I'd say Triangle just about fits in with what you're after, although its twists and turns are a little gimmicky.
posted by hnnrs at 2:37 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. It is a YA novel, a series of vignettes about the lives of the four Garcia daughters, who move from the Dominican Republic to New York. Reading it required a shift for me: usually I read a book to find out "what happens next?". In this book, I had to think "why did this happen? What transpired in the past to make the events of chapter one make sense?" Neat book. Alvarez is a very good writer.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:39 PM on December 19, 2011

Nthing Time's Arrow. Succinct and powerful.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:51 PM on December 19, 2011

Reginald Hill's Jane Austen/village cozy parody Pictures of Perfection does a good sendup of this plot structure (among a lot of other things).
posted by thomas j wise at 2:53 PM on December 19, 2011

"The Burning Plain" and "The Dead Girl" are two I can think of. (Two excellent movies, IMO.)
posted by ATX Peanut at 2:58 PM on December 19, 2011

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.
posted by 8dot3 at 3:10 PM on December 19, 2011

"Underworld" by Don Delillo is kind of all over the place chronologically, but mostly works backwards in time. The "plot" isn't really linear in any direction though.
posted by LionIndex at 3:12 PM on December 19, 2011

I enjoyed 5 x 2, a French film which tells the story of a relationship (the 2) in 5 segments, presented chronologically backwards.
posted by biffa at 3:26 PM on December 19, 2011

21 grams. It jumps all over the place in time while the story slowly emerges. The effect is similar to Memento, but the mechanism is less in-your-face.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:32 PM on December 19, 2011

I'm not sure if it's quite what you're looking for, but the video for Modest Mouse's "Little Motel" is potentially this thing. (Warning: It's one of the saddest things I've seen.)
posted by maxwelton at 4:28 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Use of Weapons. One of my favorite science fiction books ever.
posted by procrastination at 4:29 PM on December 19, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin is told in a series of letters looking back at their lives. It's not told backwacks so much as non-chronologically but the big initial event is at the end, I'd say. Though after you've read the book you might care to argue with me about "initial" and "end".
posted by coffeepot at 4:39 PM on December 19, 2011

Stuart: A Life Backwards.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:46 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stay fits, I'm fairly certain.
posted by litnerd at 5:29 PM on December 19, 2011

The God of Small Things does not proceed exactly in reverse, but it jumps around a lot in time in a sort of spiral fashion, with the narrated events circling ever closer to the moments that set the novel in motion.
posted by Errant at 5:32 PM on December 19, 2011

Came to say Use of Weapons (my favorite Banks), but was beaten to the punch. Hmm. Certain elements of Pulp Fiction are told this way. Sunset Boulevard starts with the 'end', but the majority of the film is linear.
posted by lovecrafty at 5:48 PM on December 19, 2011

An awful lot of New Yorker-type short stories seem to start with people who are dealing with the aftermath of something and tell you at the end what that something is. William's Trevor's "Folie a Deux" is one example; Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter" is another.
posted by BibiRose at 6:31 PM on December 19, 2011

Wesley Stace's Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, does this in a couple of different ways.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:16 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all good suggestions, thanks. A few specific (hypothetical) example of what I'm thinking would be, say, a book about the events of the year following 9/11 that ends with the attacks, or a movie about the aftermath of Columbine that ends with the shootings. Anything like that?
posted by gottabefunky at 7:30 PM on December 19, 2011

If I'm not mistaken, I think that in In Cold Blood, the film, the actual murders are not shown until the end.
posted by Bokmakierie at 8:30 PM on December 19, 2011

The Life Before Her Eyes.
posted by BibiRose at 8:40 PM on December 19, 2011

Even though it is sometimes considered the first book in the Narnia Chronicles, The Magician's Nephew was the sixth book written in the series and is best read last. Any more info and I'd have to put a spoiler alert.
posted by tamitang at 8:44 PM on December 19, 2011

It's been more than 10 years since I saw it, but I think Eye of God fits.
posted by kristi at 9:13 PM on December 19, 2011

I would argue that a lot of John Irving's writing does this. He tends to tell you about MAJOR PLOT POINT, then goes back and spends a chapter or 100 pages describing how the characters got to that point.

The Lovely Bones does this, too, but I hated that book so don't read it.
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:54 AM on December 20, 2011

I believe the upcoming movie We Need to Talk About Kevin does this (and is also based on a book).

It's not directly related, but MeFi favorite Cloud Atlas is interrupted in the first half of the each story and comes to fruition at the end of each story, after the middle story, whose timeline is uninterrupted. There's a movie forthcoming, but I don't know if it'll be as great as the book.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 10:44 AM on December 20, 2011

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks has one story told backwards and another story in which important events in the past are not known to the characters at the beginning of the story. The ending/beginning of the backwards story isn't exactly a big bang, though.
posted by mskyle at 1:41 PM on December 20, 2011

This thread inspired me to check out "Time's Arrow", and ... wow. yeah. that's some heady stuff. contrived? kind of. powerful? yes.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:52 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Contagion begins on Day 2 of the flu outbreak and doesn't show Day 1 until the final scene.
posted by Flannery Culp at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2012

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