lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

How Did We Get Here?: A Lesson With Joshua Jones

Writing is a kind of time travel. The writer can leap through decades, centuries even, and then leap back again; can focus on a moment and suspend the reader in details preserved with crystalline clarity; can contract and expand at will, hit fast forward or reverse. The writer is the ultimate Time Lord. And yet, so many of our narratives proceed linearly, from inciting incident through rising action to the climax and denouement. Sure, there may be flashbacks along the way, but in the majority of narratives, time marches inexorably forward. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Sometimes the point of a narrative is not What Happens Next but instead is How Did We Get Here?

A recent Twitter thread asked for narratives that moved backward in time. There were many excellent responses to that thread, some which flowed backward in time a sentence at a time, like Stephen Dixon’s “Wife in Reverse”; others that used reverse-ordered chapters, like Amber Sparks’ “Most of Them Would Follow Wandering Fires” and Cate Fricke’s “Good Creatures, Small Things.” In all cases, the stories start at the end. How many times have you heard writing advice to start as close to the end as possible? Here’s your chance to push that to the extreme.

Prompt: take an existing work-in-progress, ideally one that is rough and not quite working, and stand it on its head; start with the last sentence or the last scene and work your way backward. Perhaps reverse your sentences as they’re currently written and see how that changes the urgency of the piece and its rhythm. Alternately, begin a new story with this structure in mind and begin with the climactic moment and follow the thread backward to show how we got there. Even if you don’t stick with this structure, by playing with the flow of time, you’ll see your writing in an entirely different light.

Joshua Jones lives in Maryland, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Microfictions 2020, The Best Small Fictions 2019The Cincinnati Review, CRAFT, Juked, matchbookPaper DartsPidgeonholesSmokeLong QuarterlySplit Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter.