Posts Tagged ‘Screenwriting and reversals’

“Reversals are a more compelling form of discoveries or revelations because they turn the story upside down.”
Karl Iglesias
Writing for Emotional Impact

CBS Sports headline Nov. 9, 2020

Last week was historic—I did my first podcast interview about my book . (When that interview about my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles is posted I’ll write about it here.)

This week was historic, too. On Sunday, Tampa Bay’s quarterback Tom Brady lost a game by the biggest margin of his entire career. And his former team, the New England Patriots, are on track to have their worst season in 20 years. That’s quite a reversal from just a few years ago when Brady was with the Patriots and led them to Super Bowl victories in 2016, 2017, 2018. (And three others a little further back.)

The year 2020 could be called one gigantic reversal. Thanks to the disruption of COVID-19 life as we know it may never go back to the way it was at the beginning of the year.

Back in 2016 I wrote a post about the United States Presidential Election that was a great example of a major reversal. A reversal that favored Donald Trump. So it’s fitting to look at the 2020 election in terms of reversals and the takeaway lessons from a screenwriting perspective.

Do you remember early February of 2020? Bernie Sanders won the most votes in the Iowa caucuses and Pete Buttigieg won the most delegates in the race to pick a Democratic Presidential candidate. Then those two duked it out in New Hampshire. On February 22 Sanders won Nevada. At that point, 77-year-old Joe Biden had never won a single primary and seemed to be on his way out of the race. (Maybe even out of politics.)

Yet here we are less than nine months later and Biden not only became the Democratic candidate, but (unless there is another reversal) he’s been elected as the 46th President of the United States.

“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.”
Linda Seger
Making A Good Script Great
Page 67

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:

  1. The inciting incident. (What others call the “Knock at the door.”) It’s the thing that sets your story in motion.
  2. Act 1 Turning point
  3. Midpoint conflict
  4. Act 2 Turning point
  5. 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.”
Richard Walters
Essentials of Screenwriting
Page 74

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 ______ in the box in Se7en.
—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.)
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.

In the “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode of The Simpsons, what appears to be a great way to spend a $3 million dollar windfall to Springfield turns out to endanger lives and the town.

And then there is the reversal in The Social Network when the co-founder of Facebook (Eduardo Saverin) learns his stock worth millions even in the early days of Facebook had been diluted to be worth less than $20,000. Reversals can be very emotional.

P.S. But don’t feel too sorry for Saverin—for he had his own major reversal. He won a lawsuit against Facebook and today the investor has a net worth estimated to be over $13 billion. (Yes, that’s thirteen billion. A chunk of which came off a $15,000 investment in a start up then called The Facebook.)

Scott W. Smith

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