Using Reversals to Refresh a Story

Sometimes a story or a scene in a novel just isn’t working. Yet we can’t pin down why. Our brain, trained in the dos and don’ts of writing, can’t come up with a solution. That’s often when it helps to begin the scene over, write it fresh.

But author Stuart Spencer, in The Playwright’s Guidebook, offers another couple suggestions that might, even more than starting over, help writers let go of what they know, what is there and not working, to find instead what’s supposed to be. He calls the technique using reversals: interchanging character names or changing an essential element in the scene to its opposite.

For example, he says, if Joe is in love with Mike and wants to tell him, try writing it again, exchanging the names, with Mike in love with Joe, wanting to speak. Or change the element: if Joe is in love with Mike, have Joe wanting to kill Mike instead. Spencer’s theory is that “when that first choice doesn’t work, it’s because the intellect has covertly intruded on the work that belongs to the subconscious.”

By shaking things up so dramatically and diving back in, the writer is more apt to return to that place where the subconscious writes. And “the subconscious knows more about the truth than reasoning intellect.” As they say, when making a difficult decision, trust your intuition, trust your subconscious. Whatever lists you make of the pros and cons, somewhere deeper, you actually know what’s right. Sometimes in writing, we have to abandon the lists and trust the story that comes.


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