Reverse chronology

Reverse chronology

Reverse chronology is a method of story-telling 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.

As a hypothetical example, if the fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk" was told using reverse chronology, the opening scene would depict Jack chopping the beanstalk down and killing the giant. The next scene would feature Jack being discovered by the giant and climbing down the beanstalk in fear of his life. Later, we would see Jack running into the man with the infamous magic beans, then, at the end of the film, being sent off by his mother to sell the cow.

Examples of use


The epic poem "Aeneid", written by Virgil in the 1st century BC, uses reverse chronology within scenes. [Albrecht, Michael von; & Schmeling, Gareth L. (1997). " History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius, Vol. 1". Brill. p. 681. ISBN 9004096302] The action of W. R. Burnett's novel, "Goodbye to the Past" (1934), moves continually from 1929 to 1873. [Bordwell, David (April 2006). "The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies". University of California Press. p. 91. ISBN 0520246225] Edward Lewis Wallant uses flashbacks in reverse chronology in "The Human Season" (1960). [Serafin, Steven; & Bendixen, Alfred (2003). "The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature". Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 1189. ISBN 0826415172] The pessimistic masterpiece "Christopher Homm" (1965), a novel by C. H. Sisson, is also told in reverse chronology. [Head, Dominic (2006). "The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English". Cambridge University Press. p. 1036. ISBN 0521831792]

Martin Amis's novel "Time's Arrow " (1991) 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 America, 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.

Iain Banks's novel "Use of Weapons" interweaves two parallel stories, one told in standard chronology and one in reverse.


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).


Pinter's play was made into a film in 1983; this was the first important film set in reverse chronologyFact|date=June 2007, though it was preceded by the Czech comedy "Happy End", (1968), 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. [ [,9171,841358,00.html Happy End - TIME ] ] The technique was later employed in "Peppermint Candy" (2000), by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, "Memento" (2001), 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).Gateward, Frances K. (2007). "Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema". SUNY Press. p. 136. ISBN 0791472256] 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. The 2004 film "5x2", directed by François Ozon, tells the story of a relationship between two people in five episodes using reverse chronology. [ [ 5x2 - Trailer - Cast - Showtimes - New York Times ] ]

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. [MacDermott, Felim; & McGrath, Declan (2003). "Screenwriting". Focal Press. p. 172. ISBN 0240805127] In "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), a main substory is told in reverse.

"Coup de Sang", a French film, 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 "2 Friends" (1986), by Jane Campion, and the 1997 episode, "The Betrayal", of the hit sitcom "Seinfeld", employs the technique. The 2000 "X-Files" episode "Redrum" (in which a character experiences the events in reverse along with the audience) and the 2002 "ER" episode, "Hindsight", does as well. A 1997 "" episode, "", which writer Kenneth Biller claimed was based on a Martin Amis novel (see above), also features a character experiencing the events in reverse along with the audience.


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 song "One Thing Leads to Another" by the Pet Shop Boys (on a limited release of their 1993 album "Very") describes the events leading up to a man's death in reverse order.


Alan Moore's 1983 short story "The Reversible Man" from issue 308 of the comic "2000AD" told an ordinary man's life backwards. The art was by Mike White. Additionally, Brian K. Vaughan wrote an issue of the ongoing Midnighter series told in reverse chronology. With art by Darick Robertson, 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.


The 2007 anime TV 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.


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. However, this is paralled by the audience's ignorance of previous events - the reverse chronology is intended to give the viewer the same claustrophobic perspective as the protagonist.

In "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'.

ee also

*In medias res
*Nonlinear narrative


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