Writing Stories Forwards, Backwards, Outwards and Inwards.


Even the most primitive of stories use the question ‘What will happen next?’ to lead readers on and on through whatever adventure the narrative is about. If sufficient ‘unknowns’ are built up - including ‘cliffhangers’, dramatic and exciting endings to episodes or scenes, leaving the audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next episode - then readers and audiences will feel compelled to turn the page or to return for the next showing. Just as this type of story-telling works for readers, so it also works for writers: the creator of a story is encouraged by this approach to move forward, from a beginning to an ending, constructing each new scene in a sequence, heading for a climax of some kind or at least for the next chapter.

This can - and does - lead to downfall for many writers. They begin eagerly, and write energetically, constructing scene after scene, crafting cliffhangers to hook the reader into the next part of the tale - and then the story peters out, losing focus and power as each unknown is devalued and deflated progressively. After a while, a writer loses the passion for the story and it dwindles and comes to a halt. There are distinct reasons - and remedies - for this.

Slightly more advanced stories use another question, ‘What is really going on?’, to glue readers to each page. Adding in mysteries is a sure-fire way to attract reader attention and is the mainstay of whole genres of fiction, especially detective or horror tales. Nothing ‘sticks’ a reader to a story as much as a mystery. But this method can also lose its power if the mysteries grow so large that the reader begins to grow either suspicious - perhaps the author himself or herself doesn’t really know the answer and is constructing an ending as the tale goes along? - or frustrated, developing a feeling that there is now so much unknown within the story that it is overburdened and on the point of collapse. This approach works best for authors if, instead of ‘writing forwards’, as in the linear question ‘What will happen next?’, they ‘write backwards’, starting by knowing themselves the answers to every mystery and then carefully concealing those answers from the reader, as has been discussed previously on this blog. In this way, readers, moving forward through a tale which has been written backwards, gain confidence that their footing is secure and that they won’t be disappointed in the end.

The most successful stories also ask ‘What is the right thing to do?’ on occasion, posing this query for the protagonist mainly, but through him or her contacting and engaging the reader’s sense of morality and meaning. In becoming involved with questions like this, the reader is not only being moved forwards through the tale but is becoming interwoven with the values and presumptions of a particular narrative. It is either clear to them that the protagonist should make a particular choice, and their attention is therefore arrested, or the choice between various options is not clear, in which case their attention is similarly arrested. This type of question is neither a ‘forward’ nor a ‘backward’ one, but an ‘outward’ one: it refers - or should refer - to the reader’s own values and level of involvement in the tale.

Now it’s a strange thing that, in asking an ‘outward’ question, one also opens the door to an ‘inward’ one: the question ‘What is the right thing to do?’ makes the reader explore what the story is really all about. And this can solve many problems for the writer.

In a tale in which classic heroes and heroines battle villains, it’s usually pretty clear what the right thing to do is in any given situation. The attraction then is to see how the protagonist is going to react to any c