4 Tips for Writing Reversals

One of the most important scenes in any book is the midpoint reversal. A reversal is an event that creates a fresh complication for the protagonist. It increases the stakes and sends the story off in a new direction. The reversal is the backbone of the classic three-act structure. If you don’t know what the three-act structure is you might want to start with this explanation.

MPW-61871The heist is one genre where reversals are not only important at the midpoint, but are abundant throughout the plot. Other types of stories may have a positive event triggering the inciting incident, but not the heist, it favors a negative one. In Ocean’s Twelve, the team has 14 days to return all the money from their first heist, and it’s money they don’t have. This incites them to plan another heist. Of course the heist plot will include the traditional midpoint reversal, and it often favors a third big reversal that leads into the climax.

Since every book needs at least that one reversal, I thought I would share my perspective on the qualities to consider when crafting a reversal.

  • Vary the timing and intensity:Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

    A reversal’s timing (especially the midpoint one) needs to be spot on. If it comes too early, there isn’t much tension. If it comes too late, the story feels like it’s dragging. Using some smaller reversals between the three main transition points helps control the pacing. However, don’t use the same reversal twice unless the plot calls for it (Groundhog Day), and don’t set the mini reversals too close together. This might make the reader feel overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted. Mixing the type, intensity and placement of the reversals is tricky stuff. It’s best figured out through experimentation and lots of beta readers.

  • Team an information reversal with an action reversal for greater impact:

    When the reversal is information, like a dark secret, it usually thwarts the protagonist’s internal goals, and destabilizes them emotionally. An action reversal is an external complication, it might even injury the protagonist. Using both makes the situation seem more intense.

  • Don’t count on the element of surprise:

    If you can keep the reader guessing, that’s fantastic, and if you can blow them away with a shocking reversal twist, even better. However, any surprise twist is not easy. A writer must edge the story toward the reversal in such a way that once the twist is exposed, it seems logical. The reader might suspect the secret, but they shouldn’t know the secret before the reversal. This type of reversal also counts on book reviewers never spoiling the reversal. Once the twist leaks out these stories tend to fall apart.

  • Make the characters respond:

    The worse thing that can happen after a reversal is for the characters to act like they don’t care. The reversals must throw the characters. They shouldn’t nonchalantly accept the reversal as something they’ve always suspected unless the acceptance of that truth devastates them emotionally. A reversal needs to shake things up. It should create a crisis of faith, change the character’s master plan, or expose a hidden enemy. It should demand a reaction.

I am going to repeat this point: All reversals should increase the stakes and impact the goals of the protagonist in a meaningful way.

I’ve always been a fan of great reversals, and in a heist novel just about any type of reversal is fair game. You can reveal dark secrets, resurrect old feuds, and create teammates with mismatched agendas. As a writer, I love to change things up, and I thrive on putting my characters in uncomfortable situations. As a reader, nothing makes me happier than a reversal I didn’t see coming.

For more on the reversal:



Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

9 thoughts on “4 Tips for Writing Reversals”

  1. Robin, this was just what I needed to get my mind on track for certain revisions I’ve been doing this week. I was workshopping with a great thriller writer in January who was powerful at teaching about suspense and reversals. Your piece brought back a favorite moment in conference with him when I’d been discussing two overlapping narratives — no reaction until I hit on the key midpoint reversal and he cheered, “That! Write that!”
    Thanks for a great post.

    1. Hi Elissa, That is so nice of you to say. I’m glad the post came out at the right time to help you with revisions. 🙂

  2. That last tip is probably the most important! Glad you mentioned it. It;s really important to make sure the characters are emotionally affected by the things going on around them.

    1. Hi Alex,
      I do my best to hit the high points. : ) The last one is a pet peeve of mine. I go nuts when I read a book with a protagonist that shrugs off the reversal. And it happen too often! Thanks for stopping by.

    1. Got it! More reversals.
      That would have been a smart thing to do in this post. Too bad I didn’t think of it. Next time for sure. Thanks for the idea.

    1. Hi Alana,
      It’s so true, I feel like the action is what drives home the impact of the information reversal. But I also like it when the action reversal leads. That can make the character seem more vulnerable when the information reversal hits them.

We love comments and questions.

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