Hinting at Reversals

How to make your stories memorable.

by Jack Windeyer
science fiction painting
Image copyright James Gurney

What makes a story memorable months or years after reading it? How can you make a plot device stand out, particularly when it is one as timeworn as a reversal?

It was an opera about the founding of the city. When Davis realized it, he laughed—just once, like Carter would have—and waited for Catherine to elbow him. But she didn’t. She loved music; leaving music behind was the only thing she’d ever complained about when he brought her on postings with him. He didn’t mind it, actually. It felt like a genteel complaint, the sort of complaint a General’s wife should have. He’d pictured her assembling string quartets someday, when he’d been promoted to a permanent post and didn’t have to always make do in other people’s houses.
Overburden - Genevieve Valentine

I read Overburden by Genevieve Valentine over a year ago, and I’ve read many stories since. Even still, when I was looking through my notes and came across the quote above, I found that I remembered the story vividly. I recalled a reversal: this character Davis dies. He does not fulfill those ambitions he imagined.

The question is, why did I remember this story so well? I have a terrible memory—sometimes I read a whole story before realizing that I had already read it not long ago. What makes this story different?

To be sure, there are many reasons it is memorable (not the least of which is that Valentine is a remarkable writer), but the major strength of the story lies in her handling of the reversal of fortune. And it’s not only that a reversal occurs; that device has been used so many times for so long that the ancient Greeks had a word to describe it: peripeteia. The reason this reversal is memorable lies within the quote above.

Whenever a character is running headlong into disaster, the author has some choices about how to play that up beforehand. That character might say something like “everything will be fine.” This is a wink from the writer to the reader saying we both know that isn’t true, don’t we?.

Or the author can handle it subtly, the way Valentine does, by letting the character lay out some beautiful plans for their future. If the reader already knows or suspects that a disaster is looming, his reaction might be suspense. If the reader doesn’t yet suspect, the end may provoke an “aha!” when he remembers the unfulfilled plans.

The protagonist doesn’t need to be likable for this to work. In fact, it’s better if their foibles are the cause of the eventual misfortune as is the case in Overburden: Davis is power-hungry, and he domineers his wife. So the reversal is all the more satisfying when he overreaches and his wife poisons him.

Like most literary techniques, the reversal cannot exist in isolation. To make one impactful, you’ll need to lay the groundwork early in the story.