Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reversals in Novels and Movies


This image from the Telegraph inadvertently illustrates one of the most important writing concepts every author should master:

The reversal.

Storytelling is all about reversals, and we humans are drawn to them like crazies to the Bachelor house.

Tatooine farmboys became intergalactic heroes. Greek kings accidentally marry their mother and fall from grace. And in real life, we are totally gripped by famous people falling flat on their face at the same time that we love a good comeback story.

These reversals of fortunes are at the heart of good storytelling. Characters find fame, crash and burn, then find redemption, and maybe crash and burn again, and maybe get back on top again.

So why is that image is funny? It's the abrupt shift from romance and pageantry to OSAMA BIN LADEN IS DEAD. Or that Kate and Will are celebrating something different than we thought they were. Maybe both. Either way, as our eyes move down the page our brain registers the shift.

That transition from up to down or down to up and having our expectations upended is at the heart of storytelling.

A Series of Ups and Downs

Similar to what I outlined in the post on dynamic character relationships, the arc of a character should follow a path of ups and downs. A good reversal can jar your reader and grip them with the drama.

Taking the Star Wars example, Luke goes through a series of reversals:
  • Bored, unable to go to Tosche Station to pick up power converters (down)
  • Droids! Cool! (up)
  • Assaulted by sand people (down)
  • Rescued by Obi-Wan Kenobi! Takes possession of lightsaber! (up)
  • Aunt and Uncle killed by stormtroopers (very down)
  • Finds Han Solo! Smell ya later, Greedo! (up)
  • Trapped on Death Star (down)
  • Finds the princess! (up)
  • Nearly drowned by disgusting trash snake thing, smashed in compactor (down)
  • Rescued by droids! (up)
  • Obi Wan dead/disappeared? Nooooooo!! (down)
  • Fights off Tie Fighters (up, don't get cocky)
  • Han Solo refuses to go on mission to destroy Death Star (down)
  • Luke charges ahead anyway! Red 5 on the way! (up)
  • Darth Vader has him in his sights (down)
  • Han Solo had a change of heart! Take that, Vader!! (up)
  • Death Star: KABOOM! (very up)
So you see, Luke has a pretty consistent series of reversals between up and down moments throughout the narrative.

He also has the one major reversal in Star Wars, which is a transformation from a farmboy to a hero.

Even over the course of the trilogy you see the reversals:
  • End of Star Wars: just destroyed Death Star, received medal (up)
  • End of Empire Strikes Back: hand forcibly removed by Darth Vader/father, Han Solo trapped in carbonite (down)
  • End of Return of the Jedi: New Death Star blown up, Emperor defeated, Vader redeemed (up)
Reversals reversals reversals! On a scene to scene level, from a beginning to the end of a novel/movie level, and on a series level.

Plot out those reversals and you'll have yourself a gripping story.






43 comments:

James Scott Bell said...

Exactly. I call them disasters. End a scene with some sort of setback. Even if a scene ends well from time to time, which it should to avoid predictability, use the good to lead to more disaster. Example: Kimble helps the boy in the hospital in TheFugitive. Saves his life. But it leads to his getting caught by the nurse and security getting called.

Mr. D said...

In so many words, it sounds like the lives of most people I know!

Joanne Sher said...

Absolutely the heart of storytelling - but I can honestly say I'd never thought of it that way. Thank you.

And I definitely LOLed at that front page.

Deb said...

I couldn't agree more, Mr. D.

Julie Daines said...

Excellent advice. Something I really needed to hear because it's so easy for me to get caught up in the small technicalities of writing that I lose sight of the big picture! Thanks!

Debs Riccio said...

You lost me at 'Star Wars' but I get the general idea!

Matthew MacNish said...

This seems like common sense, and I suppose it is, but I've never seen it described so succinctly. Star Wars references/comparisons or even mentions always do help, though.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Good point and good examples.

BP said...

I love this! Very sensible advice. If you're story's always going in one direction (up/down), it's not going to be much like real life. I think Shakespeare realized this when he broke tradition in the Neoclassical Ideal as he wrote his scripts; instead of only writing a strictly comic or tragic story, he would intertwine both, realizing that life "And that," my theater prof. would say "is why Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist of all times." Yeah... ;D

Jordan McCollum said...

Great post! I like JSB's scene-by-scene disaster, but a lot of these reversals are happening on a higher scale. I think it might be a good idea to go through my own work and make sure the characters are in a vastly different situation every 20 or so pages—the result of reversals!

Carissa Elg said...

There are a lot of authors out there that could benefit from this advice! Great post! (Star Wars references and all!) :)

Marilyn Almodóvar said...

Excellent post! Especially with all the Star Wars references.

Jordan McCollum said...

(Oh and a quick technical note: it's spelled Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

Munk said...

Interesting... my post this week prescribes a pending reversal on the Death Star.
http://munkdavis.blogspot.com/

Bryce Daniels said...

Thanks, Nathan, for another helpful post. Love the Star Wars examples, as well as the "reverse" example set forth by Mr. Bell. (Great movie, by the way.)

Julia Darcey said...

Hm, I was wondering why my work in progress felt like an endless slog through a flat plain of depression. I think I need more up moments. Thanks! Thanks! This is great.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nice... my MS however, is mostly downs... farther and farther, with a half up at the end. Bleak, for sure, but it's a war story (not a farmboy war story either, though there are farmboys in it :).

Istvan Szabo, Ifj. said...

Thanks Nathan! Good post and it's very helpful!

Corey Schwartz said...

Oh, love this post! I just finished The Underneath and Kathi Appelt did a wonderful job of reversals!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Darth Vader looks less like James Earl Jones than expected (down)

D.G. Hudson said...

Mention Star Wars and I'm hooked. Those science fiction stories had most of us glued to our seats watching the drama unfold. With the aid of special effects, drama is magnified. It's so much more UP when the bad guy gets it in a spectacular way (used often in thrillers).

Thanks, Nathan, posts like this remind us that a little unpredictable action is always a good addition to the mix. We must keep that character moving, he has to get to the end of the book.

Nathan - couldn't reversals also be considered transition points, where the plot can thicken or divert?

D. U. Okonkwo said...

Man, you are funny - 'like crazies to the Bachelor house' - LOVE IT.

mmshaunakelley said...

I applaud you for using Star Wars to create this point (which is really, really valuable!).

In high school, I had to watch Star Wars in conjunction with the Odyssey as an example of strong storytelling and a quest story. I love seeing this movie referenced as such.

Nancy Kelley said...

When I'm explaining plot to non-writers, I use crime shows to describe the reversal. It's that moment right around the 30 minute mark when they suddenly realize the guy they thought did it... didn't. New evidence comes into play, he suddenly has an alibi, another murder occurs that changes the whole story--for some reason, the entire case is turned upside down, and the cops are sent back to the drawing board.

Now I have a new analogy. Thanks, Nathan.

Rachael W said...

A wonderful and helpful post as usual, Nathan! I also think that characters' reactions to reversals in fortune are just as important as the reversals themselves. I've been working on making my plot reversals grow out of character actions and reactions, so that they seem organic rather than forced.

Thermocline said...

Gets kissed by the hot chick in Empire Strikes Back (up)
Realizes it was his sister in Return of the Jedi (down)

Renee Collins said...

"Like crazies to the Bachelor house"

lol

Come on, what woman doesn't want a vaguely creepy masked man to woo her??? ;)

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Thanks for using Star Wars as an example. It's such a good one. Jim Bridges, a movie director, once told me that there was only one business in Hollywood: Building people up and then tearing them down. Cynical, but true. I guess that;s what most humans like to see.

abc said...

Helpful should be your middle name. I needed this. Love you Nathan! (like a brother (a brother I don't know very well)).

J. T. Shea said...

Reversals? You're wrong. You're right. You're wrong. You're right. You're wrong. Damn! I think that daisy was rigged...

The English Teacher said...

Nicely told, Nathan.

Nancy Lauzon said...

Thanks for the great advice. I've seen Star Wars used in other storytelling examples, it's an excellent choice. I believe it's used in Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers as an example of 'The Ordinary World', 'The Call to Adventure', etc. A book every writer should have in their library, imho.

Nancy
http://nancylauzon.blogspot.com/
The Chick Dick Blog

Paul Michael Murphy said...

George Lucas makes best trilogy ever. (up)

Then he introduces Jar Jar Binks. (way, way down)

Rebecca Kiel said...

This is so true. Isn't this the basis for all of the will-they-won't-they romantic storylines? It's the roller coaster that keeps us interested and invested in the story!

Mira said...

Good article, Nathan! I like the way you conceptualized it. I've seen you do this before, deceptively simple and very clear thinking. Thank you!

I don't really like the headline on the news article, though.

Anonymous said...

Easier Read than Done

Wow...talk about spoilers. Guess I can take these off the netflix queue since I now know the ending.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Very enlightening! Lately I've been thinking about advice from some other writers, like Vonnegut, that you have to make things worse and worse, or at least more difficult, for your characters before they can have their happy/satisfying resolution. Thing is, I don't think their advice necessarily contradicts yours. If you give a character up moments, it makes the downs all that more dramatic; the same happens if each down raises the stakes, as it does in Star Wars. Love the analogy and the thoughts!

seekerval said...

Loved this post, Nathan. You did a stellar job of illustrating the principle with The Star Wars film. I'm particularly impressed with each of the trilogy ending in the reversal pattern. I never really noticed that point.

Sigh. Think I need to look at my ms again. This sort of thing keeps happening. Well done advice.

Joanne Bischof said...

Well said, Nathan!
"You're the best. Well, sort of. I mean, really! Well, maybe." (guess the concept does not apply so well to dialogue) :D

Ishta Mercurio said...

GREAT post! You're so right, but I never thought about actually plotting out the reversals. And you're right that having them in layers - scene to scene, book to book - makes a huge difference.

Can you ever have too many? Is there such a thing as reversal overload?

Emily Wenstrom said...

So true--you hardly have a plot without reversals, just a bunch of characters on the page. And a great example, too ... Star Wars always wins.

vandersun said...

Just when I think I'm alone in the fact that I relate everything to Star Wars, you come through for me, Nathan.

Thank you SO much for this post. My story really needed it.

Theresa Milstein said...

Now I'm going to look for reversals everywhere.

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