BlocTalk Writing Exercise: Tell it Backward
TELL IT BACKWARD (from the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction)
--By Stace Budzko
My sister was a runaway. As you can imagine, this event affected our family greatly. And each of us dealt with it in our own way. For me, I found myself asking the same question—Where is she? With my father it was—How did it come to this? Sadly, I don’t believe he ever did reach the answer. It was while teaching a short short class at Grub Street in Boston years later that I would begin to put his question to story. It was by happy accident, really. Once again a writer turned in a narrative involving a gun. And although I grew up in a house with rifles, I became increasingly frustrated when one would appear in a workshop story. What it came down to was how much weight was given to it when it was being fired, which was typically at the end. But instead of having us focus our attention here, I echoed my father, pointing out the observation that our character had first made a decision to pick up the gun. That’s the moment in question, I argued, when our characters have a choice. We need to write to that point. Let’s tell it backward.
In order to fully understand and appreciate characters in conflict, sometimes we have to push REWIND. Write a story that begins at the end of the action and moves backward. What was the flashpoint that initiated the event? What insights or observations did the characters initially have? How might their lives have changed if they went in another direction?
EXAMPLE FROM THE WORKSHOP
Afterthought, Aftermath, Aftershock
The next afternoon, they said the house was cool. Jill was accompanied by a nervous young man from the Fire Department, “just in case.” She had him hold an extra black trash bag as she picked her way down the hall in borrowed boots. She stuffed clothes and shoes from the kids’ bureau into one bag, miscellany from her closet into the other. They could sort out which ones were too waterdamaged later. The fire hadn’t gotten this far, but the walls were smoke and water-stained anyway. Into a third bag, she swept everything from her desk—photographs, papers, jewelry. The other end of the house—kitchen and family room, where the fire had started—was a loss.
The fireman (or was it fireboy) deposited her on the sidewalk, where she sat down on the curb to wait for her ride. Jill’s aunt Nancy had taken the kids to the park, she’d be by soon. Part of her wailed, We dodged foreclosure, and now THIS? Running her hands through her hair, Jill went through the list of things she needed to do: Call the insurance company again, make a withdrawal from the bank, sort through their clothes, start looking for somewhere to stay, call the children’s father.
The night before, Jill hadn’t waited to ask herself why she was awake before her feet hit the carpeting. When she finally made the connection – smoke, smoke necessitated fire – she didn’t bother to find her slippers or a jacket. She pounded across the hall to the kids’ room, and even though the day before she’d sworn Don was too heavy for her to carry anymore, had him scooped up and draped over her shoulder before he was awake. When he did wake, he only whined, “What’s going on?” With Jessica on her other hip, all she could say was, “Hold on to me, honey, hold on.”
The fire was already eating the doorway from the kitchen to the family room. Jill went straight for the door. There was a moment of fumbling with the knob when she almost dropped Don. He clutched her—monkey-like, arms and legs at the same time.
Then they were out.
Jill made it to the sidewalk before the combination of crying kid and toddler mixed with release hit her and she sank to the pavement. In the minutes before the fire brigade arrived, she remained blinkless to the sky above the streetlights. It seemed immeasurable, dark, and safe.
—Anna Geneva Renz
Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.See other articles by Stace Budzko