Increase story’s suspense through reversal

Among the best ways to ramp up dramatic tension in your story is through a reversal. This occurs when something in the narrative suddenly shifts the reader’s perspective or the story’s direction in an entirely unexpected yet plausible way.

For characters, this usually involves turning on its ear the reader’s understanding of why a character behaves a certain way. Suppose that a teenage protagonist initially considers her father cold and overbearing; through her narration he is presented that way to readers. Near the story’s end, the teenager learns that her father actually is doing what he thinks is right to protect her, as his beloved but free-spirited teen sister died many years in a car accident; he fears something bad also will happen to his maverick daughter. The truth is he loves her so much and feels so much pain at his sister’s loss that he makes bad decisions to prevent history from repeating itself.

Before this revelation, however, there must be clues about the father’s true nature. Maybe she partially overhears him boasting to a neighbor about her. Of course, the teenager never knew she had an aunt; she stumbles across clues about some mystery (She thinks maybe her father is hiding an illicit affair that led to her mother leaving them years ago.) that she investigates to discredit him. This search, however, leads her to discovering the truth about her father – changing her perspective and the readers.

For plots, a reversal means that the protagonist recognizes the conflict he is attempting to solve is the wrong one, and that he must begin addressing the right one. In the above story about our teenage girl and her father, perhaps she spends the bulk of the story trying to win a power struggle with him. Upon learning that he had lost his sister many years before, she realizes that the focus of her struggle must shift – rather than prove to him that controlling her is pointless, she must show him that it is unnecessary. Rather than fight with her father, she attempts to draw him closer to her.

Most stories involving three-dimensional protagonists include reversals. They’re a mark of character development. Even in tales with flat main characters, often a revelation via a reversal is necessary for the story’s central problem to be resolved.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.