Friday, August 31, 2012

A Game that Writers Play: Transformation by DeAnna Knippling

Across the world, it's commonly understood that games are stupid and boring, and nobody likes to play them.

No, wait, I mean it's commonly understood that games are fun, exciting, and everyone has their favorite types of games they like to play or watch. 


It could be sports (the Olympics certainly tied up people's brains for a while, didn't it?), it could be card games, board games, video games, darts, drinking games, rock-paper-scissors, pattycake, tag, or even holding your hands behind your back and making a little kid pick which hand the candy is in.

Games are fun.  Because they have rules.

They have just enough rules.  If a game has too many rules, we strip the rule out.  If it doesn't have enough rules, we add more--house rules.  How do we know if the rules are right?  Because we're having fun.

So let me tell you about my favorite game.  It's called "Transformation."  You only need one player to play, but it's nice to have an audience.  And everyone plays it differently, but there are rules. 

Generally, this is how you play it:

  • First you deal out a Character card.  A kid just making her way out into the world for the first time.  An ordinary Joe.  A grumpy old woman.
  • Then you deal out a Setting chard.  Late 19th-century England. Outer space.  The high seas of China during the age of piracy.
  • Third, either one or two Problems from the problem-card deck: an External Problem card and possibly an Internal Problem card.  Spouse Kidnapped! Lack of Confidence!  Out of Gas!  Arrogant SOB! Low Man on the Totem Pole!  Loss of Hope!

Actually, I take that all back.  The first card you deal out is the Overall Emotion card.  Pure adrenaline, self-sacrifice, laughter, pessimism, careful consideration, fear, pluck, wonder, determination, and integrity are some of the major emotion cards.  Some people like to deal out two, but those are the advanced players.  (Of course, the only way to become an advanced player is to deal out the cards like one.)

Here, things get more complex, and the house rules get all over the place.  Some people deal out goals next; others, catalysts.  Some will throw in a mentor and an antagonist and leave it at that; others will toss down a cast of thousands. 

But all those games of transformation share a few essential cards, although they're called by different names.  Here are the big ones:

  • The Point of No Return, where the character has to admit that the problem can't be solved by everyday methods.
  • The Clever Idea that Will Lead to No Good, where the character tries to solve the problem by doing the wrong thing (often, through ignorance of the real situation).
  • Worse Off than When They Started, where the character feels like they never should have tried to solve this problem anyway (even though they couldn't avoid it).
  • They Knew It All Along; If Only They'd Listened, when the character realizes that the problem is their attitude, and changes it.
  • And finally, Changed for the Better, when the internally-based solution to the External problem has been put into place. Or Abject Failure, where the internally-based solution...was realized just a moment too late.

I'm sure you know another name for this game.  It's "telling stories."

When we tell stories, we're playing a game, with rules.  Stories aren't like real life, although we sometimes turn real life into a story, so we can understand it.  If we played stories like we play real life,  we'd play the beginning of the game a hundred times before we ever got to the Point of No Return card.  And we'd play the same Clever Idea that Will Lead to No Good card over and over, never understanding why things didn't work out the way we wanted them to--through unhappy jobs, relationships that sap our strength, and trying to raise kids that don't act the way we think they should. 

In real life, most of us are terrible Transformation players.  Storytellers, however, are great at it.  Okay, maybe we're not so great at it in real life, but on paper, we can deal out those cards like pros, making tales that include all the right cards in the right order, whether we do it consciously or not.

And a lot of the problems we have, as storytellers, come from a problem with the way we play the game.

As storytellers, when you're stuck, look at your deck of cards: did you play all the cards you needed?

If you're having trouble coming up with ideas for what to write, just deal out your first four or five cards--an Overall Emotion card (hint: this is your genre!), and a Character in a Setting with a Problem (or two).  You'll be surprised with what clicks.

And if you're having trouble finishing a story, or if you feel like something's wrong with it but you can't tell what--study the great card players and find out what their house rules are!  Study the games that are closest to yours...and listen to the teachers who explain the layouts best.

All of this, I admit, was just a clever way to get you thinking about structure.  Personally, I found it utterly overwhelming when I first started studying it (like trying to learn 4-dimensional math), and I would cry loudly that I didn't need no stinking structure. Live and learn. The more I think about it, the more I find that it's structure that gets to the heart of why we read stories and what we find so pleasurable about them.

Here are some of my favorite works on structure:

And you probably know of more.  What are your favorite books or teachers on structure?  And what are your personal (or your genre's) house rules?

About the Writer:  DeAnna Knippling is a freelance writer, editor, and formatter married to a Network Administrator, and she was still embarrassed about some of her personal security practices after hearing JT's talk.  Check out her personal blog at or her small press at

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I liked the Vogler book, but hadn't heard of the others. Will have to check them out!

    Using structure makes writing so much easier...


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