Why I love a no-win situation

Warning: Mild spoilers for Liar’s Waltz (General only, no detail.) Oh and for Star Trek!

No-win situations – one of my very favourite ways to torture my characters. The higher the stakes the better.

Greg is in a no-win situation in Liar’s Waltz. It takes him a while to fully appreciate this. Naturally he thinks, as we all do when faced with a problem, that there must be a way out that will let us emerge unscathed. It can take a while for reality to bite – there is no way out that doesn’t involve pain.


What I especially like to do is put the characters into a situation where no matter how they choose to get out of it, someone else is going to be hurt. Perhaps someone entirely innocent who they love. For me this increases the stakes at once. It’s not a question of making a character choose between his own interests and someone else’s – if the character is to remain a good guy, especially a hero, it’s clear which path he has to choose there. I’d much rather give him the dilemma of choosing between paths which all lead to someone else being hurt too.

If Greg was only choosing between his career and love, then it’s hard and painful, but in the end – in a romance anyway – the answer is obvious. But in fact he’s also choosing between love and the interests of and his relationship with his family. This made the dilemma much more interesting to me and much more important to the character.

Whatever he chooses, all the outcomes are bad. I’m fascinated by how people make a choice in that situation. What are the consequences of their choice? Of course as a romance this story has a happy ending, but my happy endings come at some cost and I won’t soften the blow. If a character must make a sacrifice, I won’t fix everything up to give him back what he gave up. He made the choice, he decided the price was worth paying. To make it all okay after all lessens the impact of the gesture he’s made.

All I really need to know I learned from watching Star Trek.

Star Trek’s most infamous no-win situation is the Kobayashi Maru test, a simulated battle that those training to command starships must take. What they don’t know is that whatever they choose to do, the computer will counter and they cannot win. The test is not about tactical ability, but about accepting the consequences of failure.

And of course, Kirk cheats.

Now don’t get me wrong, the whole theme of the Kobayashi Maru test was a great one in the Star Trek movie series, and used nicely in the 2009 movie. But still, he cheats! This says a lot about Kirk, but what says more about Kirk is the choice he makes in The City on the Edge of Forever episode. Now there’s a story with a real high stakes no-win situation. A woman he loves has to die, or the entire history of Earth will change, and not for the better. It’s still one of my favourite episodes. Funny that…

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4 thoughts on “Why I love a no-win situation

  1. i loved that Kirk cheated too–it was amazingly human, and a GREAT plot development from the writers: “here’s a man who thinks outside the box years before the box was invented.”

    have added you to LJ syn.expect much bothering

  2. I love those kind of situations too. My current protagonist is getting herself deeper and deeper into the same impossible situation that her new friends have been dealing with for years: is it more important to resolve an old missing persons case, or protect the vulnerable woman who could be the only witness to what really happened? To top it all my protagonist is a police officer on sabbatical, and she’s falling for that witness.

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