The Reverse Arc

I saw Barefoot in the Park the other night.

It was okay.

But something interesting happened in the Third Act that might be worth sharing.

We reach the point of the story where the characters have fully arc’d. Jane Fonda had felt that Robert Redford was “a stuffed shirt” who never allows himself to get drunk and go crazy, and Redford thinks Fonda’s nonsensical for walking barefoot in Central Park when it’s 17 degrees.

They were separated and headed for divorce. And thus, we find ourselves full circle in Act Three with Redford drunk and barefoot in Central Park, and Jane, the free spirit, is behaving like any level-headed “stuffed shirt” by trying to keep Redford from going insane.

Now, had this been a contemporary film, the movie would have ended in Central Park with the celebration of their character arcs.

But Barefoot continued.

We found ourselves back in the apartment. Fonda and Redford discovered that they didn’t like the changes they were seeing in each other and they just want that same person they fell in love with when they got married. And in the end, they went right back to being the way they were. Clever. (Then again, this may have been common in Rom Coms back then.)

But I don’t believe that I’ve ever read about this type of character arc before. So I think I’ll call it “The Reverse Arc.” It’s where a character changes and then changes right back.

And it serves a purpose, I think.

It’s as if Neil Simon is saying, “If you’re going to put everything in your marriage on the line in order to change the other person, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

– Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.

3 thoughts on “The Reverse Arc”

  1. I remember this article! It’s interesting how the reverse arc was actually taken out of some films and moved to the sequel to create a new film.

    For example, the book ‘Neverending Story’ had a full reversing arc. The first part is about the hero discovering the importance of imagination instead of living in the ‘real world’, and the second half is the reverse – he ends rediscovering the value of living in the ‘real world’.

    But in the film, they basically cut the full arc in half – the first part of the story became the complete arc for a great movie (“Neverending Story”) and they used the reverse arc for the sequel (“Neverending Story 2”).

    I’m not sure it would have worked if they’d put the reverse arc in the first film.

    You could argue they did the same ‘use the reverse arc for the sequel’ trick in T2. T2 was about discovering how nothing is fixed and can be changed, but the sequel was about how everything is fixed and can’t be changed!

    If they’d been combined into a single film, we would have left the cinema thinking “So nothing the characters did at all actually mattered?” It would have actually ruined the film for me.

    Despite all my reservations, though, I’m trying to put a reverse arc in my current WIP – hopefully without that problem.


  2. This repost reminds me of the satirical 50s song “I can’t get adjusted to the you that’s got adjusted to me” – a reason why characters might revert back to the way they were. I wonder of some people might see The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that way.

    At the end of ‘Spirited Away’ Hayao Miyazaki has said that the heroine and her parents have no memory of the events of the film. In a way, they have had reverse arcs too. In this case they had instant reversions.


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