Monday, July 30, 2007

Assignments Week Ten - The Reversal

We only have a few weeks left of assignments. Keep up the good work and bring it on home...

"Reversal" is a term we throw around a lot with our students at VFS. Reversal simply means a situation has upended itself. He had the girl, he lost the girl. She climbed to the top of the company, she was fired. In Steve Martin's The Jerk, there are several big reversals. He's poor, he's rich, he's poor, he's rich again.

Small reversals can happen in any scene: she was on the trail of the murderer, she lost the trail. He finally gets some alone time, he walks into a surprise party. Reversals are used in all genres and keep the plot moving along.

I sometimes think about scenes in terms of who has the "power" at the beginning and end of the scene. Shifts in power are reversals. The card player has all the poker chips and is on top of the world... then it is discovered he is cheating and suddenly it's 3 against 1... ooops.

Power can come in terms of physical power, mental power, situational power - any time a character has the upper hand. It could be the possession of an item or the possession of a secret. It could be something a mother is holding over her daughter's head.

In the case of The Breakfast Club (See script under Start to Finish Support Materials in the right hand column), the power shifts many times between John Bender and the Principal. The principal has the "law" of the school on his side, but Bender has the ability to humiliate him, taking away his power.

(btw - if no one ever has more "power" than another character in your scenes, you're writing flat... i.e. no drama, no conflict)

There are those who strictly follow the "standard" 3-act structure (more on why I don't subscribe to that later) who talk in terms of a story having two big reversals and where they should fall in your plot. I'm not into mapping out what page number a plot point should fall on (because, duh, screenplays run from 86 minutes to about 120 minutes), but I do think these reversals should land somewhere:

1) A reversal that pushes the characters deeper into the situation/conflict/dilemma
2) A reversal that hammers the theme home, reaffirms what the story is all about.

In terms of The Breakfast Club, about halfway through the story, Bender ends up sacrificing himself so that the rest of the students can get safely back to the library. It's a pretty selfless act for someone who pretends to hate the rest of the kids and it lands him in the closet for the remainder of their detention.

And if you examine the end, there are many reversals that = the big reversal that hammers in the theme of the story, such as Andrew (tough jock) breaks down crying and Claire kisses Bender.

There is no way at the beginning of the story Andrew would have broken down crying and Claire would have kissed Bender, but at the end, we completely believe it due to the events that led up to these things. That's the magic of good storytelling.

Your assignments this week:

1) As per usual, take 10-15 minutes to type up your hand-written exercises (you're still hand-writing your warm-ups aren't you? Hmmm?)

2) Then, take 7-10 minutes each (set your timer), to do riffs on the following start lines:
At the beginning of the next scene, the power lies with (Character) because...
At the end of the next scene, the power lies with (Character) because...

3) ALTERNATIVE - if you're writing every day and you'd like some variety, try substituting these start line pairs:

The first big reversal in my story happens when...
The final reversal that hammers in the theme of my story happens when...

My protagonist loses his/her power at the beginning of the story when...
My protagonist regains his/her power at the end of the story because...

4) Set your timer for 20 minutes and write your next scene. Take a break, stretch, pee, refill coffee, and set your timer for another 20 minutes. Complete at least one scene.

NOTE: I always turn my timer off when it beeps the second time and I keep writing until I feel like I've come to the conclusion of something: an idea, a scene, a transition, etc. It could be the end of a block of dialogue in which a decision is made or an agruement settled.

Have a great week!


Vicki said...

I love this. This has so much more than just the normal turning points. All the many turning points that lead to the black moment.

Well, at least for me the black moment since I'm writing a novel vs. a screen play. Which can I just say amazes me those of you who write screenplays. I hold you (each and everyone) in awe.

OpenChannel said...

They are called many things, turning points, plot points, etc. I like the idea of the "reversal" because I can see what that looks like.

We'll get to the "black" moment next week. :-)

I think screenwriters are, in turn, in awe of novelists. When I sat down to write Brigitta as a novel I thought, "how in the heck am I going to fill in so many pages??"

more4dan said...

Very good exercise! Sorry, I lurked ahead. I thought about this today while I was doing my writing and darn it if it didn't make my scene MUCH more dynamic.

I will now humbly return to week seven where I belong.

Dan F.

OpenChannel said...

Yes, get back there and get to work! Haha.

Glad it worked out for you.