Brackenwood and Writing Backwards

This is a link to the personal site  of the former Disney animator Adam Phillips.  He’s good, very good.  If you have a few minutes, I’d strongly recommend checking out his popular “Brackenwood.”  The series takes place on a giant forest planet and most of episodes center around a spiteful creature named Bitey.

“Prowlies at the River” was initially Adam’s breakthrough work, but all of them (even his non-Brackenwood work like “nightShift” or “hitchHiker”) really do merit a watch because of his immense gift in animation.


Outside of Flash, I thought I’d share Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 “rules” for writing (actually tips for writing a short story but they work in all species of narrative):


1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.  (Note: Vonnegut takes this rule to the extreme in his novel Galápagos as he clearly tells you how characters will die way before the actual occurrence of the event.)


I bring these up primarily to highlight the 5th rule.  In my own writing I’ve found that I’ve had started building many stories and, being unable to create anything juicy or interesting, I would give up in frustration.  More often than not, they started with initial bursts of inspiration like “A demon queen falls in love with a Cactus Lord” or “A man has a lawnmower for legs, he better not run out of gas.”  But I would always get stuck.

Now when Vonnegut brought up the 5th rule, he meant opening up the finished story as close to the end as possible.  But I thought about it in terms of crafting the story from that very simple end point and then working backwards from that with further characterization, action, and background detail.  So get the climax down and work my way inch by inch to the opening.  And it’s working.  It’s working very well in fact.

I wish I knew this trick a long time ago because openings are so terrifically difficult. They have to grab the reader’s attention while assuming no knowledge of the story’s setting but also fit within that story’s spirt.  Now I get to learn as I go long what fits within the confines of that’s story’s writing.  I don’t have to determine anything until it’s necessary to do so.


5 Responses to “Brackenwood and Writing Backwards”

  1. No. 6 is the hardest for me, by far.

    Alex, what kind of fiction do you write/want to write? (The lawnmower legs has me thrown for a bit of a loop.)

  2. I go for speculative fiction with strong tendencies to be silly and weird. I have trouble being serious, even in dramatic scenes I find something to giggle at. It’s like a laughing virus.

    Never been published. Goal is to get a short story into a hard copy magazine by the end of the year or as soon as possible.

  3. I picked up a Vonnegut anthology over Christmas and I’ve been happily reading over a few of his stories, so far Ice 9 and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. Looking at these rules they most certainly fit his very particular style which is immensely appealing to me from a pick up and read at your leisure standpoint.

    Starting from the end and working your way back, if you haven’t already seen it I suggest you watch the movie Memento. It does a superlative job of working backwards while keeping the viewer in suspense and guessing.

    • I think my first Vonnegut was Rosewater. I had it for assigned reading in a class and, if memory serves, I might have shotgunned the book in a single sitting. I’d never done that before, this man knows how to put ideas on a page that are both interesting to process but very simple to digest. Kind of like a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme.

      My favorite of his novels would be a tie between The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five.

      And Memento hurt in a good way. I felt my brain expanding as I watched it. Not too many movies I know can do that.

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