Monday, May 30, 2011

Meta-Conflicts by Randy Ingermanson: Part Three

This Manuscript Monday Randy Ingermanson's back to conclude his series on meta-conflict in fiction writing. It's a great way to throw in a twist or show the villain's true colors. Hasn't this been a great series? Enjoy!

The Games People Don't Play: Part Three*
by Randy Ingermanson

You can introduce meta-conflict like this in any category. (Again, Randy's referring to the characters in a scene playing by different rules. See the past two Manuscript Mondays' posts for more.) In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler in the library and learns that he's been listening to her throw herself unsuccessfully at Ashley Wilkes.

Scarlett is upset and tries to insult Rhett by calling him an eavesdropper.

Rhett takes this as a compliment and happily informs her that he's an experienced eavesdropper.

Scarlett gets more angry and tells Rhett he's no gentleman.

Rhett is unperturbed and agrees with her. He tells her she's no lady, and that's what he likes about her.

Now Scarlett is furious. She tells Rhett that he isn't fit to wipe Ashley's boots.

Rhett thinks this hysterically funny, since Scarlett has just told Ashley she would hate him all her life.

Scarlett and Rhett are playing different games. Scarlett is playing the insult game, because she
believes that words have the power to hurt. Rhett is playing the game of court jester. He accepts every insult with a grin. Scarlett can't win, because Rhett isn't playing her game. Rhett wins simply by refusing to play.

This works even in the most direct of all conflicts – hand-to-hand combat. Every street fighter knows that the easiest fight to win is the one that's over before your opponent has even begun.

In Lee Child's novel, Echo Burning, our hero Jack Reacher is lured into a bar by a couple of toughs who are being paid to beat him up. They've even called an ambulance in advance to make sure he won't die if they get too rough.

They make the mistake of telling Reacher what they plan to do—how they beat up another guy once before, how they cut him up so bad, he almost bled out. They're trying to scare him, to weaken his resistance. This is an intimidation game, part of the larger game of provoking a street fight. It would work on most people.

Reacher knows this game and he's not worried. It's been a long time since he lost a fight in a two-on-one battle. So he lets them know he thinks they're full of beans. Matter of fact, he tells them that he'll be happy to fight them right now if they'll step outside with him. He heads toward the exit and they follow.

Reacher now has them playing the game he wants them to play, the game of “We'll start an unfair fight out in the parking lot 30 seconds from now.”

But that isn't Reacher's game. His game starts 25 seconds before theirs, the instant he reaches the rack of pool cues. He grabs one, spins around and lays into Billy first, then into Josh, while they're still thinking about what they'll be doing half a minute in the future.

They're unconscious before their game is even due to begin.

Why? Because Reacher refused to play their game. Because he chose to break up the timing of their game.

In most scenes of your novel, your characters are all going to be playing the same game. It might be tennis. It might be office politics. It might be verbal jousting. It might be a fist fight.

It's not WRONG to let your people all play by the same rules. That's the way most of life is played. You can have a nice conflict where everybody plays fair.

It's just a whole lot more interesting when one of the characters decides to play a different game -- a game the other characters aren't expecting, aren't prepared for, and can't win.

If you want to try taking one of your scenes up a notch, see if you can find a way to get one of your players to change the game. He can either change the rules, change the turf, change the timing, change the definition of winning.

Whatever this rogue character does to change the rules, it needs to massively tilt the game to his advantage.

Try it and see what happens.

What have you got to lose?


*Article first appeared in Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, April 2011. See his website for more information.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 25,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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