How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: Reversals


Welcome to Part Eight of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at plot reversals

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

It’s Week 8, and we are getting deeper into the plotting of your work of fiction. Within the Three Act form, we’ve completed The Beginning, started The Middle and have the final part of The End sorted out. This leaves us with the meaty part of the plot to fill out: the remaining sections of The Middle, or Second Act, where it develops through a series of complications and obstacles –  Reversals – each leading to a crisis. Though the initial crises are temporarily resolved, they collectively and inevitably lead to an ultimate crisis at the third reversal…

The 8-part structure, with three sets of Reversals, is geared towards a novel-length work of fiction – typically around 80,000 words (a publisher’s ideal length). You won’t be able to fit this many into a micro-story or probably a short story, either of which might only need one reversal to make the plot work; in a novelette or novella, two reversals could be plenty, while if you are writing a novel of epic proportions, you may need to extend the Middle section with additional reversals.

From this point on, having set your main characters off on their Quest, you can imagine your story arc as a graph: as the storyline progresses, there is an overall rising of tension, with an upward spike at each reversal, followed by small dips as the first two are resolved.

The tension spike of each reversal is higher than the last, with the third providing a high point before The Climax.

You may find a personal structural image will help you manage your plotting. When I was writing Blood and Water, I visualised the detective story as an old-fashioned roller coaster where each new piece of information cranked the train further towards the summit and, once everything was in place, the train gained its own momentum and flew ever faster downhill round the twists and turns until the truth had unraveled. But the dual time-scheme of Kindred Spirits felt to me like the creation of a complex hairstyle (yes, really!), where many strands had to be introduced and woven in evenly from different sides to create a smooth reading experience.

Once again, take the notes you made on Sections 4, 5 and 6 from your 1-page plot outline, and transfer them to the new pages for these sections you opened and headed two weeks ago to expand them into chapter breakdowns of between one and two pages long. If you are running one or more subplots, it might help you to keep track of each one separately, in horizontal layers on your pages, which may mean these three section outlines are longer than two pages. Try to create little sub-spikes in the story arc just before or after those of your main plot. It will become confusing if all your reversals happen together – though at the final reversal, this can produce a powerful crisis point.

Tips to keep on track with main plot and sub-plot reversals include:

  • Run a timeline through Sections 3, 4 and 5 especially. Important things to track are when important events occur (including before your story opens), when people meet each other, and who knows what when. You don’t want characters acting on information they don’t yet know, or somehow being unaware of important events they should know about.
  • If your story is dependent on setting, where and how things happen geographically, draw a map or building plan and make sure characters are in the right place at the right time, that their journeys are timed right and even that they can actually see events they are supposed to have witnessed.

How to write fiction without the fuss - reversalsWhat might your Reversals consist of? The second act is about your characters’ emotional journey and is both the most fun and the most challenging part of a story to create. The key to rising tension and the reader being gripped by the story is conflict – both external, possibly physical, and emotional inner conflict.

Try to advance both inner and outer struggles simultaneously; each external conflict should relate to a character’s internal conflict, teaching them a life lesson or giving them the option to change. Keep raising the stakes.

Include reversals of fortune and unexpected turns of events: surprise your reader with both the actions of the main characters and the events surrounding them, but make sure you have developed credible reasons and motives, even if you haven’t told the reader of them in advance.

Classic journey plots include reversals such as Monsters, Temptations, Deadly Opposites, Dream to Nightmare, Capture and Escape, Journey to the Underworld, Arrival and Frustration, Giving Up, and Final Ordeals. Have fun coming up with contemporary versions of these; they work!

Your last reversal must be where tension, perhaps danger, and the stakes are highest before the Climax (next week). During this moment, the hero/ine/s draw upon the new strengths or lessons they’ve learned in order to take action, in anticipation of bringing the story to a conclusion.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

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