Reversals in Stories

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The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable of reversals
The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable reversals.

Using reversals to navigate through the major pivot points is one way to keep our readers and audiences engaged.

Importantly, we need time to lay out essential information in support of plot and character development that will only pay off later. This may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audiences interested.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They create a certain expectation in us, only to surprise us a moment later with another: 

1. A young boy creeps into an abandoned double-story house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading up to the loft. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing larger. The boy shuts his eyes, fearful of facing the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, he hears another sound. He opens his eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast by a stray racoon caught in a slither of light.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room. She finds the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her grounded teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom window. The mother hears the toilet flush. She smiles with relief, but the smile quickly fades when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter. 

“Reversals are used to jazz up flagging dramatic beats between the major turning points in a story.”

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise. 

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a gunfight. Lucky to escape with their lives, the robbers reach safety. They open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

1 thought on “Reversals in Stories

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    This is a great example of why it’s important to understand the difference between surprise and suspense and knowing how to use it. Surprise in narrative is when the reader / viewer and character is presented with new information simultaneously. Where as suspense is when the viewer/reader/ character has information that they know they are withholding from other characters.

    Reversals in Braking Bad / Gotham / Vikings /The Land Below

    How will Walt react when he learns that Skyler used his drug money to pay off her former boss/ lover when the federal government starts to investigate the books she was responsible for?

    How will Penguin react when he learns that his adopted family are responsible for the death of his father after he finds poison in a whiskey bottle ?

    How will Lagertha Lothbrok react when her husband has been unfaithful and learns that the woman is expecting his child ?

    How will the hero in the Land Below react when he learns that the great engine’s time has come to an end ?

    In short : Reversals are the result of unforeseen events that are beyond the control of the characters and how it will effect the way they will take action.

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