Warning: this blog post contains spoilers. They will be called out, but the onus is on you to decide whether you want to continue and read a spoiler for a novel you haven’t read.
Now that’s out of the way, what is a reversal? A reversal can take many forms but is generally either a drastic change in circumstances for a character, or a change in direction for the plot. Reversals can help prevent your story from becoming predictable.
You could have a story where a man goes from rags to riches in a short space of time, changing his fortune (Brewster’s Millions), or one where the opposite takes place. Or, where an unreliable narrator turns out to be the ‘baddie’, after getting the reader to sympathise with them through the story.
One of the more memorable reversals I’ve read, was at the end of Lord of the Rings.
The spoiler will appear after the following pictures, so scroll at your own risk.
If you’re still here, you’ve obviously either read the book, watched the films, or you don’t mind spoilers. All right, let’s begin.
For the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the main plot follows Frodo Baggins and Sam Gangee. From the moment they set out from Rivendell, they’re on a quest to go to Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. Yes, there are lots of other plots happening all the way through, but this is the major plot line. One awful thing after another befalls them, but they make it through. At the climactic moment, Frodo stands over the volcano with the One Ring in his hand and … he can’t do it. Wearing the ring and carrying it have affected him to the point where he becomes convinced he can make everything better if he holds on to it. Of course, we know that this is how the ring works, and that if he doesn’t destroy it everything will be lost, but the ring is affecting his judgement and he decides he’s going to keep it. Oh Frodo! What a betrayal.
Then, out of nowhere, his own madness from the ring at the forefront of his actions, Gollum comes shrieking into view to try to take the ring from Frodo. He bites off Frodo’s finger (ring and all) before hurtling to his death in the volcano below. First time readers of the trilogy don’t see that coming.
We have more than one reversal going on here.
- Frodo’s desire to do good is subverted by the ring, and despite knowing the importance of destroying it, he decides to keep it in the belief that, for him, everything will be different. He, where everyone else has failed, will wield the ring and become a benevolent ruler.
- Gollum, the most pathetic character in the trilogy, saves the day. However, it’s not altruistic on his part; again, the ring is exerting its influence over him. His need for the ring drives him.
Of course, to make a good reversal work well, it can’t come as a total surprise. You have to lay a groundwork of subtle signs to mark the way for when you reach that point, without making it obvious beforehand. The trick is to make your reader think that the story is going to go one way (Frodo’s struggles to get to Mount Doom and his eventually reaching there), but also drop in enough foreshadowing for the reversal not to be completely out of the blue. Tolkein does this by having Gollum tracking Frodo for most of the story. He’s seen following them down the river; he becomes their captive at one point, before escaping, so we’re used to seeing him turn up. And then there’s the line where Tolkein foreshadows everything by literally having Gandalf tell the reader what’s going to happen. This comes when Frodo asks Gandalf why Bilbo spared Gollum:
“And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.”
It’s cleverly buried in a conversation where we might not think much about it at the time, but here the scene is set for what ultimately takes place.
In my novel, The Lost Weaver, I have a similarly dramatic reversal take place in the climactic scenes. I’m not going to go into detail because the novel hasn’t been published, yet. You can bet, though, that I’ve both hinted at and misdirected all the way to that moment. I can’t wait to see if readers see it coming.
If I do it right, they won’t until it happens. And then they’ll say, ‘Oh! Of course.”