Dramatic tension is the key to an engaging storyline—or even an essay or blog post, for that matter. This takes the form of rising action, a series of reversals (escalating problems or crises) that must be resolved. These keep us, the readers, involved, making us root for and identify with the “hero,” whether fictional or non-fictional, dramatic or humorous. They make us worry about whether we will achieve our goal.
So even if you’re writing a “How to” post, include troubleshooting (avoiding or overcoming reversals) en route to, say, baking the world’s greatest lemon tart or building Thor-like abs. If you’re writing about depression or failure, the journey will include overcoming both external and internal conflicts (reversals), like those of Odysseus, Katniss Everdeen, and even Sherriff Woody.
The most powerful reversals are ironic, moments in which heroes directly or indirectly cause a reversal themselves. I came to realize this when I was writing the screenplay and novelization for Healing River.
“I killed him!”
“What?” her brother Peter asks.
“If I’d let him go and look for apartments, he would still be alive!”
“No!” Peter’s voice shakes the silence of the Grief Consultation Room. “You don’t know the future, Ingrid, only God knows.”
Realizing how deeply this ironic reversal knitted together my hero’s dramatic arc and my story’s rising action, I found myself almost unconsciously pushing most of the reversals in this direction. Result? People have said how much they identify with the Ingrid’s struggle. And now I think I know why. It’s because ironic reversals are the most devastating and powerful kind there are,
Both in stories and in real life.