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What Is Reverse Chronology?

By Ray Hawk
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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Reverse chronology is a literary device similar to the flashback though more comprehensive in its scope. It is a method of storytelling, whether for a novel, a play, or another literary form, where the ending is told first and the narrative progresses towards the beginning of the plot which comes at the physical end of the story. Though reverse chronology is an ancient method of storytelling, it is only used in special situations, as it can be difficult to understand or to enjoy as a form of entertainment until the production or reading is completely over.

Though the use of nonlinear narrative can be rare because of the difficulty in doing it well, certain contemporary artists have mastered the form. The famous English playwright Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2005 in part for his ability to tell stories in reverse chronology. His 1978 play Betrayal uses the form of reverse chronology to tell the story of the two main characters, Emma and Jerry, who had an adulterous affair two years prior to the telling of the story. Through a logical series of scenes running backward in time from the start of the affair, the story is told in a way that reveals nuances about the behavior of the characters that could not be displayed if the story were told in a normal manner.

Evidence of reverse chronology in storytelling, which is also often referred to as retrograde writing, can be traced back at least to the period of ancient Egypt, as examples of the form have been discovered in writings in Egyptian pyramids. Other plays, films, novels, and episodes of television series in the modern era from the 1930s into the 21st century have continued to employ the use of the form in various ways. The reverse order can focus on characters essentially reminiscing about the past, or it can be a literal reverse display of scenes which is more easily created in a film format than in literature.

Where the form merges both a sense of reminiscing with a literal reverse of scene order, special reasons have to be given for the unusual aspects of the narratology. A popular psychological thriller Memento made in the US in 2000 uses a main character with anterograde amnesia to tell a story in this manner. While the viewer of the film is seeing scenes progress in what looks like a normal manner, it is revealed that the main character has a condition where he cannot form or retain new memories and all memory of his past before a shooting that started the chain of events for the story is lost. The main character spends the duration of the film trying to piece together his past before it culminates in him killing the antagonist, which is the first scene revealed in the film, but the last one to actually take place in true chronological order.

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