Turn the tables - Phrase: To reverse one’s position relative to someone else by turning a position of disadvantage into one of advantage; to cause a complete reversal of the state of affairs.
– Oxford English Dictionary
There’s nothing like a good dramatic turn of events. The best mystery, thriller, and adventure stories typically include an act with a high-stakes reversal of fortune. It’s usually the scene in a movie you talk about with your friends as you walk out of the theater, or the passage in that novel you just finished that is replaying in your mind. It’s when the hero unexpectedly prevails over the villain in a clever, inspired, or ingenious way. And when executed properly, it pumps up the apex of story like a couple hundred CC’s of adrenaline.
Let’s be honest, though. Not all reversals work. Often times a cheesy B-movie or a slipshod novel will attempt the flip and we roll our eyes. There is an art to making this scene work, and it requires fully developed characters and a well-structured story that organically flows from scene to scene. It’s obvious when a writer forces a turn-the-tables scene. The hero may not have the knowledge or motivation to pull it off, or the logic of the turn may disappear into the maw of a gaping plot hole. That’s why when we experience a reversal that truly works, it’s a magically entertaining thing.
Now, when I say “reversal” I do not mean the type film critics and reviewers typically discuss. In that definition events in the story act on the protagonist to change his anticipated action or perspective. That type of reversal is as surprising to the hero as it is to the audience. The “turn the tables” scene I refer to here is engineered by the protagonist through his character and knowledge.
For instance, it’s when …
In A FEW GOOD MEN, Lt. Kaffee goads Colonel Jessup on the witness stand into admitting he ordered the “code red” that murdered Pvt. Santiago. “You’re goddamn right I did!”
In THE PRINCESS BRIDE, Vizzini believes his superior intellect has led him to choose the goblet without the poison, when in actuality Westley has put poison in both goblets because he is immune to the toxin he used.
In WRATH OF KHAN, Captain Kirk uses his knowledge of star ships to remotely lower the Reliant’s shields and force Khan to retreat under a barrage of phaser fire, saving the badly damaged Enterprise from sure destruction.
In TREMORS, Valentine and the others somber moment of grief is
transformed into celebration when rifle reports echo across the desert into town, revealing that their friend Burt has not been killed by the giant earth worm that just busted through his basement wall, but is very much alive and battling the monster with his survivalist arsenal.
In THE LAST JEDI, Kylo Ren ignites the light saber on the dais to kill Emperor Snoke, and then fights back-to-back with Rey against the praetorian guards. (Yes, I know Ren is not the hero, but at this moment he seems to be in a deep gray area).
In the BATTLE OF THE BULGE, Lt. Weaver realizes the American MP directing convoy traffic at the crossroads is actually a disguised German infiltrator.
It’s when John McClane draws the pistol he has taped to his back and takes out Hans Gruber with his last two bullets.
It’s when Atticus Finch tosses the glass to Tom in the courtroom to impress upon the jury the defendant’s right handedness.
It’s when Indiana Jones cuts the rope bridge, sending the Thugee guards surrounding him, the stones, and himself tumbling into the chasm below.
The turnaround reveals there is more to the hero than just his strength or skill with a weapon, although those attributes often play a part as well. The proper reversal demonstrates the hero’s ability to take what he has learned in the story and use it to counter the villain’s dastardly scheme. The action he takes may be physical, intellectual, deceptive, or even philosophical, but it always couples his accumulated knowledge with the traits that define his character and focuses them into one moment that impacts the story with enough significance to alter the course of the narrative. And it is always the hero’s decision to put the reversal in motion.
This point deserves elaboration. It is important that the hero formulate and implement his action on his own. The reversal must be borne out of his character and experiences to have true dramatic impact. Sometimes the hero makes the decision under duress. The villain may be threatening his life or the lives of others if he chooses inaction. This does not make him an anti-hero. Deciding to take a dramatic action in the face of extreme adversity shows what kind of person this is when the rubber hits the road. When all pretense, posturing, and decorum is stripped away, what remains of a character is what really matters. And if that character acts in a noble, heroic, or self-sacrificing manner, it draws our admiration.
Not to mention, it’s fun to watch those tables turn.