“Reversals are a more compelling form of discoveries or revelations because they turn the story upside down.”
Writing for Emotional Impact
2016 Election Night/ New York Times
(Let me preface this post by saying that while I’ve been a registered Democrat and a registered Republican in the past, for the past 15 years I’ve been an independent. And though I did take part in this year’s election I did not vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.)
Politics aside, the 2016 United States Presidential Election was a great example of a major reversal. Up there with the grandaddy of cinematic major reversals— “I am your father.” And as divisive as this past election was, it’s simply too good a reversal illustration to pass up. (Plus what I’m talking about was already fair game for SNL Saturday night in their Election Night skit with Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and others.)
But before I talk politics, let’s talk sports. On Saturday college football had its own set of major reversals as the #2, #3, #4 teams lost. Something that ESPN reported hadn’t happened on the same day in 31 years. (Both #2 Clemson losing to unranked Pitt, and #4 Michigan losing to unranked Iowa—each by last second field goals—were particularly dramatic.)
And just two weeks ago the Chicago Cubs had their own major reversal. Once down 3 games to 1 in the best of seven games 2016 World Series, they came back to win three games in a row including game 7 in extra innings. That was not only a reversal in being down 3-1 in the series, but a major reversal because it ended 108 of losing out on winning a championship. High stakes. High drama.
But this week’s Presidential Election had even a bigger major reversal than all of those. One commentator called it the biggest upset in American politics since 1948 when Truman upset Dewey for the presidency, another commentator called it the biggest political upset in a century, followed by an NPR commentator yesterday calling it “the biggest political upset in American history.” All I know is at least half the voters in the USA are upset. (Major reversals are emotional. That’s why you sometimes see tears flow following one.)
“I’m not worried about Trump. As a Democrat, I hope he gets the nomination. Because if he gets it, I don’t think there’s any way he can win.”
Writer John Grisham
Interview published April 18, 2016
Perhaps filmmaker Michael Moore was the only person in the press in recent months who truly believed Donald Trump was actually had a chance at becoming the next president of the United States. (And that includes the now President-elect Trump who seemed to be in excuse mode even the day of the election. Even sources in Trump’s camp said he was “surprised” he won.)
But regardless of your view of the outcome of the election, there is a great lesson here to improve your screenwriting and storytelling.
As I watched the election results unfold last Tuesday night it reminded me of watching a movie.
Act 1 (8:00 PM): While the Major Dramatic Question was “Who is going to win the election?” the feel was “How big a margin is Hillary Clinton going to win by?” Basically echoing what Adam Nagourney wrote in The New York Times the Sunday before the election, “It’s hard to begrudge Democrats their gloating about the state of the Republican Party as the campaign enters its final hours. By most measures, Donald J. Trump appears headed for defeat.”
Act 2 (8:30 PM): As the Southern states started tilting red for Trump, TV commentators said things like “We expected this…” but then when Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida were all shaping up as too close to call one of the commentators said, “I’m not sure what’s happening.” Others said that it was surprising, but that Trump would actually have to win Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, AND Florida to have any chance at a path to win the election. Highly unlikely.
Act 3 (9:30 PM):
Trump did win Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, AND Florida. Now the talk flipped to “Hillary still has a path to the White House.” And that drama played out for about half an hour or so until Clinton appeared to be losing Iowa and Wisconsin and that Trump was actually going to pull off a major upset. In the early hours of Wednesday, Clinton conceded defeat. For the rest of your lives if you ever forget what a major reversal looks like you just have to recall the 2016 Presidential Election.
“A reversal changes the direction of the story 180 degrees…Reversals can work physically or emotionally. They can reverse the action or reverse a character’s emotions.”
Making A Good Script Great
Minor reversals (good and bad) are a daily part of our lives, but major reversals really get our attention. It’s a divorce, a death, or the loss of a job. But it’s also a marriage, a birth, and a promotion. It’s been said that there really are only two emotions, happy and sad.
Movies are also full of minor reversals. Just about every scene has some kind of reversal in it. The uncertainty holds our attention. But what sets a major reversal apart is scope and magnitude.
In Rocky, when Adrian finally accepts a date from Rocky that’s a reversal in their relationship up unto that point. When Rocky loses his locker, that’s a reversal. But when Rocky, a low-level, club boxer is chosen to fight the champion Apollo Creed, that is a major reversal in the story. It’s such a major reversal that five Rocky movies have flowed from the reversal.
If Rocky isn’t chosen for that fight, perhaps he realizes that boxing really isn’t his calling in life and takes a factory job where he ends up fighting the system like Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae. But Rocky fought for the championship and it resulted in a franchise that’s made over a billion dollars at the box office.
Robert Mckee says a film needs to have at least three major reversals to “satisfy the audience” and I’d agree with that. But I’d add that there are five places in script where major reversals are not only common, but needed:
- The inciting incident. (What others call the “Knock at the door.”) It’s the thing that sets your story in motion.
- Act 1 Turning point
- Midpoint conflict
- Act 2 Turning point
- Crisis/Climax toward the end of your story.
Many memorable movie scenes are major reversals that loosely fit in one of the above categories.
“Reversals go a long way toward helping writers confront the twin-edge sword of predictability.”
Essentials of Screenwriting
Off the top of my head here are some major reversals:
—”I see dead people.” (If you don’t know the reference I won’t spoil it for you.)
—”She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Ditto the above note.)
—The tornado in The Wizard of Oz.
—The plane crash in Cast Away.
— The super posse shows up in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
—Matt Damon gets stranded on Mars (The Martian).
—Sandra Bullock gets lost in space (Gravity).
—A command module malfunctions (Apollo 13).
—Jerry Maguire gets fired.
—Zoltar grants the young boy Josh his wish and he wakes up as a man (Big)
—The warden throws a rock through a Raquel Welch poster in Shawshank.
—Woody in the box at the end of Toy Story 3. (Yes, I shed a tear or two.)
—The ______ in the box in Se7en.
—Both Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind have major reversals where the audience learns the main character has a mental illness.
—When Tom Cruise learns who the Rain Man is (Rain Man).
—And the Keyser Soze ending to The Usual Suspects:
Scott W. Smith
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