Story Reversals: How Bestselling Authors Surprise and Delight Readers (Part II)

Reversal Pic

Bestselling authors use reversals to generate moments of shock and surprise, to shift the power between characters and to sustain narrative suspense. In the last post, we talked about two different kinds of reversals. Since it’s been a while, here is a quick review:

Two Types of Reversals: Scene and Story

  • A single scene might involve a dozen or more “micro” reversals where power shifts between two or more characters. I often call these “scene reversals”.
  • “Story reversals” often occur at pivotal points in the narrative, such as in the transition between the beginning and middle (end of Act 1), and the middle and end (End of Act 2) of the story.

Bestselling novels and blockbuster movies (successful stories) often contain dozens of small  (scene) and several big (story) reversals. Together, scene and story reversals create compelling fiction through character conflict and “unpredictability”.

That’s a good point to remember: predictability is dull. 

(Caveat: predictability is dull when it is continuous and grossly permeates narrative – when all suspense is siphoned off by routine and pattern, when not only what happens is clearly known, but also where, when and how it happens. Characters should generally behave predictably based on their individuals personality traits, and fear and suspense often includes allowing the reader to “predict” bad things happening to characters.)

Reversals rid stories of dull predictability. They add spice and flavor and color. They prompt readers to say, “Anything can happen in this story!” and to ask, “What’s going to come of the protagonist/hero/sidekick/love interest?”

Since we already covered scene reversals in an earlier post, today let’s look at “story reversals.”

Story reversals are major narrative “U-Turns”. Everything is different. The story might shift in a totally new direction, perhaps the “opposite” direction. The love interest is a spy. The mentor is the villain. The new babysitter is a psychotic stalker with serial killer tendencies.

Story reversals are often referred to as “turning points” and can be considered “Act Transitions”, which is why they work well at specific points in the story – end of Act 1, midpoint, end of Act 2 and sometimes at the climax or end of the story. Think of the ending to “The Sixth Sense” or “The Village.”

Story reversals explore and expose character. Like everything else in a story, major reversals emphasize and highlight the emotional and physical conflict of the narrative. In my Past Lives novel series about a guy who discovers under hypnosis that he is a reincarnated serial killer, one of the major turning points is when he “discovers” the dark secrets in his past. Reversals often include new insights and revelations that change the plot and the character.

Story reversals plunge characters into deeper trouble. Bestselling stories usually involve characters struggling through escalating conflict. Story reversals force characters into deeper trouble, to face their fears and flaws. A common reversal between the middle and end of bestsellers is when the protagonist decides to stop “running” from his or her problems and instead face them head on. In the first book in my Past Lives novel, the protagonist (Eric Shooter) decides to face his past and fight the serial killer (in himself and real, other serial killer outside himself).

Secrets of Story Reversals

  • Story reversals often involve changes in characters (pivot points on the character arc)
  • Story reversals can include escalated personal or global stakes (not only the one child is in danger, but the whole school).
  • Story reversals rely on logical set up that makes sense in retrospect. Surprise is good, coincidence and illogically dropping alien sharks in a cowboy story without prior warning is bad (very bad!).
  • Story reversals often bridge the beginning to the middle and the middle to the end. Seriously consider how your story includes major “U Turns” at these critical points.
  • Story reversals rely on the large gap between expected and unexpected. Small surprises are great, but story reversals need “story-size” surprises. Think in terms of complete upheavals that change everything (character and plot).
  • Ask, “What couldn’t happen?” and make it happen logically in the story.
  • Ask, “What wouldn’t the character do?” and make it happen logically in the story.
  • Ask,”Who couldn’t die?” and kill that character off in spectacular, satisfying fashion.

Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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