Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 23: The Reversal


Now that we're into week three of actually writing we're ready to think about the reversal for our character's temporary triumph from the end of Act II, Part One.  The reader can't be duped, of course, into believing the triumph will last; they can see there is still half a book left in which the main character is most certainly going to be getting into more trouble.  This is the point at which you show the reader they were right.

According to Victoria Lynn Schmidt there are several ways a reversal can occur.  I've used her list of potential reversals (from page 158 of Book In a Month) followed by an example in popular literature.

New information comes into play
  • Jane Eyre is a governess who is in love with her employer.  When he confesses he loves her too, he proposes marriage and they are happily engaged for over a month (triumph).  At the altar the wedding is brought to an abrupt end by a man who claims that Jane's employer is already married and that the woman is in fact living in the very home where Jane has been serving as governess (reversal).
A dramatic situation occurs
  • In the movie The Village, Ivy Walker and Lucius Hunt have just confessed their love for each other and become engaged to be married (triumph).  They have only one evening to enjoy their happiness before Noah, a handicapped boy who has always loved Ivy, goes and stabs Lucius because of jealousy (reversal).
Another character turns on the main character
  • In the film Up, Carl meets his childhood hero, Charles Muntz, who saves Carl from a pack of menacing dogs, then invites him to dinner (triumph).  Halfway through dinner Charles realizes Carl has been taking care of an exotic bird that Charles has spent his whole life searching for.  Now his attitude changes; he doesn't trust Carl and he even attempts to chase him down in order to get the bird from him (reversal).
Friends and supporters give up on the main character, abandoning him or her to continue alone
  • In the movie Miss Congeniality, the police are able to find and arrest the man they believe is responsible for threatening to bomb the beauty pageant (triumph).  Sandra Bullock's character doesn't believe they've caught the right man, but since the rest of the bureau are not convinced, she is left behind alone to uncover the real killer (reversal).
A meeting place is changed at the last minute, or a task begins to go awry
  • In The Italian Job Stella is asked on a date by the very man who murdered her father.  She accepts, planning to stand him up so that she and her team can break into his house and steal his gold (triumph).  When the team shows up at his house they see the next door neighbors are having a large party - too many potential witnesses.  Now Stella has to go on the dreaded date, during the course of which, her father's killer realizes who she is and that he's being set up (reversal).
The main character's thinking is shown to be mistaken, misguided, or just plain wrong
  • In the movie The Gift, Cate Blanchett's character sees visions that allow her to find the body of a missing girl, and aid in the arrest of the girl's supposed killer (triumph).  Then Blanchett sees another vision which makes her realize the man behind bars is not the girl's killer (reversal).
The villain becomes the good guy or the good guy becomes a bad guy - a misreading of one character by another
  • The newer movie Puss In Boots, Puss and his childhood friend Humpty Alexander Dumpty work together to steal the golden goose of Jack and the Beanstalk fame.  They make it down the beanstalk with the goose and are dancing around a fire in celebration, surrounded by golden eggs (triumph).  The next day Puss's friends have gone missing and when he tracks them back to his hometown he is handed over to the town's guards by the traitor Humpty (reversal).
Despite Schmidt's claim that the reversal should take place somewhere close to (but before) the 3/4ths mark of the novel, my own study of plots leads me to believe this is not a hard and fast rule.  Some stories offer several triumphs followed instantly by reversals, some none at all.  Look at your contemplated reversal and see if putting it off might create more tension for the reader, or bringing it forward might pick up the pacing a bit more.  If not, you've probably got it in the right place.

Check out the Reversal Brainstorm Worksheet (scroll down to page 275)  to begin planning how to bring an end to your character's short-lived contentedness.

MY DAY 23:  Despite my best efforts I realized there was no way I would be finishing the manuscript by the end of the 30 day challenge.  I hope that by giving you a week of prep time prior to the actual writing this will not be a problem for the rest of you.


  1. Excellent advice! Will look back for your other posts on story structure. Sadly am not writing my novel in 30 days, but I am in the process of revising and posts like yours are invaluable.

  2. Thanks so much Melanie for your comment! These articles on writing typically don't get a lot of feedback, so it's nice to know someone has read and appreciated them!

  3. I've been reading all this writing advice, and I think it's good, solid writing advice. It just doesn't work for me, which is unbelievably frustrating. I'm not the type of person who can organize her thoughts like this. I'm more, OK, time to write, let's see what happens. And I'm not sure I like that. I wish I could apply this all to my writing.....

    1. Eva, I can really relate! I haven't written my entire first draft yet and I almost feel like all of this writing knowledge is stifling.

      One thing I learned from "The Plot Whisperer," Martha Alderson, that I found really helpful is that most often you know these things inherently. Writers are also readers and we have a natural feel for the rhythms and cadences of a storyline. It may be hard to see at first, but your story likely already has things like turning points and antagonists and character development. The goal of these posts is to help you recognize the elements that are already in your novel, then accentuate them and give them deeper meaning or more clarity.

      My advice would be to go with your natural flow and just get the story written. Once that's done look back through your writing to see if you can find these elements of story structure already there. If not, a fun little trick is to total up your page count, then divide that number into fourths. At each fourth (give or take a few pages) you will most likely find a major structural element already written into your story.

      I'd love to know if this little trick works for you, so feel free to keep me posted on your progress!

    2. Thank you so much for this advice! It really means a lot to me. Being a pre-teen writer (quite literally), I often get a "Yeah, uh, great story, kid, gotta run, see ya" that, as you might imagine, is not exactly encouraging. :)

    3. With regards to your naysayers, I've been there too. I was married at 19 and when I told people I was engaged they would get that "Wow, I doubt THAT marriage is going to last," look in their eyes. I wanted to somehow convince them that I was different and my marriage would be different, but I knew the only way they would believe me is if they witnessed its success for themselves.

      Similarly, you can only prove your dedication to writing by sticking with it. (Taking a mental list of the eye-rollers might be good too. Be sure to give them a call and rub it in their faces when you become a published author). :)

      The fact that (as a preteen!) you're studying story structure and techniques already shows great commitment on your part. Clearly you're willing to put in the work to make yourself a better writer. Bravo! I wish I had started writing when I was younger; think of all the experience you'll have when you're my age!

    4. Thank you. I will keep all that in mind (especially the rubbing in the face bit). I can tell you are doing just fine where you are. Can't wait to read a book of yours!

      Man, it's hard to write like this all the time. Usually online I'm a classic example of youth: "lol, i cant blive u did tht!" But it's probably better that I practice my typing etiquette like this, so thanks for that as well. :)