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