Robert McKee defines a reversal as a change in value that takes place in a scene, over a sequence (a series of several scenes), during an act, and in the course of the screenplay as a whole. The value could be any pair of opposites that would be important to the character: wealth/poverty, happiness/sadness, harmony/disharmony. Ideally, in every scene, at least the protagonist moves from one value on the pole to one toward the opposite end. In a scene, the protagonist may lose a wallet, moving from wealth to poverty, for example. In the course of the screenplay (because that’s what McKee is talking about), the character would have to move from high on the wealth end to irreversibly high on the poverty end, as a millionaire losing his fortune and ending up a brain-damaged addict sleeping under a bridge.
This is interesting to me, because I attended a James N. Frey workshop and found it very useful, but he kept talking about pole-to-pole growth through a scene, and I didn’t get it. Now I understand, despite the difference in terminology.
OK, here’s story (true as far as I know):
A Russian-American I know told me that his grandfather (great-grandfather?
whatever) had an icon of St. Nicholas in his home. Some burglars came to his home and stole his savings, which were hidden under the saint’s care. The grandfather was so angry that he gouged out the eyes in the icon with a knife or something.
The czar’s police sentenced him and his family to exile in Siberia.
The man is now a successful software programmer, whose son started attending UC-Berkeley at age 17.
When my friend told me the story, my first impulse was to laugh. Now I know why. The reversals were too big and came too close together in the narrative. Nonetheless, I think it could make a great epic novel or screenplay.
If I were going to tell it, I would begin with a kulak in a prosperous Ukrainian or south Russian village in the late 1800s. The grandfather would be a middle-aged man, and the treasure would be his life savings. But it’s not just a rainy-day fund; it’s directed at something important–emigration or to get his son a music education or something. The story opens in his home, and he’s celebrating with his neighbors that he’s just gotten enough money to do whatever it is he wants to do (Wealth).
Inciting Incident: He wakes the next morning to discover that the treasure is missing.(poverty)
After searching the house and shaking down the neighbors, he shakes his fist and yells at God. In a rage, he gouges out the eyes of the icon (whereas he started in community, now he’s out of community).
A neighbor who sees this action thinks he is joining the forces fomenting against the Church and the Czar. He reports the action to the authorities. (Neighbor thus goes from friend to betrayer)
The authorities come and do whatever kind of trial would have been appropriate and sentence him to exile in Siberia. (The man goes from being an upstanding citizen to being a criminal.)
The family decides to go with him. (The man goes from being a loner, betrayed on every side, to having a family willing to stand with him; the family goes from a comfortable life to the hardships of Siberia.)
The man works off his sentence and stays in Siberia as a merchant, building an adequate if not thriving business. (Poverty to comparative wealth)
Back in his Ukrainian village, Stalin has unleashed the de-kulakization efforts, collectivized the farms and begun the famine that killed millions. (wealth to poverty)
The man’s son gets word of the hardship back in Ukraine. (his station changes from punishment to comparative safety)
What’s missing from this little exercise is the climax, in which some aspect of the character’s original situation is irreversibly changed. I’ve been thinking in terms of wealth and poverty, but we all know that immigrants to America have to go through a certain period of poverty, even if they do quite well eventually. I’d have to go back and layer in some aspect of his life that needs to change and then put in the event that changes it.
So that’s what reversal is all about.