Reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles, October 27, 2010
Your story is flat. You don’t know what’s wrong. You like your characters and you like the milieu, but the piece as a whole–it kinda sucks and you’ve run out of ideas. What can you do to get you back in the mood? Take a look at reversals. Do you have any? Even one?
One of the components of many strong stories are reversals of action; that is, taking the events from positive to negative and back to positive through each scene or the other way around. In other words, reversing what is happening from good to bad or bad to good.
This back and forth is a basic rule–actually, I don’t want to use the word “rule” because some people go screaming into the night when it comes to “rules”–so I’ll say instead, reversals have been a basic “consideration” in storytelling since humans could communicate.
“Ugh, I go to find deer. I have good plan, but deer not on plain. I disappointed and thought coming home, but I see a monster and think, big monster, big food. At first I was afraid, but monster on ground sleeping. I sneak up with my trusty spear to kill him. Something inside pound pound. But I brave. His seeing part was closed. I raised spear. Took one step, and his seeing part opened. He growled. I turned to run, I slipped. The monster struggled to stand up. His feet came close to my legs. I tried to crawl away. Came to a tree. Thought I would climb tree. I would be safe. But as I climb tree, something thick and heavy brushed me away. I fell hard on the rocks. The tree had another monster, only bigger. I picked up rock. And so forth….”
Each bolded word suggests a reversal from positive to negative to positive. This action pulls the reader through the scene, creating suspense. The tribe sitting around the proverbial campfire doesn’t want to hear, “I went out and killed a monster with a rock. Eat up.”
So the main character has a good idea, but his plan is reversed to a negative when he finds the "plain" empty. Then he sees more game, bigger game. Life has taken a positive turn. But bad news, he doubts he can bring the beast down.
Reversals give movement to a story. As you can see, I’m not discussing here big reversals that are the standard to movies, but rather small reversals with each scene. The unfolding of the action--going from positive to negative and back to positive--takes the reader through the story visually and brings individuality to the scene. No two writers paying close attention to their text and their own experience and imagination are going to create the exact same series of actions.
I owe my awareness of this pattern of reversals most specifically to Robert McKee’s Story. As he explains it, this is not formula, but rather a tool to use to help the author to create a strong story that keeps the reader reading. This is not to say that the reversals need to be supercharged trains bearing down on superheroes. The reversals can be slight and still work terrifically. Or they can have more heft.
McKee discusses larger reversals in his book also and these are worth understanding too because they taking the reader from one scene-segment to the other, one act to the next, pushing the story through to the end, but these may be more the concern of the longer short story, the novella, and the novel.
Today’s short stories , especially flash, often keep action at a minimum, the surprise subtle, only one reversal, but there is some sense of change or experience that speaks to the reader. Many authors are writing more traditional stories too. Whatever a writer’s style, learning about reversals and how they work can be useful. Reversals add tension and help the reader glimpse the author’s unique world. It is through reversals as well as detail in character, setting, and attitude that make each story unique.