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Top 6 Reversals In Movies


I’ve said only recently I don’t read enough reversals in spec screenplays, in ANY genre, so I thought it time to offer up some examples of those I’ve watched that I felt were effective. Obviously, if you Google “movie reversals” you’ll find various lists (on which many are duplicated), so I’ve put my thinking cap on to come up with some a little different from the norm.

Before we get going however, you may want to read THIS POST, which contains a definition of what a screenplay reversal is, as well as a breakdown of the multiple reversals present in the scene in DIE HARD when McClane and Hans Gruber unexpectedly meet in person, in a corridor.

Ready? Then let’s go …

6) “I am sister to the fates”


LEGEND (1985) is an odd film and also available in two different cuts: I vastly prefer the version with the Tangerine Dream score, which seems to benefit from much tighter editing in particular. There were many fantasy movies of this ilk in the 1980s: we’ve never really seen the same variety again beyond CGI-made universes, which seems a shame. WILLOW, LABYRINTH, THE NEVERENDING STORY, KRULL, THE DARK CRYSTAL as well as two Ewok movies all brought live action worlds of distant planets and different realities to audiences.  Certainly as a child LEGEND scared the pants off me, but its imagery and breadth of imagination are masterly, even if its narrative is not entirely cohesive in my opinion.

As the picture suggests then, the reversal I think worth noting here is of Lily’s defiance to The Lord of Darkness about killing the unicorn. Gumpf demands Jack kills his one true love before she strikes and cuts the animal’s horn off, telling him “she is not your Lily anymore”, appealing to him to see with his own eyes what she has become: evil, like the Great Lord (don’t forget Lily has already given herself to evil via the dress and demanding she kills the last unicorn).

Yet as Jack prepares to kill Lily, she reveals that she is NOT completely evil after all, cutting the animal’s bonds, rather than its horn!! This act catapults the story into the resolution, reminding Jack AND us that people are NOT always what they appear.

TIP: A well-placed reversal can take us from one act to the next; don’t forget that reversals are commonly used to reveal character, as well as push the plot forward.

5) “I bet that’s upsetting”


I’ve written before that VAN HELSING (2004) is an insane film; it’s as if three movies got drunk and found themselves melted together in a load of celluloid gloop in the morning. But that’s half the fun! Read my previous thoughts HERE.

We’re introduced to Van Helsing in one of three ridiculously extended prologues: his comes in the middle, as he tackles Mr Hyde, Dr Jekyll’s worse half in the bell tower of a cathedral. Reversal-wise, during the (inevitable) fight that ensues, Van Helsing – packing two rotary blades crossed with ninja stars (!!) – finds himself trapped underneath a bell, placed on top of him by the much larger, much stronger Mr Hyde.

But wait, that’s not the end of it! When Mr. Hyde hears the rotary blades whirring underneath the bell, he picks it up again, to discover Van Helsing has (apparently) cut his way through the floor … Only for Van Helsing to have TRICKED Mr Hyde by hiding WITHIN the bell: he seizes his chance and severs Mr Hyde’s arm!

It is worth remembering that reversals DON’T have to relate ONLY to the protagonist’s aim in a scene: here we see Van Helsing’s aim reversed (the bell), then Mr Hyde’s (his arm). Played for laughs by both Hugh Jackman and a CGI Mr Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), the audience is left in no doubt as to what *kind* of  film this is: a hammy action/adventure that’s very, very silly but if you like that sort of thing, then it’s rollicking good ride.

TIP: Reversals don’t have to be plot devices or even reveal character; instead, they can illustrate tone, like they do here in VAN HELSING.

4) The Lift


I do an in-depth breakdown of the character of Driver from DRIVE (2011) in my book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays, but what I don’t mention in the text is that it has an absolutely captivating reversal in the moment in the lift.

Though we understand intuitively that Driver finds his humanity via Irene and her son Benecio, we never see them in bed together and the only time we see them kiss on screen is in the lift. And that kiss! It’s a dream kiss, one of heroes and princesses, but also one of goodbye, for moments later Driver is the savage we already know he is, yet crucially, Irene does not (remember the previous section here – reversals don’t always relate ONLY to the protagonist!).

DRIVE is of course a highly stylised movie, so when Irene and Driver enter the lift with the “Other” Hitman, it’s hard to know how much time elapses between Driver kissing Irene and striking the first blow, thus isolating himself from her forever. Yet we are left feeling it couldn’t *be* any other way and Driver’s sacrificing of Irene’s love is because he loves her so much.

TIP: DRIVE is stylised and “hyper real”, but quite different to VAN HELSING, which takes its lead tone-wise from comedy. Instead, DRIVE is a dream-like arena, with many of its set pieces having a nightmarish quality, such as when Driver kills Nuno on the beach. On this basis then, it makes sense that Irene and Driver’s first kiss should be first wonderful, then terrible like this. The key is in consistency of tone for your reversals, otherwise such a massive change (especially when relating it to characterisation) will feel “inorganic” and put there for the sake of it.

3) “No silly, our OTHER daughter!”


CRAZY, STUPID LOVE (2011) is one of my favourite Romantic Comedies of the last few years. There was an extended period in which Rom Coms were massively masculine via the Frat Pack and then Judd Apatow models, almost excluding the female POV entirely. CRAZY STUPID LOVE however shows it’s more than possible to meld the sometimes diametrically opposed, but also equally similar views men and women have about what makes relationships “successful” and how their own insecurities can sabotage their efforts.

CRAZY STUPID LOVE sets up like it’s two completely different stories: Cal’s divorce from Emily, juxtaposed against Hannah’s burgeoning relationship with previous womaniser Jacob. Jacob is present in both threads: he “advises” Cal on how to become a ladies’ man, just as he himself finds love with Hannah.

*Of course* Cal discovers his new life is hollow (in Rom Com land, everyone wants to be in a relationship, rather than happily single! Sigh) and Cal eventually wants Emily back, despite her infidelity with work colleague David Lindhagen. Cal tells Jacob this and how he’s going to try and win Emily back at a family gathering that afternoon; Jacob congratulates him on his realisation and tells Cal he’s made a few of his own regarding relationships. Jacob tells Cal he’s off to meet the parents of his girlfriend for the very first time. The two men part company.

That on its own would have provided the narrative with a nice dose of dramatic irony which could arguably have brought the movie to a neat, if predictable close. However, that’s where CRAZY STUPID LOVE throws all its cards up the air: it turns out the family gatherings Cal and Jacob are going to are ONE AND THE SAME, because Jacob’s girlfriend Hannah is none other than Cal and Emily’s eldest daughter!


This is a masterly reversal which involves ALL the characters, that’s also very unexpected and very funny, catapulting us into an unexpected resolution. Considering Rom Coms are noted for their “inevitability”, how many of us can write something like THAT in our specs?

TIPS: Another function of a reversal is to bring the audience something completely unexpected. But we can’t just parachute randomness in; that’s cheating! CRAZY STUPID LOVE lulls us into a false sense of security with the juxtaposition of the two stories, seemingly linked by Jacob … then whips the rug from underneath us.

2) The Rubbish Furnace


Nearly eleven and sixteen years respectively after its predecessors in the franchise, TOY STORY 3 (2010) was a long time coming; but it WAS worth waiting for. A fantastic plot, brilliant characterisation, emotionally resonant … What else can a movie fan want??

So when the toys end up in the rubbish heap, on their way to the furnace, I honestly thought their goose was cooked. Literally. They were completely painted into a corner, plot-wise; there is nothing they can do!! NOTHING. The toys even hold hands and brace themselves for what they think is to come!!! OMG. Skipping ahead in my mind, I “saw” the ending: Woody, Buzz and friends would get melted. We’d then follow the plastic into a recycling centre where it would get sorted, sent out into a factory … and then remade as more toys. No?? And nooooo!

But of course that doesn’t happen. Instead, in a homage a mile wide to the first movie, Woody and friends are saved by … THE CLAW! And who’s driving it, but the little green dudes. Magic.

TIP: If your character has to rely on an outside action to save him/her in or near the resolution, make sure your reversal is set up adequately in order to pay off at that moment, otherwise again, it feels like cheating. In TOY STORY’s case, the set up goes back a whopping sixteen years, but the average spec does not have that; just remember not to be *too* obvious with your set ups, audiences are smarter than they’ve ever been.


1) Blocked Ahead


ALIEN (1979) is a classic, so obviously many commentators have dissected its plotting over the decades, usually with reference to the surprise reversals of the chest burst scene; Dallas’ demise in the vents; Brett’s in the cargo hold; or the moment Ripley is confronted with the stowaway creature inside the shuttle itself in the resolution. So, needless to say, I’m going to look at something a little different.

My favourite reversal in this movie is when Ripley, now the sole survivor, takes Jones in the cat basket to the shuttle … only to discover her way is blocked: the creature is standing directly ahead of her in the corridor. Ripley freezes. The beast doesn’t see her. She shrinks away from the monster, brandishing the flamethrower, leaving the cat basket behind. As she races off, the alien rounds the corner and sees Jones in his cat basket. We figure the feline has had it as the beast checks him out – presumably as a light snack??

Meanwhile, now Ripley has a BIG problem: she can’t just wait for the alien to move, The Nostromo is about to blow up. She races back to Mother and attempts to override the system and stop the ship from detonating after all. She can’t. Now what? Well she could just get blown to smithereens, but Ripley’s proven herself a survivor: she’s not going down without a fight. So she goes back to the shuttle corridor … and discovers it EMPTY. Remarkably, Jones is still alive and unharmed by the alien. So she grabs the cat basket and boards the shuttle, escaping The Nostromo with moments to spare before the whole thing blows. Of course, as we know, the beast has WORKED OUT Ripley’s plan because it’s so smart, because she left the cat in its basket behind. 

This sequence is my fave of the whole movie because of a DOUBLE REVERSAL:

FIRST REVERSAL: The alien in the corridor

SECOND REVERSAL: The alien is NOT in the corridor

In other words, it takes something we DON’T expect, then moments later when we think Ripley can’t NOT clash with the creature on her way out of The Nostromo … it *seemingly* takes the threat away. This then adds to our shock LATER when we discover the threat has not gone away at all (because the beast has boarded the shuttle WITH her).

TIP: Sometimes juxtaposing two reversals quite close together or even within the same sequence or collection of scenes creates more of what you’re going for – whether that’s suspense, comedy or something else. But be sure to use reversals in this way wisely.


One last thing … (NO SPOILERS)


By the way, our movie DEVIATION (2012) has a MASSIVE reversal in it, just beyond the midpoint. I’m not going to tell you what it is if you haven’t seen it, but you can read the screenplay HERE and buy the movie HERE. Enjoy!

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2 thoughts on “Top 6 Reversals In Movies”

  1. Most of the examples of reversals you give are twists, not reversals. Reversals are when the audience expectations are turned around dramatically. William Goldberg was probably the greatest at these. We neither expect, or don’t expect the alien to be there. The Rubbish furnace is a heavily disguised Deus Ex Machina. Crazy Stupid Love is a twist. We don’t expect any outcome, so there is no reversal of our expectations. Reversals don’t concern the character, only the audience formost. Drive is a poor man/woman’s Shane. With clumsy coincidence. In Legend there may be some hint of reversal, because we expect evil and get part evil, but it doesn’t turn out expectations on their head.

    1. Thanks JD, but “reversals = audience expectation turned around dramatically” is your (or William Goldman’s?) definition; as described in the article, I am going by *this* definition:

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

      Naturally, what reversals “are” can be a bone of contention based on various assumptions about what they’re supposed to achieve, which relates to a lot of spec screenwriters’ issues regarding using them. I think it’s useful to look beyond simply “surprising” the audience and relating them to character, tone or whatever because it’s simply impossible to say whatever EVERYONE en masse in the audience expects (or not, as the case may be) 🙂

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