I’m still thinking about last week’s excellent New Yorker article on screenwriter/directory Tony Gilroy. What sticks in my mind is the notion of “the reversal.” According to the article, this is a well-used film convention. I’ve never heard the term, but then I didn’t go to film school and I’ve never read any books on the story side of screenwriting. Maybe it’s not news to most other folks.
The core of “Duplicity” is the screenwriting trope known as the reversal. Gilroy told me, “A reversal is just anything that’s a surprise. It’s a way of keeping the audience interested.”
In “Good Will Hunting,” when Matt Damon, mopping the floor at a university, comes upon a complicated math problem on a blackboard and solves it, the audience suddenly realizes that he is not an ordinary janitor—that’s a reversal, too.
I think it’s a useful concept. I’ve been struggling through the opening page of a script. The rest is finished, almost ready to send out for casting, but something is still needed in the opening scene. I’ve been through at least twenty drafts.
The latest draft, also the strongest, has a pair of reversals in the first two pages. I don’t know if that’s what makes it better than previous versions. It certainly has to help. Reversals seem to function in the same way as contrast in graphic design, creating a tension that keeps viewers engaged.