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Screenplay Tips # 2: Reversals


One thing I hardly ever see in spec screenplays – TV or features – is a reversal. Some writers believe reversals only have a place in horrors or thrillers; other writers sometimes confess they’re not really sure what a reversal is, suggesting instead they must be an “American thing”… Yet neither of these assertions are true.

Here is a good definition of a reversal:

A place in the plot where a character achieves the opposite of his aim, resulting in a change from good fortune to bad fortune.

From Screenwriting Info’s Glossary of Screenwriting Terms

The operative words there? “The opposite of his (or HER, ahem) aim”. In other words, take the reader (or audience) into a scene thinking something is going to happen (usually via the protagonist, but not always) and then CHANGE THAT EXPECTATION – or reverse it!

Obviously thrillers and horrors have the most *obvious* reversals, because this idea of going from “good fortune to bad fortune” is often literally LIFE OR DEATH. In Die Hard, John McClane comes across Klaus in the top floors of the building – and Klaus doesn’t have his gun (reversal #1). We THINK John McClane will bust Klaus right away, but instead he accepts Klaus’ claim he is a renegade hostage too and EVEN GIVES HIM A GUN (reversal # 2). That’s it now… Klaus is going to shoot McClane. Shit! But oh no — McClane had already busted him previously because he HASN’T LOADED THE GUN… A TRIPLE whammy of reversals. Nice!

But all other genres can have reversals too, even dramas — in fact, they SHOULD, it keeps readers/audiences on their toes. The more you can SURPRISE a reader or viewer, the more they will think of your story FAVOURABLY. Consider all your favourite movies and TV — have they used reversals? And if so, how?


All About Reversals – Associated Content – some great stuff here

17 Reversal Ideas (PDF) by Sherri Sheridan – handy & short printable guide, put it on your wall!

Reversals R Us by Your Screenplay Sucks – an interesting real life anecdote that ends by asking, “If this was in a movie, would you believe it?”

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8 thoughts on “Screenplay Tips # 2: Reversals”

  1. You know what, this came at the perfect time when I'm just trying to deal with incorporating a reversal in a script, so thanks for the heads up. And you're right, it is a powerful tool and shouldn't just be regarded as some flashy US technique.

  2. Klaus? = Hans Gruber?

    Totally agree though. I've read some well written screenplays that are just far too predictable. A lack of reversals also typically results in a lack of conflict.

    Although I do see the opposite every now and then, as well. Where the plot makes wild reversals and the character does things very out of character in order for the plot to make sense.

    In both cases, I think a mastery of audience expectation is the missing ingredient.

  3. Hans Gruber, that's the one. No idea why I'm calling him Klaus, unless maybe that's the name he gives McClane in the corridor. Probably not – can NEVER remember names.

    Definitely agree though that a lack of reversals results in a lack of conflict… So many specs in the pile have virtually none, as they don't want to put their characters through the worst case scenarios – which is a shame, since the worse they go through, the MORE an audience will like them generally.

  4. Its a great post

    According to me reversals are the only way to bring entertainment to viewer,it could be humor or serious drame,thriller or even a scary movie.

    Bluntly speaking a reversal is to make some mad thing happen in your script while at the same time being logically correct.

    From the inumerable films I have seen If I am greatly impressed with any scene I always found that there is a reversal/reversals behind that scene.

    In fact for me writing a compelling screenplay is all about findning as many reversals I can find in the story I headed to write.This is only one thing that stays on the back of mind when I am writing.

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