Reverse chronology is a method of storytelling whereby the plot is revealed in reverse order.
In a story employing this technique, the first scene shown is actually the conclusion to the plot. Once that scene ends, the penultimate scene is shown, and so on, so that the final scene the viewer sees is the first chronologically.
Many stories employ flashback, showing prior events, but whereas the scene order of most conventional films is A-B-C-etc., a film in reverse chronology goes Z-Y-X-etc.
In interactive fiction, reverse chronology is a well-known technique. For instance, the story Beanstalk the and Jack, tells the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk using reverse chronology: the opening scene depicts Jack chopping the beanstalk down and killing the giant. The next scene features Jack being discovered by the giant and climbing down the beanstalk in fear of his life. Later, we see Jack running into the man with the infamous magic beans, then, at the end of the story, being sent off by his mother to sell the cow.
The unusual nature of this method means it is only used in stories of a specific nature. For example, Memento features a man with anterograde amnesia, meaning he is unable to form new memories. The film parallels the protagonist's perspective by unfolding in reverse chronological order, leaving the audience as ignorant of the events that occurred prior to each scene (which, played in reverse chronological order, will not be revealed until later) as the protagonist is.
In the film Irréversible, an act of homicidal violence takes place at the start of the movie (i. e., it is the final event to take place). During the remainder of the film we learn not only that the violence is an act of vengeance, but what exactly is being avenged. The film was highly controversial for its graphic nature; had the scenes been shown in chronological order, this violent content would make it a simple, and pointlessly brutal, revenge movie. However, as it is, told in reverse, the audience is made to consider the exact consequences of each action, and there is often "more than meets the eye."
Examples of use
The epic poem Aeneid, written by Virgil in the 1st century BC, uses reverse chronology within scenes. In "The Three Apples", a murder mystery in the One Thousand and One Nights, the middle part of the story shows a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of a dead body at the beginning of the story. The action of W. R. Burnett's novel, Goodbye to the Past (1934), moves continually from 1929 to 1873. The Long View (1956) by Elizabeth Jane Howard describes a marriage in reverse chronology from 1950s London back to its beginning in 1926. Edward Lewis Wallant uses flashbacks in reverse chronology in The Human Season (1960). The novel Christopher Homm (1965), by C. H. Sisson, is also told in reverse chronology.
Philip K. Dick, in his 1967 novel Counter-Clock World, describes a future in which time has started to move in reverse, resulting in the dead reviving in their own graves ("old-birth"), living their lives in reverse, eventually ending in returning to the womb, and splitting into an egg and a sperm during copulation between a recipient woman and a man. The novel was expanded from Dick's short story "Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday", first published in the August 1966 edition of Amazing Stories.
Martin Amis's 1991 novel Time's Arrow tells the story of a man who, it seems, brings dead people to life. Eventually it is revealed that the story is being seen backwards, and he was a doctor at Auschwitz who brought death to live people. He escaped to the United States, and the novel starts with his death and ends with his birth. Amis writes in the Afterword that he had a "certain paragraph" from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969) in mind. As he waits to be taken by aliens to the planet Tralfamadore, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, watches a war movie backwards. American planes full of holes fly backwards as German planes suck bullets from them; bombers take their bombs back to base where they are returned to the States, reduced to ore and buried. The American fliers became high school kids again, and, Billy guesses, Hitler ultimately returns to babyhood.
Julia Alvarez's novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) opens in 1989 with one of the characters returning to her native Dominican Republic. The story of why the family left and their attempts to succeed in New York are told in reverse chronological order, with the last events happening in 1956.
The Night Watch (2006) by Sarah Waters is written in three episodes moving backwards from 1947 to 1941, beginning in post-war London and moving back to the early days of the war. It was shortlisted for both the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the 2006 Orange Prize. All the Birds, Singing (2013) by the Australian author Evie Wyld, relates two stories in parallel, both beginning from the same point in time, one running forwards and one backwards. The novel won the 2014 Miles Franklin Award and the 2014 Encore Award.
A number of plays have employed this technique. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 play, Merrily We Roll Along, is told in reverse order, as is the Harold Pinter play Betrayal (1978). Kaufman and Hart's play was adapted as a musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim in 1981, and Pinter's play was made into a film in 1983.
In 1927, Jean Epstein's La glace à trois faces (The Three Sided Mirror) features a sequence where the events happen in reverse, beginning with the protagonist's exit from a room until the viewer sees the entrance. The Czech comedy Happy End (1966) is a farce which starts with a guillotined man finding his head popped back on his shoulders and ends with him as a new-born being pushed back into his mother's womb. Atom Egoyan, influenced by Pinter's plays, tells the story of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) in reverse chronology, with the first scene of the film set in 1977 and the last in 1968. The technique was later employed in Peppermint Candy (2000), by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong; in Memento (2000), a mystery directed by Christopher Nolan about short term memory loss; and in Jean-Luc Godard's short film De l'origine du XXIe siècle pour moi (2000). In Irréversible (2002), the technique is used so thoroughly that the end credits are not only shown at the beginning of the movie, but they roll down the screen, rather than upwards as is familiar.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a main substory is told in reverse.
Coup de Sang, a French film by Jean Marboeuf (2006), uses limited reverse chronology. The film begins with the revelation that the main character will commit a murder one week from the next scene, although it is not revealed who will be killed or why.
The made-for-television drama Two Friends (1986), by Jane Campion, and the 1997 episode, "The Betrayal", of the hit sitcom Seinfeld, employs the technique. The Seinfeld episode is a take-off of the Harold Pinter play Betrayal and has a character named "Pinter." "Redrum", a 2000 episode of The X-Files, uses the technique in focusing on a character experiencing the events in reverse along with the audience. The 2002 ER episode "Hindsight" uses reverse chronology to illustrate the events leading to traumatic car accident. A 1997 Star Trek: Voyager episode, "Before and After", which writer Kenneth Biller claimed was based on a Martin Amis novel Time's Arrow, also features a character experiencing the events in reverse along with the audience. The Sealab 2021 episode "Shrabster" is also in reverse order. For a few seasons, the revived Doctor Who had an extensive storyline focusing on a relationship between the Doctor and his companions' daughter (River Song) from the future based on "opposite timelines" (i.e., as the Doctor was travelling through time on one path, River was travelling on an opposite path) causing them to interact in opposite chronological order. In 2017, the British tv mini-series Rellik (Killer backwards) tells a story about a serial killer in backwards order. In 2018, the episode "Once Removed", from the series Inside No. 9 uses reverse chronology to tell a dark story about a family who is moving house, and the murder that subsequently begins. Also from 2018, the second installment of the FX anthology series American Crime Story focuses on the assassination of designer Gianni Versace, employing reverse chronology through the course of several episodes to explore the background of Versace's killer Andrew Cunanan.
The story "The Time Eater" from issue 40 of the comic "Vampirella", scripted by Jack Butterworth and published in 1975, included the concept of human lives running backwards. People were shown to be exhumed, reunited with families, separated from their spouses in order to attend school, and finally returned to the womb. Dialogue was reversed also. Alan Moore's 1983 short story "The Reversible Man" from issue 308 of the comic "2000AD" told an ordinary man's life backwards, using the same concept as Butterworth but recasting it as a first-person narrative. Brian K. Vaughan wrote an issue of the ongoing Midnighter series told in reverse chronology. The issue explored the fact that the character Midnighter has the ability to calculate millions of possible scenarios for any given situation. The issue does not have the scenes in reverse order, but rather the individual pages run backwards.
Issue 43 of Bongo's "Simpsons Comics" is told in reverse order: the story opens with a depiction of a crane lifting a crashed car out of a lake; each subsequent scene (which lasts for one page) carries a caption informing the reader that it took place, for instance, "20 minutes earlier". The penultimate page jumps back thirty years and shows Homer Simpson as a child
The 2007 anime television series Touka Gettan employed entirely this narrative method. All 26 episodes were aired in chronologically reverse order, with the first episode being the ending of the story while the last episode being the beginning. Episode 12.5 of the 2010 show Durarara!! is narrated in reverse order.
The lyrics to "All Along the Watchtower", written by Bob Dylan, are, he says, "in a rather reverse order"; indeed, the final verse begins with the words "All along the watchtower", and if reversed, the verses would tell the story in the correct order.
The lyrics to "Apparition. Apparitions." by Trophy Scars describe the events leading up to a woman's suicide in reverse order, beginning with her death and ending with her initial romance with her boyfriend.
Multiple music videos—including, perhaps most famously, Coldplay's "The Scientist"—use reverse chronology in which a scene plays backwards while someone sings normally. This is done by filming the video chronologically but getting the actor to sing the lyrics backwards (if applicable). The music video for Enigma's "Return to Innocence" uses reverse chronology showing a man's life, beginning with his death as an old man and ending with his baptism as an infant. The music video for Linkin Park's "Bleed It Out" also uses the same method, whereas the band performs normally, but everything else is reversed. In 2016, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna used reverse chronology in her music video "Lanes". Mutemath also achieved widespread popularity with its music video for "Typical".
The events of the song "Reverse" by SomeKindaWonderful, as said in the title itself, are told in reverse chronology.
The lyrics in "Rewind" by NaS also tell a story in reverse chronology, with some of the dialogue even being in reverse order.
There have also been several discussions as to how the picturisation of Neela Vaanam "Manmadan Ambu" (sung by Kamal Haasan himself) has been slightly inspired from official video of Coldplay's "The Scientist". The whole song has been depicted in such a way so as to highlight the events that led to the death of Mannar's (Kamal's character) French wife Juliet, in reverse.
- Albrecht, Michael von; & Schmeling, Gareth L. (1997). History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius, Vol. 1. Brill. p. 681. ISBN 90-04-09630-2
- Pinault, David (1992). Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Brill Publishers. pp. 86–94. ISBN 90-04-09530-6.
- Bordwell, David (April 2006). The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. University of California Press. p. 91. ISBN 0-520-24622-5
- Hilary Mantel in The Guardian, 30 January 2016
- Serafin, Steven; & Bendixen, Alfred (2003). The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 1189. ISBN 0-8264-1517-2
- Head, Dominic (2006). The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge University Press. p. 1036. ISBN 0-521-83179-2
- ARLS Teen Book Review: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
- Harvey, Samantha. 'When a Story is Best Told Backwards: on the Melancholy of Reverse Narratives', in Literary Hub, 15 November 2018
- "Cinema: Happy End". Time. 1968-06-28. Archived from the original on 2011-01-22. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
- MacDermott, Felim; & McGrath, Declan (2003). Screenwriting. Focal Press. p. 172. ISBN 0-240-80512-7
- Gateward, Frances K. (2007). Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema. SUNY Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-7914-7225-6
- Scott, A. O. (2005-02-07). "An Unhappy Marriage, From Divorce to Wedding". The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-04-22.
- Calamari, Alexandra (2007). "P.S. I Love You". Cinema Blend. Retrieved July 7, 2014.
- "Bahram Nouraei — Official Website". bahramnouraei.com.
- "Dead Island: Official Announcement Trailer". youtube.com.