The Games People Play

Game-playing for writers isn’t a statement about personal development. It’s a secret ingredient for craft. Games activate story, story-people, POV, circumstances, setting and meaning. And so much more.

It’s how humans get what we want. We play to win. We play for keeps (at least at that moment). We play.

Games are the gifts that keep on giving. One of the most effective and efficient, not to mention resonant, ways of allowing readers to have their own experiences amongst our words, is to allow our characters to play the games they know so well. We all do it.

If a camera were watching us, we’d know it’s a game to hide, poke, avoid, distract, comfort, loosen up, etc. That intention in the context of a game allows writers to bypass intellect and go straight into the bodies of readers.

For instance, we can tell in a nano-second what people know about each other and how long they’ve known it by how well they play the game. Right? We learn what their values are, how familiar they are with others and their circumstances; we learn about their skills and expertise; about their blindspots and wishful thinking. It’s exciting just to imagine it.

Sure, a story-person can go to their closet to grab what they’re going to wear for the day and leave. But imagine if they go to that closet, have a particular effect they want to make with what they wear and choose just the write shirt, jacket, cuff-links, socks, etc. to get what they want. Now we’ve got the beginnings of a game. Then, they enter a setting, they’re fiddling with the cuff-link to see if it’s noticed. It’s not noticed. They play harder. The person they’re playing with catches on that they’re in a game and they resist. Our person leans over the desk. Takes off the cuff-link, etc. What matters is not what the game is, but rather that the reader learns so much about who the story-people are, what they want, their POV on the world and that moment; and, most importantly, the meanings that are emerging as they play to win.

All people play games. It’s in our nature. We do it at the grocery store, in our minds, with our spouses, with people we don’t like and those we love—it’s a fundamental part of how we make it through. Making their work harder, writers often leave the game-playing out.



The good news is that games are often already embedded in a text, if only the writer would peel off some of the words and let the characters have at it.

Try this:

What was your favourite game as a kid? Or now? Integrate the game into a scene. For instance, I’m a hide and seek guy. In a scene where a cop is at the door of a mother protecting her son, she might crack the door and mislead the officer. He might catch on that she’s hiding something. He might press farther. She might say too much or too little. Either way, for the purposes of craft and activation, we’ve got two people playing to win. And so, story. Go for it.

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The A-ha of Change

There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people telling stories. One thing common to each is change. To live is to change. As writers our challenge is to allow the change and to craft it.

Change is progress. Stories progress when people engage with their present circumstances to get what they want. Later, I’ll offer a post about crafting ‘present circumstances’. For the moment know that these circumstances include 1. what people must engage with, 2. what they must avoid, 3. what they hope and dream of and 4. what’s come before and will come after. These four parameters govern our lives and those of our story people. We craft present circumstances using sensual qualities that matter to us (trace), conditions, other people, skills/expertise, humour, ideas, and so much more. These circumstances are the playing field in which change occurs and people achieve their desires — or not. But there’s more to mine here.

To be human is to desire. Even if the desire is to have no desire, then desire/want is fuelling change — and story. Desire produces intention and willing. As people intend, they take action. Even if they sit on their hands out of unworthiness, etc., they are still taking action. They take these actions upon and within their present circumstances. As they take action on an intention, they learn. To learn is to experience recognition — an a-ha moment.

When one experiences recognition, their story progresses. And there are consequences. We literally cannot proceed in the same old way. This means that, when recognition occurs, actions taken after the ‘a-ha’ must take into account the learning that has occurred. The consequences for learning can be the use of a new skill, for instance, or even the denial of the learning. In this way, recognition becomes the motor for story progression — and the experience of change. We feel the change.

Logic blips and other traps open up when we experience people learning and experiencing a-has but their behaviour doesn’t reflect the learning. This gap can lead to confusion; lack of cohesion and of coherence. The reader, too, is denied their own a-ha.

It’s well-worth practicing.

Try this:

Let your story person walk onto the street. Ask what their desire is — right now. Let them take some action towards achieving that desire. Remember: just because an action is small or banal, doesn’t mean it won’t have big story consequences. As they act, they are discovering. Choose one of the discoveries (keep in mind the small/big note above). Let that discovery compel a new action. This new action is the consequence of the recognition. Note that it’s the literary/experiential space in between recognition and action that we call event (also worth another blog post). ‘Event’ is what all this cleverness is working itself up to, to cop Carol Shields. After you do the above, repeat. And then repeat again. After constructing a series of events cohered by consequence, you’ll have what we call story.

As your readers feel this change, they will — literally — never be the same. Neither will your work.

Have fun!