Fiction is about characters in conflict. In this column, I’ve talked about many different kinds of conflict over the years, but there’s one kind that I don’t recall ever discussing.
It’s the conflict that comes when one character changes the rules of the game. Changes them so radically that it’s suddenly a completely different game.
To understand this kind of conflict, let’s look at an extreme example. Imagine that you challenge your buddy to a match at the tennis courts. Whoever loses has to buy the pizza for dinner.
You show up at the courts with your tennis racket and all your other gear.
Your buddy shows up with a chessboard, sets it up on the sidelines, and sits down behind the white pieces.
He hasn’t got a racket. He’s not dressed for tennis.
He isn’t even on the court.
You wait for him to get his act together, but he’s paying no attention to you, so finally you serve an ace to an empty court.
Your buddy moves his king’s pawn forward.
You serve another ace.
Your buddy moves his queen out to the fifth rank.
You ace him again.
He moves his king-side bishop out.
You miss on your next serve, but you aren’t worried, because he still isn’t on the court. One more serve, and you’ll have him nailed for this game.
He moves his queen down to the seventh rank, takes your king’s bishop pawn, shouts, “Checkmate!” and leaps out of his chair, doing a victory dance.
What just happened there? You were winning, weren’t you? But he thinks he’s winning, because you’ve been playing different games.
This is an extremely weird kind of conflict. A meta-conflict. A conflict over what the nature of the conflict is supposed to be.
You might think this can never happen in real life. But in fact, it happens all the time. Here’s an example that’s a little less extreme:
Bossbert walks into Wally’s cubicle. “Wally, have you got the report done for the Gooberheimer project?”
Wally blows his nose loudly and tosses the Kleenex at Bossbert. “Wow, I’ve got the worst cold you ever heard of.”
Bossbert leaps back from the germy tissue. “I asked you a yes or no question. That means I need a yes or no answer. Are you planning to give me one or not?”
Wally coughs into his hand, then wipes it on his pants. “I should probably go home, if I didn’t have so much work to do.”
Bossbert’s hands are curling into fists. “Would you like me to fire you?”
Wally puts his hand to his forehead. “I think I’ve got a fever. Maybe it’s the flu.”
What’s going on here? Why is Bossbert getting madder and madder?
What’s going on is that Bossbert is playing one game and Wally is playing another. Bossbert needs information, so he’s asking simple yes-or-no questions.
Wally has no intention of giving an answer because he hasn’t done his work. Instead of playing Bossbert’s game (which he would lose), he plays a different game — “feel sorry for me because I’m sick.”
Only an unfeeling brute would fire a worker who has the flu. Bossbert can’t win at Wally’s game, and Wally refuses to play Bossbert’s game. So Bossbert loses.
You can introduce conflict like this in any category.
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?
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 http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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