Monday 19 September 2011

The Reversal

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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Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I was thinking "M. Night Shyamalan" while reading this.

J.L. Campbell said...

I'm big on plot twists and try work them in such a way that the reader is swept along with the story. When things become predictable, the reader won't stick around to find out what happens in the end.

mooderino said...

@Michael-the problem with that kind of approach is it's all eggs in one basket, one big twist at the very end. When it works, fine, but mostly it becomes too obvious what you're doing. If the audience is expecting the twist, even if theyhave no idea what it is, then it sucks the power out of it,

@JL-the plot twist is just one kind of reversal, it's the snaller, less dramatic reversals I think a lot of writers don't make full use of.

Jennifer Hillier said...

This is a great post. I never knew the technique had a name. You're right about the eggs in one basket, though. If it works, it's fabulous. If it doesn't, it's terrible.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Nice! It's all the in the planning, I guess. Some writers are so good with that. I've always loved how Rowling was able to hide things in plain sight and then pull the rug out from under us.

jonyangorg said...

Hey! Thanks for cruising over to my blog and saying hello. Saying "hi" right back!

Alleged Author said...

I have a HUGE reversal in my currently finished ms. I was wondering if it was almost *too* big, but it fit with the characters at the end. We'll see what happens. Great post!

Cheryl said...

I have a couple of smaller reversals going on in mine, and a pretty big plot reversal close to the end. The latter only came to me as I was writing that particular chapter and decided I didn't want it to end the way I had first envisioned. I think the new way works much better, is less cliched and should get a good reaction. At least I'm hoping so!

LD Masterson said...

I'm bookmarking this one so I can read it again. But I wanted you let you know you have an award waiting on my blog. Hop over and pick it up when you get the chance.

Suze said...

I've always known how to bead words together in a pleasing way. But I seem to know precious little about how to make a narrator truly grapple. Contrived second acts trouble me in story. I don't like a manufactured sense of urgency just before the denoument or for the actions of characters to fail to ring true just for the sake of that, I guess you could call it a trope? But then I end up with far too little-- strings holding the pieces together where there should be ropes. Nooses, even. :)

Michael Di Gesu said...

Fantastic advice as always Mood. I did use a lot of this in my latest novel and from the feedback I received it worked well. The reader never knew what was coming next.

Any your are right, you can't just put on in at the end, The story needs to be sprinkled with them throughout.

Crystal said...

This is a tiny issue I'm having in my current WIP. I'm trying to work in the smaller reversals you talked about to make things more interesting. Hopefully it works out!

Lorena said...

This is what I aim to do in my writing (but I'm not sure I always achieve it.)

Excellent post, Mood.

Laura Josephsen said...

You're right about it being a lot of effort to pull this off--but if it can be done successfully, it's so worth it!

Sandwiched Writer said...

So much info on this blog! I've tagged you for the Versatile Blogger Award. If you'd like to participate, check out my current post.

mooderino said...

@Jennifer-the big finale reversal is a pretty common device, the smaller, more subtle ones along teh way tend to make for a better reading experience.

@Donna-I think it's not just planning,it's also awareness. If you look at an event and consider if it feels obvious or exectly how things seemed like they were going to turn out, I think that's enough to get the cogs turning.

@jon-hi, welcome.

@AA-it's worth looking for smaller reversals leading up to the big one.

@cheryl-I hope so too, good luck with it.

@LD-thanks for the award, alwys nice to get one.

mooderino said...

@Suze-I think of it a craft more than an art and learning teh tools is important, alhtough how you use the tools is down to personal choice.

@Michael-yes, i think the one at the end is what everyone keeps in mind, and readers almost expect. The otheres are more about making themiddle fun to read (and hopefully write).

@Crystal-good luck with it.


@Laura-I think so, and even more so if you can pull it off more than once.

@sandwiched-thanks for the award. Two awards in the same post, that's a first for me.

cheers all.

Sarah Wedgbrow said...

I love reading something that subverts my expectations without feeling like I've been betrayed. Pleasantly surprised, I guess is the phrase. What I don't like is to be forced into guessing something and then find out I'm wrong at the end (i.e. mysteries)so I tend to steer clear of that type of writing. great post!

Carol Riggs said...

Good points! Who likes to read a predictable book? Not many people--or at least not all the time (women who read formulaic romance novels being an exception!). :)

Unknown said...

I've got to work on my technique for this. I am so obvious that in my drafts you can see that reversal for miles. I hope to practice more and get it right.

Anonymous said...

This is what makes a story great. We recently saw the movie Contagion and there were no real twists or turns in the plot. Just a very linear story being told as it unfolds. I was kinda disappointed.

Lydia Kang said...

I love a good reversal. Your posts always get me wondering if I should revise my plot...

Lisa Potts said...

I love a good plot twist, but nothing can ruin a book faster than a poorly handled one

N. R. Williams said...

Well written advice on this one. Another thing about plot twist is it is good to build tension and get you through the middle which isn't always easy.

Nice to have you back.
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

Arlee Bird said...

Logic and honesty in the telling of the story are very important in getting the reader to accept a plot twist. If we trust the author throughout the story, then believing comes with little effort at the end. I like a good plot twist where I slap myself in the forehead and think, "Of course, it was right in front of me and I just didn't put it all together, but now it makes sense". Being manipulated and tricked by gimmickery only leaves a reader with a duh-that-was-stupid bad taste in the mouth. I want the story's outcome to make sense.

Tossing It Out

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