The Art of Fiction: Reverse Course!

February 29, 2008
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook

The Art of Fiction: 

Reverse Course!

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
March 2008

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

"At their simplest, reversals produce effects that are at odds with expectations."
—Lenard-Cook

Plays and films, with their dependence on dialogue and action, offer fiction writers lessons that might be easily missed if we relied only on our own medium. At their simplest, reversals produce effects that are at odds with expectations. But I've found that reversals can offer us, our characters, and, by extension, our readers, far more.

Shifting Fortunes

Pick a film, any film, preferably one that you've seen recently enough that you can recall its plot in some detail. We just saw Ben Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, which, as it contains more reversals than an economic downturn, will serve as tidy example. But first, if you haven't seen the film, here's the standard spoiler alert: Don't read further if you don't want to know how it comes out.

"It's unusual to have a reversal set the plot in motion. . . "
—Lenard-Cook

Gone Baby Gone concerns the kidnapping of a little girl, Amanda McCready, who disappears while her mother, Helene, is out one evening. The first reversal occurs when, over her husband Lionel's (Helene's brother) objections, Bea McCready hires Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro to search for the girl, because she believes the police aren't doing enough. It's unusual to have a reversal set the plot in motion, but that's the case here, and (for the most part), it's very effective.

It's not until the end of the film that we realize that every plot turn that follows is a direct result of this initial setup. I'm going to mark each reversal like this: (R). But first, working with the police detectives Remy Bressant and Nick Poole, Patrick and Angie quickly learn that Helene is not just neglectful, but both an alcoholic and drug abuser (R). Further, not only does Helene occasionally work as a mule (drug runner) (R), she and her boyfriend Ray have made off with the substantial cash in a drug deal gone bad (R).

By the time they arrive at his house, Ray is already dead (R), but because the Helene buried the money (R) when Ray was asleep, she shows Patrick its hiding place (R). As soon as he uncovers it, Patrick becomes involved in Remy's scheme to trade it for the little girl. This scheme seems doomed, however, when the police chief, Jack Doyle (whose own daughter was murdered years before), learns of it (R). To everyone's surprise (R), Doyle insists the swap go on, but things go wrong, and Amanda disappears into the dark and murky waters of a bottomless quarry (R).

"This sets in motion a series of reversals which culminates with the climactic one . . . "
—Lenard-Cook

Turns of the Screw

A few months later, a small-time dealer acquaintance of Patrick's leads him to the perpetrators of another child kidnapping that does not end so happily (R). Outside the hospital where his partner Nick now lies dying, Remy tells Patrick that he's known Lionel (Helene's brother, in case you're getting confused) for years, when both had claimed to have met only when Amanda disappeared (R). This sets in motion a series of reversals which culminates with the climactic one, in which (we realize at the same moment as Patrick) that Amanda's not dead after all (Big R), but rather, through a convoluted plot involving half the men in the film, has been delivered to what they believe a better life with Doyle (the now-retired police chief) and his wife (R). Despite Angie's entreaties, Patrick can't allow this deception to go unpunished (R), and he calls the state police, has Doyle and his wife arrested, and Amanda is returned to her tearful and grateful mother.

"The final turn is the last scene. "
—Lenard-Cook

The final turn is the last scene. The now-single Patrick drops in on Helene, who's dressing for a date (R). Amanda is watching cartoons on TV, and Patrick asks who will watch her while Helene is out. "You?" Helene asks with a flirtatious smile. In his acquiescence Patrick accepts not just his complicity but his lifetime responsibility now that he's returned Amanda to this less desirable environment (R).

With each reversal in this film, the reader sits up, surprised and engaged. This is the key to reversals' effectiveness, but also of course to their difficulty. One reversal too many and a plot can spill over into potboiler. Just the right measure of reversals, however, can turn an otherwise bland and predictable plot into something tasty and exciting.

"If you've gotten to a stopping point in your own fiction, you can try using reversals . . . "
—Lenard-Cook

Getting Unstuck

If you've gotten to a stopping point in your own fiction, you can try using reversals to get yourself moving again. Begin this exercise with the understanding that you're just playing around, that nothing that happens to your characters needs to end up in your fiction. Rather, you're going to play at getting them unstuck, just for (as the word "play" implies) fun.

First, consider the point where you left your characters before you got stuck. Where are they? What are they doing? What has happened to get them to this moment in your fiction?

". . . the more outrageous the reversal, the easier it will be to shake your characters out of their ruts . . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Now think about what would be the next logical step for them. It may be terribly dull and commonplace, or you may not be able to think of one at all. But forget logic. For this exercise, you're going to shake up your characters' world in ways that seem ridiculous. How about an earthquake? (Never mind that they're not in an earthquake-prone place.) Rattle those shelves. Shake that floor. What do they grab? Do they run? Do they cry? Or do they turn to each other, even though up until this moment they've been ready to go their separate ways?

But why settle for an earthquake? "Kill" one of them ("kill" is my way of saying get rid of one of your characters): Imagine this scene with one of the characters not there. Or, if only one character is there, bring another into it. Better yet, bring a new character in, one you've never seen before. Is it a clean-cut missionary, a long-lost relative, a delivery person? No matter who it is, someone's going to need to get off their duff, answer the door, and ask the arrival what they're doing there.

Maybe you've assumed your characters are headed for happily ever after. If that's the case, have one of them drop a figurative bomb: I'm leaving, or, I'm gay (or, I'm straight), or, I have six months to live, or, We're twins, separated at birth. Yes, these are all outrageous. My point is that the more outrageous the reversal, the easier it will be to shake your characters out of their ruts. By extension, your fiction – and, best of all, you, its author – will be shaken out of its (and your) rut as well. So go on, grab that gearshift. You've got nothing to lose but your inertia.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook

Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, (April 2008) is now available for advance purchase at amazon.com.

Learn more from Lisa Lenard Cook in her Authorlink online class. Enroll now!

 

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