The best screenplays manage to surprise their readers and challenge the narrative.
One of the things I love the most about writing is the power to throw people for a complete loop. You can write a different genre or add a plot twist, but the ultimate power of just having the audience think one thing and giving them another is what keeps me coming back for more.
An easier way of stating that reaction is called a "reversal," and there's real magic in that feeling. When you're able to dupe the audience and take them on an exciting ride, you've done your job well.
Today, we're going to unpack the magic of reversals in screenwriting together.
Let's dive in.
Define 'Reversal' in Screenwriting
In screenwriting, a "reversal" is a narrative technique used to subvert the audience's expectations, often leading to a significant change in the direction or outcome of the story.
This device is employed to create surprise, enhance dramatic tension, and deepen the emotional impact of the narrative.
What is the Magic of Reversals in Screenwriting?
20th Century Fox
Reversals are more than just plot twists. They are strategically placed moments that challenge the characters’ goals, beliefs, or situations, thereby altering the direction of the story.
A well-executed reversal can transform a predictable plot into an unpredictable journey, making the story more engaging and memorable.
That gives them the feeling of magic.
The Types of Screenwriting Reversals
So, when do reversals happen in screenwriting? Well, there are lots of different ways to attack the idea. You can reverse the idea of a character, change the plot, or expose a location.
- Plot Reversals: These are sudden changes in the story's direction, often occurring at key points like the end of an act. For example, a character thought to be an ally might be revealed as the antagonist.
- Emotional Reversals: These occur when a character’s emotional state changes dramatically. A scene might begin with a character feeling triumphant but end with them experiencing defeat or despair.
- Perception Reversals: These involve a change in the audience’s understanding of a character or situation, often through reveals or new information.
- Unexpected Change: A reversal is a sudden shift in the expected progression of the story. It can turn what appears to be a positive situation into a negative one, or vice versa, often in a way that the audience does not see coming.
- Character Development: Reversals often force characters to adapt, make tough choices, or reveal hidden aspects of their personalities, leading to deeper character development.
- Enhancing Conflict: They intensify the story's central conflict, often raising the stakes and complicating the characters' journeys.
How to Create Effective Reversals
Now that we know what reveals are and understand why they feel magic, let's look at how we can use them in out own screenplays.
- Plant and Payoff: For a reversal to be impactful, it must be set up properly. Foreshadowing and subtle hints can lead to a more satisfying and believable reversal.
- Balance is Crucial: Overusing reversals can desensitize the audience and make the story feel chaotic. It’s important to find a balance.
- Intricate Plotting: Every reversal should serve the story’s larger narrative and thematic goals. Random twists that don’t enhance the story or characters can feel gimmicky.
- Characterization: Focus on how characters react to reversals. These moments can be great opportunities for character development.
- Careful Timing: The placement of a reversal can significantly impact its effectiveness. Key turning points in the script, such as the end of an act, can be ideal spots.
Examples of Reversals from Film and TV
The Good Place
NBCUniversal Television Distribution
Reversals are a staple in both film and television, often serving as pivotal moments that redefine the narrative, characters, or viewer's perception.
When brainstorming my own, I like to return to a lot of these for inspiration.
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - The iconic revelation of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker's father. This plot reversal dramatically changes the protagonist's understanding of his enemy and his own identity.
- Psycho (1960) - The discovery that Norman Bates has been impersonating his deceased mother, a shocking plot and perception reversal that upends the audience's understanding of the film's events.
- Gone Girl (2014) - The revelation that Amy Dunne has orchestrated her own disappearance and framed her husband for murder. This plot reversal shifts the audience’s sympathy and perception of the characters.
- Fight Club (1999) - The twist where it's revealed that Tyler Durden and the narrator are the same person. This is a classic perception reversal that changes the viewer’s understanding of the entire narrative.
- The Sixth Sense (1999) - The famous ending where it’s revealed that Dr. Malcolm Crowe has been dead throughout the film. This perception reversal dramatically changes the context of the entire movie.
- Breaking Bad (2008-2013) - The moment when Walter White lets Jane die in season 2 is a crucial character reversal, showcasing his transformation from a sympathetic protagonist to someone capable of moral ambiguity and darkness.
- Game of Thrones (2011-2019) - The Red Wedding episode presents a devastating plot reversal where key characters unexpectedly meet their demise, significantly altering the show's direction.
- Westworld (2016-present) - The revelation that Bernard is actually a host and not human is a perception reversal that changes the viewer's understanding of his character and the narrative.
- Lost (2004-2010) - The end of the first season reveals that the hatch the survivors have been trying to open leads to a sophisticated underground station, a plot reversal that expands the scope of the series beyond survival.
- The Good Place (2016-2020) - The end of season 1 reveals that the characters are actually in the Bad Place, not the Good Place, completely flipping the show’s premise in a shocking plot and perception reversal.
The magic of reversals lies in their ability to transform a story from a linear, predictable path to a dynamic and captivating journey.
They are essential tools in the screenwriter's arsenal, helping to create memorable, engaging, and emotionally resonant stories.
By mastering the art of the reversal, screenwriters can keep their audiences on the edge of their seats, eagerly anticipating what will happen next.
Let me know what you think in the comments.