Bill Petrocelli

Telling the Story Backwards

The blog-masters refer to it as a labor of love, despite the fact that the mast-head of In Reference to Murder is dripped in blood. But they are dedicated to their task, as shown by the long list of cross-references they have to clubs, magazines, forsenics, mystery sites and everything else a mystery reader or writer might need. In my blog piece I decided to talk a little about writing the story-backwards — what do you do when you discover you need to tell the ending first?


Give me a scene, and I felt I could nail it. I’d written a whole series of encounters between the characters in The Circle of Thirteen, and after a lot of editing I thought they read well. Was I varying my sentence lengths, as writing teachers suggest? You bet. I had long sentences with dependent clauses, and they had sinuous phrases that wrapped around the visceral images. And there were short ones, too. Three-word sentences. Some two.

The scenes, I felt, all moved along nicely. I didn’t show my hand too early, give away anything too soon. The key word was always at the end of the sentence. The sentence with the most punch was at the end of the paragraph. The last paragraph of each chapter left your hanging, wondering what would come next.

Still, it was wrong. The scenes all had their share of tension. But the overall story tended to lumber along from decade to decade, hoping that the reader would follow the tale through the next phase, trusting that he or she would know that it would all be resolved at the end. It was too much to ask – even of me.

Then I saw the movie Milk, and I realized what was wrong. Director Gus Van Sant did one crucial thing in that movie that made all the difference in the world. He opened the story with the ending – the tragic assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk – and then spent the rest of the movie bringing the audience back to that point. Even though I lived in San Francisco and already knew how the story ended, this telling-of-the-story-in-reverse had a dramatic impact on my appreciation of the movie.

I went back to my keyboard with a new approach to the story. If I started with the last scene – or, really, the almost last scene – the reader could read all of the lead-up scenes with a new sense of urgency and foreboding.

It was about that time that I borrowed from another writer as well. (Borrow a little bit, and you are honoring the literary tradition; borrow a lot, and you are a despicable plagiarizer. It’s sometimes a fine line). In this case the writer was Robert Wilson, who won a Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association for A Small Death in Lisbon. Wilson’s back-story covered several decades. But as he recounted it, he alternated those scenes with a second, fast-moving narrative strand that covered just a few weeks. He alternated back and forth between the two narratives throughout the book, and In the end the two strands come together with dramatic effect.

Borrowing a little here, borrowing a little there – I finally had what I wanted. The Circle of Thirteen starts with a dramatic burst – a terrorist attack on the new United Nations building where all the world’s leaders are gathered. And from that point on the reader is able to follow the two narrative strands back to that starting point.

Now, I felt, the story could really begin.