The simple reversal: creativity tip

I remember the first time I heard about reversing an idea as a conscious act. I was young, maybe 9 or 10, and my dad had kept me up late to watch Monty Python during a pledge drive on our local PBS station. The sketch that had just played was Hell’s Grannies, in which a grandma bicycle gang terrorizes the young people of a small town. They cut to the studio and some of Python was there, the announcer said that was his favorite Monty Python sketch. John Cleese dismissed it as “a simple reversal sketch” not worthy of praise. And I’ve found that in general comedians consider those types of jokes to be hacky and base.

However, since then, I’ve found reversing ideas to be a useful habit that can actually invigorate an old tired cliché. In fact, the way journalists describe interesting stories is a reversal. Dog bites man is not an interesting story, but man bites dog is an interesting story. It is also used as a humorous tool in Zen koans.

As an example of how this can work successfully, two of my favorite Coen brothers’ movies are based on brilliant using the opposite of the usual main character in a hackneyed plot and genre. The Big Lebowski is a film noir style detective film that stars, instead of the traditional tough guy war vet turned shamus, a war protesting hippie. Fargo is a police procedural that with a main character that isn’t a rule breaking tough guy, but a pregnant female cop that solves the crime by the book.

The next time your stuck or it feels like your just repeating an old idea, try reversing the idea or an element of it.  Many times this will take you down a new path and increase your interest in it.

4 responses

  1. G.B. Shaw was really fond of using chiasmus: two parallel but reversed statements, almost a mini-version of a reversal scene:
    Shirley: I wouldn’t have your conscience, not for all your income.
    Undershaft: I wouldn’t have your income, not for all your conscience.


  2. I almost mentioned that! I was going to compare it its comic equivalent which is the mystic guru in Mystery Men, The Sphinx.
    The Sphinx: To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn
    The Sphinx: He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.
    It’s not a good movie, but it sure takes the piss out of Yoda.


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