A Story Arc
in which two characters or groups slowly, and involuntarily, swap their positions in life. These positions are usually social (who's high-status, who's popular), economic (who's rich), and most of all, moral — who is decent and who is a ruthless bastard. The swapping often leads to escalation — the new poor person is poorer than the old one was, or the new amoral one is much nastier than the old one was.
The pathos from the Hourglass Plot
comes from how neither character learns from the situation — they act just the same to each other as they did before, but with roles reversed. Particularly cruel shows will create an infinite-loop Hourglass Plot
, where two hostile characters keep swapping positions and treating each other as badly as ever. In rare cases, such plots will involve the characters barely interacting with each other... a pure comparison of one person's rise to another person's fall.
Lucky characters will get a Not So Different
moment and actually learn from it.
Compare: Prince and Pauper
, Perspective Reversal
, "Freaky Friday" Flip
for an especially literal case, and Perspective Flip
for when it's a retcon
instead of a plot development. Compare and contrast: If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him
, You Kill It, You Bought It
, and Not So Different
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Anime and Manga
- Naruto: Kakashi starts as a shinobi who only cares about the mission, while Obito thinks that comrades are more important. After the battle of Kannibi Bridge, Kakashi becomes more concerned about comrades. Obito becomes eventually Tobi, who deems no sacrifice too great for his mission.note
- Shinji and Asuka go through an Hourglass Plot in the last episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Then several more cycles in the End of Evangelion movie.
- In Phoenix: Karma, Gao begins as a ruthless bandit with a Freudian Excuse and Akanemaru is a simple artisan who winds up stabbed by him for no good reason. As the story progresses, Gao finds salvation through art while Akanemaru discovers his own ambition; by the end, both are changed men, and Gao is a sculptor whose talents outshine even Akanemaru's. The petty Akanemaru will not stand to be upstaged by Gao and throws away his own redemption, telling the tale of Gao's origins as the bandit who wounded him; Gao's remaining arm is taken as punishment and he is thrown into exile. However, Akanemaru himself dies in a fire trying to save his work, and as he dies, the Phoenix tells him that he will never be reborn as a human; Gao, on the other hand, manages to return to his art despite his disability.
- In Macross Frontier, popular idol singer Sheryl Nome serves as a mentor to up and coming Ranka Lee, but later Sheryl becomes ill and as her popularity wanes, Ranka's soars to the point of becoming a heroine capable of using her song to scare away enemy aliens. Then it happens again when Ranka loses her will to sing and makes a Face-Heel Turn while Sheryl takes her place when it turns out she has the same power.
- In The Tatami Galaxy, for most of the series, the Unlucky Everydude protagonist is caught in a "Groundhog Day" Loop, and in every episode, Ozu, a Screwy Squirrel (who is illustrated to look somewhat "demonic"), arranges things so that the protagonist fails to achieve (often romantic) success, and looks bad. Eventually, it is revealed that Ozu's antics are motivated by a combination of his own romantic pursuits and genuine friendship toward the protagonist, and the protagonist has an epiphany wherein he rethinks some of his own behavior and realizes that Ozu is a true friend. At the end of the series, Ozu (now illustrated as normal looking) seeks the protagonist's aid for his romantic troubles, and the protagonist assumes Ozu's former role of good-natured troll.
- In For His Own Sake, Love Hina's resident Chew Toy Keitaro decides after three years of abuse and disrespect to leave the Hinata Inn and start working towards a better future, while also recognizing and trying to atone for his past mistakes. Over time, Shinobu, Kitsune and Haruka recognize their own issues and set about improving their own lives. At the same time, several of the more stubborn residents, like Naru, Mokoto and Kaolla Suu, find themselves falling from grace as Reality Ensues and they have to face the consequences of their actions.
- A two-parter in Trading Places. In the first half, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy swap lifestyles. In the second half, they team up to bankrupt the decadently rich Duke brothers and get rich in the process.
- In the film version of The Count of Monte Cristo, after betraying his best friend, Fernand is set up with a beautiful wife and an inherited fortune and noble title, while Dantes is locked away in a prison for 16 years. After his escape and subsequent execution of his plans for revenge, Dantes is now the one with titular noble title, beautiful woman, and nigh-limitless fortune, with Fernand's fortune completely lost, his woman gone, and under threat of imminent arrest for murder and conspiracy.
- This was part of the Character Development between Neo and Smith in The Matrix and its sequels. Smith picks up human emotions and independent goals (which he doesn't like) while Neo finds himself as a "cog in the machine" with a pre-destined goal (which also proves to be a bit of a drag).
- Juno and Mark. She keeps going over to his and Vanessa's house to get to know them better and see what kind of family her baby will have ("I just like being a piece of furniture in your weird life"), while his exposure to her and her teenage flippancy gives him second thoughts about his adulthood and eventually causes him to bail on his wife and the coming baby, to Juno's shock and dismay. His regression triggers her coming of age.
- In What About Bob?, Bob Wiley starts off all-but-paralyzed by his various neuroses, while Dr. Leo Marvin is a psychiatrist who's just published a best-selling self-help book. Bob's interactions with the Marvin family helps him overcome his fears and learn to interact with normal society—eventually marrying Leo's sister, becoming a psychiatrist himself, and authoring his own book. Leo, meanwhile, becomes increasingly irritated and unhinged in response to Bob (in part because he feared that Bob was replacing him in his family's affections) and ends up catatonic. Though seeing Bob's and his sister's wedding apparently cures him.
- In Primer, Aaron starts off as a family man and rather risk-averse (note the scenes where he worries about needing eye protection and warns his wife against using the first batch of ice from the new fridge). Abe starts off unmarried and rather more devil-may-care. Over the course of the film, access to a Time Travel-powered Reset Button makes Aaron become more aggressive and willing to take risks, and he eventually leaves his family. Abe, on the other hand, becomes increasingly worried about the side-effects of time travel and oddly protective of Aaron's family.
- In the beginning of Dogma, Loki is portrayed as the more ruthless and reckless, wanting to go on one more divinely righteous killing spree before re-entering heaven, while Bartleby is the one who feels compassion for the humans and is more reserved. However, halfway through Bartleby snaps and becomes an Omnicidal Maniac bent on killing everyone, and it is Loki who is attempting to hold him back.
- In the 2011 film One Day, based on the novel by David Nicholls, the two protagonists Emma and Dexter come from completely different backgrounds and life goals, with Emma starting out as a poor waitress after graduating from university and Dexter beginning as a successful television host. Over time, Emma gains success first as a teacher and then as a writer. Dexter goes on a downward spiral and ends up a poor divorcee.
- In Thor, the titular hero starts out as a vicious Blood Knight while his brother, Loki, is much more cautious and diplomatic. By the movie's end, Thor is much more peaceful and tries to reason with his enemies rather than plunging into battle, while Loki tries to demolish an entire world to achieve his goals.
- The Scarlet Letter features an Hourglass Plot between Hester and Dimmesdale on several levels, especially at the end of the novel.
- In William Faulkner's Light in August, this happens to Lena Grove and Byron Bunch. Not that any Faulkner book is comprehensible the first ten times you read it, but it's there.
- Severus Snape and James Potter in Harry Potter. In the beginning, Snape is the neglected but overall sweet boy who befriends muggle-born Lily Evans. When they go to school, he becomes incredibly bullied by the cruel and arrogant James Potter. Lily's friend spends more and more time retreating into the dark arts to escape his abuse, but becomes indoctrinated by the cause- one day in a fit of embarrassment, he calls Lily a slur because of her parents. Because of it, Snape loses her friendship forever, despite secretly loving her. While James Potter matures and becomes kinder and more heroic, eventually gaining Lily's hand in marriage, Snape grows more and more meanspirited over the years, and spends his adulthood bullying schoolchildren the same way that was done to him.
- Used light-heartedly in the A.A. Milne poem "Twice Times". There are two little bears, a bad one and a good one..."And then quite suddenly (just like Us)/One got Better and the Other got Wuss." Milne then reveals that he's using this as an allegory, since he just realized that his son has finally learned all his times tables, while he's getting so old that he can no longer remember where he put anything.
- Older Than Steam: In the first part of the novel, Don Quixote is a Daydream Believer Mad Dreamer and Sancho Panza has Simpleminded Wisdom and represents realism. Both are StaticCharacters. At the second part, Sancho is influenced by Don Quixote and becomes more and more of a Daydream Believer, while at the end, Don Quixote will become Bored With Insanity by Sancho’s influence. They may have been the very first characters in literature to become DynamicCharacters.
- In Warbreaker, the sisters Vivenna and Siri are initially introduced with Vivenna as a well-mannered and seemingly perfect Princess Classic, and Siri as a disobedient Rebellious Princess. Circumstances make it so that Vivenna has to play a Rebellious Princess type role and Siri has to become a Princess Classic, and over the course of the story, Vivenna's flaws and Siri's virtues become apparent. Ultimately, Vivenna becomes an Action Girl and leaves her old life behind to walk around and atone, and Siri settles into the role of The High Queen.
- In Les Misérables, Cosette starts out as a child slave to the Thenardiers, who abuse her while spoiling their own daughters with expensive clothes and toys. She is then taken into the care of Valjean and seven years later is an educated, well-dressed young lady who enjoys wealth and high social status and eventually becomes a Baroness on marrying Marius, while the Thenardiers lose their inn and become destitute, forcing their daughters to beg and steal on the streets. This is lampshaded by Eponine at one point in the musical.
- In Best Served Cold, Monza is introduced as a cruel and amoral borderline Villain Protagonist and in pursuing revenge on the men who betrayed her and killed her brother, enlists the help of Barbarian Hero Shivers who had left his home in the North as part of a quest to leave his old life behind and become a better man. Initially, Monza belittles Shivers' scruples and acts as The Corrupter, but as the story progresses, Monza starts to feel guilt and flashbacks reveal that she isn't/wasn't such a bad person in the first place, while at the same time, Shivers increasingly loses interest in reform and his status as Token Good Teammate is increasingly called into question. This comes to a head after the two are captured and torturers burn out Shivers' eye. Ultimately, Shivers ends up as a cruel Blood Knight who revels in violence, and betrays Monza, whereas Monza ends up as a hard but fair ruler who spares Shivers because of deep regret of her earlier contempt toward his scruples, which she now embraces.
- The TV Movie Summertime Switch revolves around a young street punk and a spoiled rich kid both named Freddie Egan. Their identical names cause the former to be sent to a luxurious summer camp for the rich and the latter to a juvenile correctional facility, though obviously the opposite was supposed to happen. Both end up learning something from the whole experience (especially the rich kid).
- On Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, neurotic, insecure Melanie is best friends with the insensitive Kathleen. Melanie gains confidence while Kathleen loses hers, and Melanie becomes just as insensitive as Kathleen was when they started. Their problems escalate as they get older, so Kathleen is insensitive to Melanie worrying about her body, while Melanie is insensitive to Kathleen becoming an anorexic abuse victim.
- The fifth season of Degrassi The Next Generation has Emma swapping moral positions with her entire circle of friends and family. They screw up their lives one by one, Emma redeems them all — and then she snaps under the pressure, becoming worse than any of them ever were. The climax is them trying to reason with her, as Emma threatens them and says they have no moral right to criticize her. ("You take advantage of drunk girls. You are the drunk girl...")
- Joey and Wheels as well. At the beginning of Degrassi Junior High, Joey was an irresponsible jokester as well as a bit of a bully while Wheels was his nicer and more sensible best friend. Near the end of Degrassi High, Wheels was a Jerkass whose various misdeeds involved stealing money and lying to his grandma/guardian. Meanwhile, a matured Joey disapproved of his actions and tried to help him.
- Star Trek: Voyager, "Equinox": The Voyager crew comes across their Evil Counterpart: the lost ship Equinox, whose crew are murdering and enslaving their way across the Delta Quadrant. The villainous Equinox captain slowly becomes paralyzed with guilt, just as Janeway becomes just as ruthless as he used to be in her quest to get him.
- The Narn and the Centauri in Babylon 5 are caught in an apparently endless cycle of invasion, occupation, liberation and revenge. G'Kar starts out as the arrogant jerk seeking power and advancement while Londo is humbled and accepting of his position in life and the lack of any real power. A couple seasons later G'Kar is humbled and powerless while Londo has become one of the most powerful men in the Centauri Empire with the arrogance to match it. By the end of the series they start flipping again though they lose their arrogance for good.
- Lex and Lionel Luthor. At the beginning of the series, Lex was Clark's friend and ally and Lionel was the Magnificent Bastard Trope Namer. Overtime, Lex begins a descent as Lionel redeems himself.
- In the early days, Chloe is One of the Boys who ended up tangled with the Luthors, at one point allying with Lionel, prying in Clark's personal life, threatening his secret, and Lana is the pretty girl Clark is crazy over. In the middle seasons however, Chloe learns Clark's secret and becomes a supportive sidekick, gets as far away as the Luthors as possible, Clark subtly demonstrates possible romantic feelings towards her, and her femininity becomes more pronounced (just look at her hairstyle change); Lana marries Lex and becomes something of a Dark Action Girl, and starts poking into Clark's secret, not to mention starting Isis.
- Attempted in the first two seasons of Friends. First Ross pines after Rachel as she dates Paolo. Then Rachel pines after Ross as he dates Julie. How well this works is debatable, given that Julie was a wonderful person and Paolo was a jerk.
- GilmoreGirls played this with Rory and Jess. Early on, she's a hardworking student, bound for a Journalistic career and beloved by her family; He's a high school dropout who doesn't trust anyone. Come Season 6, Rory has abandoned college and her dreams, estranged from her mother, while Jess has become a successful author and renewed relationships with his Uncle and Mother. Luckily, for Rory though, Jess's transformation is exactly what she needs...
- In Carnivŕle Brother Justin is a preacher who slowly turns to the darkside upon the realization that he is The Antichrist, and also suffers from an unfortunate case of Bad Powers, Bad People. Ben, an escaped criminal on the lam from the law, makes a parallel journey as he comes into his own powers as The Messiah.
- Supernatural brothers Sam and Dean swap positions on moral limits in season 4 - Sam's demon blood leads him to kill humans for power, whereas he previously was always insisting they avoid "means to an end" sacrifices. Dean, previously a hedonist who expedited the hunt with an apathetic battleax approach, starts setting limits to the point that he'd rather let he and Sam both die rather than be possessed and possibly injure others in a blunt force strategy of the angels.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer features a What Could Have Been example. Originally, it was planned to bring Faith back at the end of Season 6 and have her, The Atoner fight with Evil Willow. As it was, they didn't fight, though Faith still gat an Oh Crap moment where she saw Willow at full power.
- Speaking of Faith, her return in Season 4 of Angel is a double example. She switches her role in the Good versus Evil battle with the now soulless Angel(us), as well as her outlook on life with the now cold and jaded Wesley.
- Over the course of Merlin, Guinevere and Morgana swap places. Gwen is shy serving girl whilst Morgana is the confident ward of the king. Gwen dislikes Prince Arthur, whilst Morgana flirts with him. Fastforward four seasons and Guinevere is The High Queen of Camelot, married to King Arthur, whilst Morgana is living in a hovel, stewing in bitterness and hate for her former family.
- This was revealed to be the back story of Regina and Jefferson in Once Upon a Time. In "Hat Trick", Jefferson was an innocent friend of Regina who trapped him in Wonderland and separated him from his daughter Grace. In "The Doctor", Regina is an innocent girl that Jefferson hurts for personal gain, many years before his daughter was born, to make her believe that she couldn't save her True Love Daniel when they could have. Jefferson's tragic back story was a result of Laser-Guided Karma.
- On LOST Jack starts as a Man of Science, focused on getting the survivors off the Island, while Locke is a Man of Faith, believing that people aren't supposed to leave the Island Because Destiny Says So. It goes on like this for four Seasons, until the first reversal happens in Season 5: Jack gets off the Island but becomes increasingly depresing and is looking for a way to come back, while Locke is now desperately searching for a way off the Island, believing it to be a necessary step to save everyone. After Jack gets back and Locke is killed, his face assumed by the Big Bad, things get even better: Jack is now a strong believer in Faith determined to stay on the Island, while Fake-Locke is a cynical pragmatist desperately trying to leave it. By the final episodes, the Survivors led by Jack are now trying to stop the Big Bad from doing the very same thing they tried to do for most of the series.
- An episode of The Twilight Zone, "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville," has the janitor for a large corporation talking with the CEO of the corporation about how he's just gotten a watch for his 40th year with the company, along with a few words about what it's like at the top versus the bottom. One botched trip to the past and several deals with the devil later, not only is the janitor now the CEO and the CEO the janitor, but each now has the personality of the other as well, and the watch gets a mention too.
- The play Pacific Overtures has two friends, one a samurai and the other a peasant with knowledge of the West, who wind up exchanging places. The samurai is made an ambassador of sorts with the foreign powers as Japan is forcibly opened to trade, and he becomes increasingly westernized in his dress and actions. Meanwhile the peasant, angry at the way Western powers are exploiting Japan, becomes a hardcore anti-West reactionary after being promoted to the samurai class. Tragedy ensues.
- Macbeth Initially, Macbeth shows more scruples/hesitancy to kill Duncan than does his wife, and she pushes him into doing it. Afterward, however, while Lady Macbeth goes increasingly mad from guilt, Macbeth's reaction to guilt is to seemingly lose all emotion and scrupple and he far surpass his wife in villainy.
- In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Antonio saved Sebastian's life after a horrific storm, when they were both mired in a strange country. Antonio grew very close to Sebastian, and even got into a duel in Sebastian's defense. When Antonio was placed under arrest by Orsino, his old rival, he expected that Sebastian would help him out — only for Sebastian to act like he's never met Antonio before. Antonio is heartbroken — but fortunately he had really met Sebastian's Half Identical Twin, and the real Sebastian is perfectly happy to help Antonio once he finds him again.
- This is a big part of the plot of Shaw's The Devil's Disciple. Richard Dudgeon is introduced as a n'er-do-well who has his opposite in the Rev. Anthony Andersen, a philanthropic clergyman. The plot is set in motion when British soldiers come to arrest Andersen for treason and Dudgeon takes his place. Ultimately, Dudgeon's nobility and Andersen's weakness are revealed, and at the end of the story, Dudgeon is established as heroic (and much less seedy than he initially appeared), and Andersen has renounced religion and become a Blood Knight revolutionary. The trope is exaggerated, as Andersen asserts that since he has taken Dudgeon's place, Dudgeon must become a clergyman and take-up with Anderson's wife.
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker features one of these; a rich man and a very poor man both have their daughters kidnapped, and the circumstances surrounding their return swaps them over, including general nastiness.
- That should be general level of nastiness: the one who starts poor stays nasty and unsympathetic after gaining wealth, and the one who starts rich stays likeable after losing his wealth.
- Suikoden IV has this with Lazlo and Snowe Vingerhut. The worse off one gets, the higher the other rises. While Lazlo copes with whatever hand he's dealt, Snowe never seems to learn from his mistakes. Eventually, though, he finally makes his Heel-Face Turn and actually starts learning from his experiences in retrospect. It just takes nearly the whole game to get him to that point.
- Delita and Ramza in Final Fantasy Tactics, who serve as foils to each other throughout most of the game. By the end of the story, Ramza has abandoned his ties to the nobility entirely, while Delita has assumed the highest position of power within the aristocracy.
- Between Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., Mario and Donkey Kong switch roles, the antagonist capturing somebody the protagonist cares about and holding them hostage. They must have worked things out though, as by the time Donkey Kong Country was released, each were the hero in their own respective series.
- In World of Warcraft, Jaina Proudmoore started out as the Only Sane Man desiring peace between the Alliance and the Horde while Varian started out as a warmonger who wanted the Horde destroyed. Cue Mists of Pandaria and the destruction of Theramore at Garrosh's hands. Now Jaina is the one who bitterly wants revenge on the Horde while Varian is trying a slightly more diplomatic approach. Jaina even screws up Varian's attempt to bring the Blood Elves back into the Alliance by exiling them from Dalaran. At the end of the expansion Jaina is the one itching to wipe out the Horde even after Garrosh is overthrown while Varian is willing to leave the Horde in peace with nothing more than a stern warning.