by Lazarus Black
A story illustrates some kind of change in the world described. For example, the protagonist can grow or be destroyed, their culture can evolve or devolve, their homeland can wither or explode. If nothing changes, there is no story. It's merely a description of something as it exists.
Changes can be little or big. Big changes are usually surrounded by little ones that precede or follow it or maybe occur simultaneously. In one sense, things can change a little at a time. But in the grand language of storytelling, only reversals matter.
The most dramatic reversal is Life<—>Death. Other powerful reversals include Single<—>Partnership (e.g., relationships), Empty<—>Full (e.g., knowledge), Peace<—>War, Hope<—>Horror, Right<—>Wrong, Justice<—>Injustice, etc. This isn't really a list as much as examples of how to phrase them.
Smaller reversals can be Inside<—>Outside, Red<—>Green, Fast<—>Slow, Forward<—>Backward, etc.
A novel/movie/whatever has a primary reversal from beginning to end. The protagonist is an orphan who finds a family or a weakling who grows powerful or a heartless grump whose heart grows three sizes that day. They can even be combined. But in-between are going to be many little reversals. Some people call them plot-points, and I do sometimes, but I prefer reversals because it constantly reminds me of what they need to do in the story.
Reversals are most easily identified in mysteries. Throughout the story, the reader is allowed to believe one thing before a clue is revealed to change that belief. No, it's not the butler after all — it's the chauffeur! Wait, the chauffeur is dead? Then it must be Madame! But she arthritis and can't pull the trigger? Then it could only be... The dog? The dog is a werewolf? And all the victims fed his mate chocolate? Oh, then they deserved to die.
While great in popular genres, even good literary fiction contains them. Reversals creates drama. Really, every character arch is a reversal, and should ideally encompass several. Every setting, every action, ever piece of foreshadowing should have its reversal. Every single scene must illustrate a reversal. If there is no reversal, the words are a mere fragment of prose.
The following is a description, not a reversal:
Dominic lifts the can of cola from the table and places it on the desk.
This is a reversal:
Dominic lifts the can of cola to his lips and stops. The extra weight around his chest and belly closes in around him. He feels sick with self-loathing and realizes whatever temporary joy he'd receive from its flavor would just prolong his suffering — or even hasten his death. He forces his hand down and places the can on a desk, relieved his will was strong enough for this round.
The difference is palpable. Effectively, the can changed in space and time — but nobody cares. Dominic was needy and reached for a solution, but changed his mind. BUT did you notice that it's doubled? The beverage that appeared to be a solution to his problem was, in fact, the opposite. And it was an even bigger problem. THEN the problem itself reversed. Instead the problem being a lack of beverage, the problem reversed to explain that wanting the beverage in the first place was the problem.
There are few percentage of works out there that may not appear to have many or any reversals. So-called Slice of Life stories might have fewer and/or may end up reversing themselves back to their original state. (Yawn.) But the most powerful ones give the illusion that nothing has changed on the surface of things, something reversed inside the reader. Maybe it's an understanding or appreciation of the situation described. Maybe it's simply ruining the readers peaceful state of mind, awakening them to the horrors of they were oblivious to before. But those are still reversals. I would say those are the most powerful reversals of all — but the more reversals, the more powerful still.
Even in this little article, you, the reader, began empty of these words and my definition and use of reversals. Now you are full of that knowledge and changed for it. What you choose to do with that, apply it or reject it or simply file it away, is the next scene in your story.