Posts Tagged ‘Randy Ingermanson’

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?


The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
Randy Ingermanson (“the Snowflake guy”)
April 5, 2011
Volume 7, Number 4

Reprint Permission

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.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Randy Ingermanson wrote a brilliant explanation for why Stieg Larsson’s Trilogy Works despite obvious flaws in the October 5, 2010 edition of his popular e-zine, The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. Here’s a quick summary:

Stieg Larsson’s novel THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has been sitting on the Top 100 list on Amazon fornearly two years now. Its two sequels have followed itup the charts. For several months this year, thesebooks held the top three positions.

The question is: Why are these books selling so well?

If you’ve been writing fiction very long, you know thatStieg Larsson is violating several cardinal rules here:

  • Don’t use a prologue — readers don’t read them.
  • Start with your protagonist.
  • Bring your characters on in action.
  • Put no backstory in the first fifty pages.
  • If you must put in backstory, dole it out in bits.

How is Stieg Larsson getting away with violating somany rules?

Those pesky rules are there to make it as likely aspossible that you engage the reader’s interest. If you engage the reader’s interest while breaking a rule or two or twenty, the reader won’t care.

The real question is this: What is Stieg Larsson doingthat engages his reader’s interest so effectively?

  • He creates unanswered questions.
  • He creates three-dimensional characters.
  • He creates a complex storyline.

A story doesn’t sell because it has no weaknesses. A story sells because it has great strengths.

The lesson here for every novelist is that you canworkshop a novel to death, removing every possibleweakness, making sure that it has nothing to offend anyone. Or you can focus on powering up your novel’s strengths.

Can you guess which approach is likely to earn you themost readers?

Read the full article by viewing back issues (this article appeared in the October 5, 2010 edition) or subscribing to Randy’s e-Zine.

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Sources: The One-Sentence Summary, WINNERS: The One-Sentence Summary Contest, and One-Sentence Summary Critiques & Tips by Rachelle Gardner

Rachelle Gardner offered the following advice for constructing good storylines on several recent blog posts.

  • A one-sentence summary (also called a storyline) is about 25 words that capture the essence of what your book is about.
  • It should generate interest in reading your book.
  • Include:
    • A character or two
    • Their choice, conflict, or goal
    • What’s at stake (may be implied)
    • Action that will get them to the goal
    • Setting (if important)
  • Keep it simple. One plotline, 1 or 2 characters.
  • Use the strongest nouns, verbs and adjectives. Use specific language.
  • Make the conflict clear but don’t necessarily hint at the solution.
  • Make it visual so the reader can see what’s happening.
  • Above all, make sure you describe a story with conflict and not just characters in a situation.

This aspiring author also recommends Randy Ingermanson’s excellent Writing Fiction for Dummies.

Image: ‘Be seeing you’
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/19487674@N00/58499153

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[Guest-posted on Forensics and Faith by Brandilyn Collin]

Randy Ingermanson once said that people read books because they want to have an emotional experience. While that’s certainly true of “Twilight”, I think it holds true for all books. Even books about negative characters can be interesting to us because of their emotional content due to what James Scott Bell calls a “‘car wreck’ dynamic”.

Ironically, even though we’ve all experienced many, many emotions throughout our lives, few humans are experts. So, depicting them in our stories can seem an impossible task. However, as with most things, we can learn to be better at emotions.

But where to begin? Emotions are complicated and confusing. Consider these obstacles:

  • Many lists of emotions have been generated, yet no matter how much they overlap, they never quite converge. Some are even in conflict with one another.
  • There is no agreed-upon method to organize emotions. Do emotions resemble a list, a tree structure, or a three-dimensional shape? Can they even be visualized?
  • There is no agreed-upon method to name emotions. What someone calls “Joy” is called “Happiness” by another.
  • As if this weren’t complex enough, there also seem to be levels of intensity to emotions. What is the difference between Affection, Love, and Ecstasy but the level of intensity?
  • Emotions seem to somehow blend together to form new emotions that are distinct from their progenitors.
  • Even Wikipedia, a site that normally excels at harnessing the collective knowledge of the human race, fails to adequately deliver on a comprehensive list and understanding of emotions. The current list includes 80 separate emotions yet many overlap. And some are, well, foreign. Schadenfreude anyone?

So, how can emotions be classified so that we better understand them, and understanding them better use them in our writings? I believe psychologist and researcher Robert Plutchik who spent decades studying emotions has the answer. Plutchik’s research yielded some amazing discoveries about emotions including a comprehensive list of eight primary emotions arranged as opposing pairs. Observe:

  • Joy vs Sadness
  • Trust vs Disgust
  • Fear vs Anger
  • Surprise vs Anticipation

He also visualized this list as a wheel of sorts, referred to by some as Plutchik’s Flower:

Author: Ivan Akira
Source: Wikimedia Commons
License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Analogous to a color wheel, variations in color intensity correspond to variations in emotional intensity. Thus, the eight primary emotions occupy the middle ring of the flower with more intense forms occurring in the center (note the bolder colors) and milder forms the extremities (note the paler colors). For example, “Rage” is the stronger form of “Anger” while “Annoyance” is the weaker.

Also note that the two-dimensional flower can fold into a spinning top shape as shown in the upper-left corner. The tip of the top and the center of the flower is the point of emotional zero.

Plutchik’s approach satisfies our needs by providing:

  • a semantically-consistent set of distinct emotions
  • an organizational structure
  • a standard set of names

Plutchik’s approach satisfies our expectations by providing:

  • levels of intensity in emotions
  • the blending of primary emotions to form new ones
  • the concept of emotional “opposites” as mutually exclusive pairs
  • a blank, non-emotional state

In summary, Robert Plutchik left us a deep legacy. Next time I’ll write about blending emotions. This is where the really interesting stuff happens and which can be directly applied to the process of writing.

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Source: The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine by Randy Ingermanson
Date: February 10, 2010
Issue: Volume 6, Number 2
Home Page: http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com

Good advice on hooking your reader.

A good first chapter does four things well:

  • It makes a contract with the reader
  • It sets a hook in the first sentence
  • It sets a second hook near the end of the first page
  • It sets a third hook at the end of the chapter

The reason you need three hooks is because readers have
three increasing levels of commitment:

  • If your reader likes the first sentence, she’ll commit to reading the first page.
  • If your reader likes the first page, she’ll commit to reading the first chapter.
  • If your reader likes the first chapter, she’ll commit to the rest of the book. If she’s in a bookstore, that’s the point at which she buys the book.

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Source: How-to Author, Randy Ingermanson – Margie Lawson.

The storyline is a single sentence that summarizes your story.  If you write a great storyline, your editor will instantly get what you story’s about.  She’ll be able to explain that storyline to the publishing committee and they’ll get it too. Ditto with the sales team, the buyers for the bookstore chains, the staff in bookstores, and ultimately the readers.

I devote a lot of space in my book to teaching exactly how to write a strong storyline that instantly communcates the gist of the story.  You want it less than 25 words and you want to focus on one or two characters.  And you want to elimiate absolutely every ounce of excess weight.

The storyline for my first novel TRANSGRESSION is only 11 words.

“A physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.”

You either like that concept or you don’t. It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that I can communicate my storyline to you in 5 seconds whether you like it or not.  A great storyline separates the sheep from the goats–the potential buyers from the nay-sayers.

The book Randy is referring to is Writing Fiction For Dummies which will be releasing December 2, 2009.

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Source: How-to Author, Randy Ingermanson – Margie Lawson.

The only teacher whom I’ve seen mention this is Robert McKee in his book STORY, but he doesn’t explain how it’s useful to the novelist, because he’s interested in teaching screenwriters.

This critical layer [of plotting] is the “sequence of scenes.”  McKee explains in his book that the tension builds in intensity through a sequence of scenes–usually 3 to 5 of them. Then something important happens and the tension goes down.  It begins building again in the next sequence of scenes.

When I read McKee, I realized that this is the golden key for writing the synopsis.  The synopsis is easily the most hated piece of writing that any novelist ever does.  But you have to write a synopsis.

Here’s the secret:  When you write a synopsis, each paragraph should summarize a sequence of scenes.  If you try to summarize each scene, that’s too much detail. Summarize several scenes together as a single unit.  If you do that, your synposis will come out to about 2 single-spaced pages which is just about right.  If you don’t do that, you’re going to hate your synopsis.  (Okay, you’re going to hate your synopsis no matter what you do, but if you do it this way, you’ll get a good result, which is all that matters.)

You gotta love Randy’s humor – and his attention to detail with the craft of writing.

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