I am obsessed with reversals. These plot twists appear in books and movies and serve to propel the plot forward. Examples of reversals abound in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games trilogy, and Woody Allen’s film, Blue Jasmine.
Reversals of Fortune
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone begins with a two-fold reversal of fortune. Harry’s parents have been killed. Secondly, infant Harry must live with his abusive relatives. Harry’s fate does not reverse for the better until his eleventh birthday when Hagrid returns for him and Harry discovers the truth about his legacy.
Reversals of Expectation
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen attends the Reaping — the lottery in which one boy and one girl from each district is selected to participate in the fight-to-the-death Hunger Games. Katniss knows her age increases the odds against her. And since she’s had to enter her name extra times in exchange for grain and oil, she has accumulated twenty entries. But she expects her younger sister Prim, with only one entry, to be safe. Katniss’s expectations and fortune are upended when Prim’s name is selected.
Reversal of Goal
Early in The Hunger Games, Katniss resolves, ”to have as little as possible to do with the baker’s son,” fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark. The boy’s kindness once saved her family from starvation and gave Katniss hope. But in the arena, the rule is kill or be killed, and her gratitude and sense of obligation could be a liability. But when the rules of the game change, her goal reverses and she seeks an alliance with Peeta. Her perception of Peeta also reverses — from a threat to a potential ally.
Reversal of Perception
Reversals of perception can include how one person perceives another, how a person sees himself/herself, or how one perceives a situation or environment.
- Harry Potter initially views himself as unlucky, unwanted, and unknown. When Hagrid storms into his life, Harry experiences a complete reversal—he learns he is a famous wizard and a hero in the magical world. He discovers that his mother’s tremendous love for him saved him when the dark lord attacked his family.
- Katniss arrives at the Training Center for tributes thinking she is at a disadvantage because she’s undersized and underfed. Her perception changes when she realizes her family’s resourcefulness has given her an edge. She’s thin, but strong. The effort it had taken for her to hunt and forage had resulted in a healthy body.
Reversal of conscience plot twists often occur when a reluctant hero or heroine decides to not walk away, and instead returns to save someone or something. Blue Jasmine flips this ideal. No spoiler alert —just watch the movie and see if you can spot the pivotal Reversal of Conscience. While you are at the theater, see how many other reversals you can identify in Blue Jasmine.
Emotional Reversals and Reader/Viewer Empathy
Emotional reversals—where love, friendship, a relationship, sense of self, or stability is torn from a character— create empathy, and emotionally engage readers in the outcome of the story. Emotional reversals abound in the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games trilogy. We care what happens to Harry and Katniss because of the losses they had suffered before their stories began, and the hardships they’ve had to endure because of those losses. The deeper we wade into their worlds, the more our empathy extends. We come to care about the people and institutions Harry and Katniss care about.
In Blue Jasmine, adopted sisters Jasmine and Ginger suffer separate reversals of fortune that cost them their marriages and much more. Jasmine never fully recovers emotionally, yet many viewers found empathy for her elusive. Unlike Jasmine, Ginger’s emotional reversals began in childhood. By the time she had suffered an adult reversal of fortune, she had already experienced a childhood filled with reversals of expectation, perception, and goals. Ginger’s early emotional reversals, her loyalty, and her apparent forgiveness, made her seem more sympathetic than her once well-to-do sister. In the end Jasmine’s choices, and what they revealed about her character, were too distancing to overcome reversals that should have sparked viewer empathy.
Reversals can be powerful devices in storytelling. Once you become aware of them, you’ll find them everywhere, including embedded in your own writing.