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I believe in the no-win scenario

January 17, 2014

If you know anything about Star Trek, beyond the pointy ears, you’re probably familiar with the Kobayashi Maru test. It’s a difficult test given to potential command officers in the mythical Star Trek Starfleet Academy.

In it, the commander is near a treaty boundary and comes upon a crippled civilian ship. To rescue the ship, the commander has to take his ship across the boundary–an violation of treaty and potential act of war. If he doesn’t act, the civilians die. If he does act, he finds his ship in violation of treaty and surrounded by hostile warships–his ship and crew walking dead people.

In Star Trek II, Captain Kirk beats the no-win scenario by reprogramming the test so he can win. Years later, he implies he passed the test, smugly proclaiming, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” Another character offers an alternative theory–“He cheated.”

Kobayashi Maru scenarios are like oxygen for fiction writers. We write our characters into no-win situations and write them back out. For your protagonist to win in the no-win scenario is the ultimate, right?

I happen t0 believe in no-win scenarios. And I think every good leader has to believe in them, too. Butch and Sundance faced a no-win scenario. In an early episode of Magnum PI, Magnum was supposed to fight Ted Danson–who was a bad guy threatening Magnum’s female interest. Tom Selleck looked at the script and suggested that rather than fighting, he should run away.

If you’ve read Gone Girl, (SPOILER ALERT, select the text between here and the period if you want to see)…The protagonist gives in to a no-win scenario and thus seals his redemption as something more than a selfish, immature schmuck.

In short, sometimes when your protagonist faces a no-win scenario, he shouldn’t be Captain Kirk. Sometime the smartest and best thing–the thing most in character–is to run away. And sometimes your character has to lose. And if you’re really good, sometimes your character may lose and still wind up winning as a result of the loss.

Need examples?

  • A person holds a leadership position on a project that fails spectacularly, but impresses someone else during the project and lands a better job, even though she gets fired.
  • A man cannot save is child from death, but takes solace in the fact that a donated organ saves another child.
  • A woman’s cancer is not cured, but she achieves a measure of peace in dying that she never had living.

Having the leader save the day, the father save the child, or the woman get a miracle cure are all more uplifting. But the alternative is messier, and probably more interesting.

Ask Gillian Flynn.

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2 Comments
  1. January 17, 2014 8:47 am

    This is a helpful reminder for anyone hammering away at or revising an early draft. Sometimes we become so attached to our characters that we don’t want to be “mean” to them, but the most compelling fiction places them in harm’s way against mountainous odds.

    (Nice trick using the white font to reveal the spoiler, by the way!)

    • January 17, 2014 8:48 am

      Plus, you had me at the Star Trek and Magnum references. 🙂

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