Starting at the End

Is there a name for the storytelling technique where you start with the ending? I’m thinking of two notable examples – the films “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Sunset Boulevard.” In each case, the main character dies in the opening scene, and then their story is recounted.

Perhaps Reverse Chronology is what you’re looking for?

Wouldn’t it simply be an analepsis - or, that is, in non-geek, a flashback? Another example is Citizen Kane. Reverse chronology is more a case of the whole plot running backwards, like Memento.

Pan’s Labyrinth starts the same way.

Same for Saving Private Ryan.

Seinfeld did the reverse chronology episode about their trip to India. Brilliant.

Just my two cents.

Memento told the entire story backwards…

In medias res

It literally means “Into the middle of things.” Unless of course it goes completely backwards, in which case Reverse Chronology applies.

It’s called medias in res or “bookending” (in literature, at least). Generally speaking, it is a device used to set the stage for an ultimate consequence, and then explore the actions that led to that consequence. For instance, in Cidade de Deus (City of God) we’re treated to a scene of pursuit of an escaping chicken which ends up in the hands of a young photographer who finds himself caught between criminals and police. The film then goes back and explores the backstories of not just the photographer but others associated with his history and escape from the ghetto. This is clearly borrowing from/paying homage to Scorsese’s use of the same technique in Raging Bull and Goodfellas, or Portecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers. This isn’t quite the same thing as a flashback sequence, in which small collections of expository scenes are presented, although sometimes it is referred to the story being told “in flashback”.

Citizen Kane isn’t really a good (or at least very clear) example of this; Kane does start with the death of Kane, but the movie doesn’t go back from there; instead it moves forward to a collection of journalists instructed to find the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”, and then his backstory is presented via rememberences of various associates in flashback, each then jumping back to the present day. There is also a certain amount of, er, uncertainty, regarding the accounts in Kane; while it is not a Rashomon-style collection of contradictory viewpoints, each flashback segment is being told by someone with a different agenda.

Momento is a reverse chronology rather than bookending, though the black & white “forward” scenes can be regarded as a kind of flashback, albeit one for the viewer’s benefit rather than a reflection of the character to himself or someone within the film.


In medias res means “starting in the middle.” It does not require or even imply a flashback to earlier action; that can be filled in in other ways. Thus, instead of showing the events leading to the first scene, you start with the first scene and continue from there. It’s so much a part of literature and films these days that it is hardly noticed.

For instance – picking a movie I don’t even like – Alien starts when the crew is awakened by a distress signal. You don’t see the crew growing up, the ship being built and going out on previous trips, gathering the ore, and returning to Earth before the signal wakes them up. The signal is the precipitating action of the story, so the story begins there – in medias res.

Picking another, The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe starts with the head of security suspecting one of his underlings is trying to get him replaced. We don’t see the head of security growing up, getting into security work, getting the job, becoming suspicious of his underling (who we don’t see growing up, getting his job, setting up his cabal, etc.), etc. Again, the story begins with the precipitating action.

The OP describes a flashback structure, since it’s starting at the end, not at the middle. If the story returns to the scene at the end of the movie, it’s called a “frame tale.”

“Reverse Chronology” is rare, and applies to movies like Betrayal, which shows the history of an affair, with the first scene showing how it ended and the last scene showing how it began. Memento, strictly speaking, is not in reverse chronology – the first scene is before the last one – but uses flashbacks to play with the chronology.

So, would *Lost *be an example of In Media Res?

If you don’t watch it, the first scene shows someone waking up in the aftermath of a plane crash. The plot then goes ahead from there, with the survivors looking for food and shelter while waiting for rescue. Then a lot of strange things start to happen. But there’s a lot of flashbacks telling the stories of people before they got on the plane. Some of the flashbacks show why the people were on the plane, others give us background information on the people.

I have to disagree with you here. The traditional use of in medias res carries with it exactly what you say it doesn’t: that the story is told to us starting somewhere in the middle, with backstory filled in to bring us up to speed. This is a storytelling technique that defined such epics as The Odyssey. Aristotle based his notion that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, upon this structure, recognizing that a story like Homer’s would be incomplete if told without the backstory (beginning).

Alien, sorry you don’t like it, observes Aristotle’s rule to a T: it begins where it does because that is the beginning of that story. We don’t need to see Dallas, et al., born, grow up, get jobs at Weland-Yutani, and all that comes before because that’s not part of this story. There is no in medias res here.