The Reversal is a technique when things appear to be going one way, but they end up going another. It helps stories avoid being predictable and you can use it to subvert clichés. It also pulls the reader deeper into the story.
In its most familiar form a reversal is a plot twist, usually big and important. You thought the murderer was Dave, everything pointed to it being Dave. But it was BILL!
What you can do though is use it in a more simple, subtle form, to keep a reader engaged and wondering what will happen next. This is especially useful in genre fiction where readers who are familiar with the form start guessing what happens next and rapidly lose interest.
The thing about this technique is that it must appear invisible to the reader, but it takes quite lot of construction from the writer. You can’t have it unclear what’s going on and then SURPRISE! it’s something you weren’t expecting. You have to control the reader’s expectations so they think the girl is running to the boy to tell him she loves him. The reader has to be totally in that moment and buying it. And then you can pull the rug away when she catches up to him and punches him in the face.
This ends up being quite a lot of work. It’s tempting (because YOU know she isn’t really going to tell him she loves him) for you to not put that much effort in making it seem real. But you first have to be convincing in the misdirect. Then you have to make sure the reversal isn’t so unlikely as to be unbelievable. The clues to what she was going to do were there all along. BUT they can’t be so obvious that the reader sees it coming.
It works best when the character undergoing a reversal is forced to change his or her view of the world. This can be because of a change in circumstance (e.g. from rich to poor) or due to an emotional switch (e.g. from happy to enraged) or simply from learning they were wrong (e.g. from dumb to enlightened).
The thing to remember though is not to just have one reversal right at the end of the story. She was unhappy and alone, and then she found love and she was happily ever after. You want to build in numerous reversals all through the story, often switching the same reversal back on itself. He was rich, then he was poor, and then he was rich again, but it wasn’t the same... without her.
With most stories I read from aspiring writers the arc is very straightforward. Sometimes it’s just too obvious what’s going to happen, and then it does. Usually the pattern is: the girl is chasing the boy. Why? I don’t know. But she’s chasing and chasing and finally she catches him, and she tells him she loves him.
Even though you don’t know why she’s chasing him or what was going to happen, and there was a build up creating tension, the outcome, although emotional, was well within the realm of possible outcomes.
Equally, if she had been chasing him for an unknown reason and then hit him, it would have been a little more unexpected but still somewhat flat.
Only by establishing it’s A before revealing it’s B can you keep the readers on their toes and fully engaged with wanting to know what happens next.
Give the reader good reason to believe things are one way. Then show (reasonably) that they are in fact another. Then find a way to turn that on its head. The more times you can do it, the more engrossed the reader will become.
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*This post first appeared September 2011. New posts in the New Year.