tagHow ToThe Working Backward Heuristic

The Working Backward Heuristic

byCal Y. Pygia©

A heuristic is a problem-solving or decision-making technique. Some commonly used heuristics include drawing pictures of problems, considering concrete examples of abstract problems, and solving a more general problem before using the same approach to solve a more specific one. A fourth example is the one that Edgar Allan Poe illustrates in "The Philosophy of Composition." Known as the working backward heuristic, this technique begins at the conclusion one wishes to reach and works backward from that point. As Poe shows, this approach can be enormously beneficial to a writer. By starting with the story's denouement or catastrophe, a writer can plot his or her story effectively and purposefully from the outset, ensuring that there is a tight fit, so to speak, among all the elements that make a story successful and memorable.

In "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe explains how he wrote his famous poem, "The Raven." He has no patience, he says, with authors who claim to be unable to explain how they create their work. Creative writing, he declares, is an art that can be explained. It is only a coy, a dishonest, or an ignorant writer, he implies, who pretends otherwise, insisting that writing is all the result of a half-mad seizure of inspiration. Poe says that he always starts by selecting the effect that he wants to create. For him, the effect was invariably horror. For writers of erotica, the effect is, of course, passion. The horror writer wants to excite the reader through fear; the writer of erotica wants to excite him or her through lust. If the test of a good horror story is a palpitating heart, the test of a good erotic story is an erect and throbbing clitoris or penis.

Having selected the effect to be achieved by the story, Poe next chooses whether to emphasize the story's action ("incident") or mood ("tone"). He decides to write a narrative that can be read in a single sitting, reasoning that a longer story will lose its effectiveness so as to maximize the intensity of the effect. In other words, a horror story that can be read in less than a half an hour or so will be more horrible than one, such as a novel, that takes several sittings to read. Presumably the same principle is true with regard to erotic stories: one that can be read in a single sitting will be more erotic than one that requires several sittings to be read.

Poe next chose his story's topic and the manner in which he wanted to treat it. The topic was beauty, and he chose to present it in such a way as to make his reader's contemplation of it a melancholic, or sad, one, expressing the beautiful through a melancholic tone. To emphasize and maximize the expression of this tone, adding, as it were, sorrow upon sorrow, he decided to use the refrain "Nevermore" as a raven's reply to the distraught narrator's queries as to whether he would ever be reunited with his "lost Lenore," the beautiful woman he'd lost through death. At this point, Poe says, he was ready to write the end of his poem, and, so, he started writing the poem's story with its last stanza:

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us--by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore--
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore!"
Quoth the raven--"Nevermore."

Poe started with the last stanza in order to commence his writing with the story's climax. Having written this stanza before any others, he could make sure that all the rest led up to this stanza and that none of the others surpassed it in its emotional or artistic effect.

After considering the decisions he made regarding the poem's versification, Poe next divulges how he came to plot the poem's action. To bring the narrator and the raven together in a logical manner, he decided to have the raven enter the narrator's room through a window and perch upon the bust of Pallas situated over his chamber's door. Then, to suggest the narrator's crazed state of mind, Poe was careful to select the questions that the grieving lover would pose to the bird, knowing that the raven could reply only with the same word, "Nevermore." However, at the same time, Poe was careful to make sure that none of the incidents of the plot could be regarded as necessarily supernatural or otherworldly, giving a natural and logical reason for each of the incidents he recounts:

So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable--of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word "Nevermore," and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams--the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird's wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who, amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor's demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, "Nevermore"--a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, by giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl's repetition of "Nevermore." The student now guesses the state of the case, but impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer "Nevermore."

By allowing no necessary intrusion of the supernatural into the story, the author allows the reader to decide for him- or herself whether the narrator is merely mad or the raven is actually a supernatural visitor. However, it seems that Poe himself regarded the whole situation as arising within the narrator's own tormented mind. Mad with grief, he sets up his own questions so that each one will elicit the same reply, "Nevermore," to his questions, for example, as to whether he can ever hope to see his lost Lenore again or whether he will ever attain peace.

Having considered the working backward heuristic with regard to Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "The Raven," let's see how we can use this same approach to plotting an erotic story, using my own narrative, "Brotherly Love," to illustrate this technique.

"Brotherly Love" is a tale of incest in which a brother and a sister, pretending that they are married, honeymoon at a nudist camp. I wanted this story to end with their consummation of the physical attraction they'd felt toward one another since their adolescent years but had never before expressed. The consummation of their mutual attraction for one another, then, would constitute the story's denouement. The effect, of course, would be lust, but, since the story involves a forbidden act--incest--the lust would have to be conveyed through a sense of violation--a sense of violation not of the characters involved in the story, since they both wanted to indulge in the forbidden act, but in a violation of social mores. To emphasize this violation of social mores, I decided to have the siblings engage in an act that is, even today, more or less taboo, namely, sodomy, both in its oral and its anal forms. This would be the physical, or sexual, outcome of their relationship; the corresponding emotional outcome would be their enjoyment of the acts by which they consummate their love, reinforced by their decision to engage in the same actions again on the "anniversary" of their "marriage."

The story's topic, incest, having been decided upon, I next chose the tone I wanted to express concerning this topic. This tone is one of joy. As a result of their incestuous union, the brother overcomes his feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame, and, like his sister, regards their lovemaking as "the most wonderful night of my life." However, to maximize the effect of joy, I first thoroughly immersed the characters, especially the brother, who is the narrative's protagonist, in the opposite feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame. These feelings were the story's true antagonists, the conflict being psychological more than social (although there is an implied social conflict as well in that the characters, by committing incest, are violating social standards of right and wrong). Nevertheless, from the beginning, by setting the story in a nudist camp--a place wherein clothing is optional, suggesting an open-minded and tolerant attitude toward questions pertaining to sexuality--I also suggest that perhaps Mark would be able to overcome the guilt, remorse, and shame that he initially experienced as a result of his sexual attraction for his sister. The nudist camp also suggests a psychological return to one's childhood--a time during which one could be naked, even with one's sister, without violating social taboos.

By visiting the nudist camp, both Mark and June, in a sense, revisit their childhood. They remember seeing their father's nudist magazines and the effect that viewing naked bodies had upon them as children. Mark recalls how often he'd wanted to catch a glimpse of his sister's naked body and how he'd sometimes fantasized about having sex with her when they were teenagers. June, likewise, admits wanting to have caught a glimpse of her brother's nude body. In fact, she is the story's objective antagonist (Mark's feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame being the subjective ones, as mentioned): she is the one who seduces her brother, for it was she who invited him to accompany her to the nudist camp; it is she who prompts him to use more vulgar terms for her "private parts"; it is she who reveals that she did see her brother naked when he was a teenager; it is she who tells other guests at the nudist camp that she and her brother are honeymooners; it is she who asks Mark to massage her; and it is she who demands, finally, that he make love to her.

Not only is the nudist camp a symbolic return to childhood, but it is also a return to a primeval "garden of Eden," as Mark realizes by describing the resort in such terms. As such, it is a holy, or sacred, place--a place set apart from the ordinary world. In this paradise, there is no relevance to the knowledge of good and evil--or, at least, not according to its lamia figure, the temptress June, who argues that, in massaging her, Mark is not doing anything wrong. The massage is, of course, a surrogate for foreplay. If foreplay between siblings is not wrong, the implied argument suggests, that to which it leads--sodomy--is also not wrong. It is in this returned-to-childhood-innocence and this returned-to-Eden environment that the topic of incest is considered. Society has declared that sex between a brother and a sister is morally wrong and, indeed, a criminal offense, but, the story asks, what does God say about this matter. Mark's review of the facts as he considers his sister's nakedness suggests that he has done a lot of thinking about this very issue:

Even the Bible contained several instances of incest, which it reports without censure. Lot's sister Micah married her uncle Nahor. Lot's two daughters had sex with their drunken father, giving birth, respectively, to Moab and Ben-Ammi. Abraham marries his half-sister Sarah. One of Abraham's sons, Isaac, married his second cousin Rebekah. Esau had several wives, among whom were two cousins, the sisters Mahalath and Basemath. Jacob married two cousins, Rachel and Leah, the daughters of his uncle Laban. Jacob's fourth son, Judah, impregnated his daughter-in-law Tamar, whom he mistook for a prostitute, producing twin sons Perez and Zerah. Amran married his father's sister Jochebed, by whom he fathered Aaron and Moses. (Apparently God approved of this act, because he allowed Amram to live to the ripe old age of 137.) God commanded Zelophehad's five daughters to marry within their extended family, so they married cousins born of their father's clan.

His review of these facts "emboldened" Mark, and he succumbs to the temptation of his sister's nakedness.

Although, initially, Mark feels that the facts he's reviewed represent mere "rationalizations" on his part and he feels "haunted by the sense that" he has "committed a forbidden act," crossing "a line," he, at the same time, also feels "wonderfully satisfied and content." June feels only that their having had sex with one another is "wonderful," a word that Mark himself later uses to characterize the night that he and his sister consummated their mutual attraction to one another. However, before he can come to the same conclusion as his guilt-free sister, Mark must indulge in an even more forbidden act than sexual intercourse with his sister; he must sodomize her. First, to arouse him, June fellates her brother. When he becomes erect again, she tells him, "I want you to finish in my ass." The word "finish" seems to refer to more than simply the completion of the sexual act; by sodomizing his sister, Mark will finish his transformation from a man who feels guilty, remorseful, and ashamed of having committed incest to one who feels that having done so is "wonderful." As a result of having fucked his sister in the ass, Mark sleeps "as never before, exhausted" by his "lovemaking and the complete draining away of all tension, anxiety, and care in which our sexual activities had resulted"; to him, it feels as if all his "guilt, remorse, or shame. . . had vanished, seemingly ejaculated along with" his sperm, and his change of heart and mind are permanent, it seems, for, he says, "In the morning, as I kissed the incredibly beautiful woman beside me in bed, I had only gladness in my heart," and he thanks his sister for "the most wonderful night of my life" and agrees to have sex with his sister again and again.

The working backward heuristic allows a writer to know in advance where he or she is going in regard to the story's climax, the effect to be created, and the tone and incidents of plot that will best get the reader to the sexual and emotional points of no return. No less a literary light than Edgar Allan Poe recommends the use of this approach to writing, and, as my analysis of its application in regard to my own erotic story, "Brotherly Love," indicates, this heuristic can be employed fruitfully in the writing of erotic narratives as well as tales of horror. Try it; you--and, more importantly, your readers--may like it!

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