Monday, November 16, 2009

The Reversal

The Reversal is a turning point that appears in many stories (and is particularly important, I think, in film). This is an event usually quite close to the midpoint of a story, that is, in Chapter 10 of 20 or 1 hour into a 2-hour film. It’s where something reverses, where what seemed true or important or self-evident in the first half of the story is shown to be false or trivial or mysterious.

What that does is force the protagonist to stop, regroup, assemble perhaps a new set of skills or apply a new strength. It creates conflicts because what might seem to be feasible in the first half no longer works. For example:

Someone the protagonist trusted is proved untrustworthy.

Someone the pro believed to be an enemy becomes an ally.

Something the pro believed is proved false (like his parentage or his cause’s moral rightness).

The protagonist’s role is reversed: The detective becomes the suspect, the hunter becomes the hunted, the insider becomes the outsider.

(Remind me to think about this—this is usually an event that happens to the protagonist, rather than an action the pro takes, though it can happen in response to an action… why—because the character has to be blindsided, which is hard to do when the pro is dictating the action.)

This is the event that often turns the protagonist from a character into a hero—because merely reacting no longer will work. She can’t go on being merely what she was before—because that doesn’t work. She has to become something else also, something that can solve the problem, whatever it is.

Let’s generate some examples.

In The Godfather, the reversal comes (I think) when Vito is shot, because he is revealed to Michael not as the all-powerful father, but as a victim in need of protection (and Michael, in protecting him, is drawn into the family business).

In The Fugitive, Harrison Ford jumps and thus frees himself from being hunted, and becomes the hunter himself (calling Tommy Lee Jones to tell him, “I’m going to find the one-armed man”). Notice that the protagonist role shifts here— is Tommy Lee or Harrison the protagonist of the second half?

In Gone With the Wind, the reversal happens when Scarlett is seeking shelter from the war and goes home to Tara, only to discover that there is no surcease, that Tara has been damaged by the war, that the mother she longed for is dead and the father she needed has gone mad.

In Pride and Prejudice, it comes when Lizzie gets the letter from Darcy and realizes he had his reasons both for loving her and resisting it. Notice that the proposal (however unexpected) isn’t the reversal—that merely hardens her existing prejudice against him.

Okay, your suggestions here. Take some famous movie or novel and tell us what you think is the reversal, and where it happens, and what it changes.


Oedipus the King?

West Side Story?

Wuthering Heights?

Your choice?



Leigh Hutchens Burch said...

It's so odd that I had never heard this term before, but read about it just last night. Is this a sign that I need to focus on reversals today?

I think it's such an important element in our writing, and you explained it much more thoughtfully than Laurie Henry did in The Novelist's Notebook.

Thanks for this great post.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I, too, have never heard this term, but am very relieved to note that i've been doing this in my writing. Phew!

Edittorrent said...

Aristotle called it "peripeteia" or the "turnaround," so you might have heard that term.

Adrian said...

I was watching an episode of Fringe (television show) last night and thought to myself: Wow! Good reversal!

Right at the beginning of the episode, I predicted the reversal. But several red herrings caused me to doubt my prediction until just moments before it happened. Furthermore they took it a couple steps further. Not only was the "victim" actually the perpetrator of the crime spree (which is the part I predicted), but the defenses the good guys had erected (a huge part of the first half of the show) proved totally useless. And one of the good guys was dragged into the crime spree. Piling on several reversals at the same moment really took the episode to a higher level.

Ever since, I've been thinking about how to combine the couple of reversals I have in my work-in-progress to see if I can amplify the effect.

Jami Gold said...


Great description of reversals. I hadn't ever thought about it so directly until you brought it up last week, but I use these all the time. I think if you're looking for them, most stories would contain at least one.

With your descriptions of potential reversals (Something the pro believed is proved false (like his parentage...)), the obvious example popped into my head: Darth Vader saying "Luke, I am your father." Now granted, this doesn't occur in the middle of the movie, but if one considers that the third Star Wars movie is a continuation of the story from the second, then the timing works. And I think that reversals can occur at any point during a story. Maybe the middle is just more common?

And Alicia, what do you think of stories that have multiple reversals? Good, bad, indifferent?

Jami G.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I'm so excited about this series of posts from you. And really happy that I've been doing reversals naturally in my work. Thanks for this.

John H said...

If I have a storyline and I can't really see how I can fit a reversal into what i want to do, does it matter? should i force one in, or would doing that ruin the effect of having the reversal?

Something I need to ponder. . . Thanks for the post, Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Multiple reversals? Well, that can work in some stories, those with intricate plots where the point is to keep the protagonist ({and reader) off-balance. I still think there's probably ONE big reversal, but having more than one might make that less important as the reader might be expecting it. But do you think a faster pace would lead to more reversals (or rather, would more reversals lead to a faster pace)?

John, I'd never suggest forcing a scene in. Why not sketch quickly your plot, maybe the 10 major events (email to me -- if you don't want to make it public), and let's see if you already have one and you just aren't calling it that. :)


Vonna said...

Thanks for this timely post. My novel had an emotional hole in it, but while I was reading your post a perfect solution popped into my head-- a reversal, of course.

Edittorrent said...

That's great, Sierra! (And an example of what you're doing would help. :) Just generic is fine.)

Can you suggest ways of making the reversal more effective? Like putting it after a scene that affirms the alternative? That is, let's say the reversal is that the protagonist learns that his beloved mentor has been lying to him. Would that be more or less effective right after a scene of him with the mentor, with much trust and admiration?

Genella deGrey said...

I enjoy comedic reversals. The films "Bowfinger" and "My Blue Heaven" are two great examples, both staring Steve Martin.

Jami Gold said...


Yes, I agree that if a story has multiple reversals, there would probably be major and minor ones. I think having too many, especially close together, can emotional exhaust a reader. I was thinking about this because I just caught 2012 yesterday (side note, as a reviewer put it: it's the mother, father, and extended family of 'disaster porn' movies - if you like that sort of thing, you may never need to watch another disaster movie again because this is the pinnacle of the genre). Between the numerous "they're going to die", "no, they're not" reversals, it was hard to point to the big act-changing turning points in the second half of the movie. It seemed like there were hundreds of them! :)

To address another of your points, yes, I think that a reversal can have more emotional impact if it follows a scene showing the opposite. But a writer would have to do this well, make sure that there is a real reason for the first scene so that it's not just there for manipulation of the reader.

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this: Pretty much every detective movie/novel has a reversal as the detective finds out a person who at first is an ally is actually the bad guy.

I read Robert Crais and there are heaps of examples there:
1)An FBI agent turns out to be working for the Mob
2)The Lawyer helping him find the girl actually wants to kill her
3)The girl that has been kidnapped and they have spent the entire novel for looking for her, actually ran avay from home to be with her boyfriend, aka 'kidnapper'.

Nelson Demills The General's Daughter has a pretty good one. The hero/John Travolta is running around in circles getting new hints which keep changing his opinion of what happened until bang two things click together and he realises in horror that his MP buddy was the guy who did it. (Done better in the book than the movie, which cut so much out it was a disappointment)