Non-Complementary Behavior: Adding Complexity to Your Manuscript

Having just returned from back-to-back writers’ conferences—Bouchercon and Crime Bake—I’ve been reflecting on the most important things I gained. Reconnecting with old friends and making new ones is high on my list. Crime Bake especially (smaller and more intimate) feels a bit like coming home. I remember what it was like as an unpublished writer, clueless and feeling out of my element. Authors I’d read and loved welcomed me open arms, offering encouragement and hope.

I also come away from almost every conference with at least one practical nugget I can use in my writing. At Crime Bake 2017—I was in the middle of a massive revision at the time—I heard Hank Phillippi Ryan respond to a question about her own revision process. “I delete everything,” she said, raising her index finger for emphasis, “that isn’t the book.” Brilliant. That sentence is still one of my guiding principles. Every scene, paragraph, and word must serve the plot in some way or it doesn’t belong.

This year the most important thing I took away from Bouchercon was the concept of “non-complementarity,” mentioned by one of the participants in a panel discussion called “Keep Those Pages Turning.” The story came originally from NPR (Invisibilia, July 21,  2016). Here’s what I remember:

One warm summer night, a group of friends was having a backyard picnic when a man burst in, wielding a gun and shouting, “Give me your money or I’ll start shooting.” Naturally everyone froze, and the worst part was no one actually had any money at the time. The night was sure to end in disaster until one of the women spoke up: “You look like you’re having a bad day. Would you like to join us? Sit down. Have a glass of wine.”

Like flipping a switch, the look on the man’s face changed. He put his gun in his pocket, sat down, and accepted a glass of wine. “This is good wine,” he said, and then, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” Later he asked, “Can I get a hug?” Several people hugged him. Then he apologized and walked out, carrying the glass of wine, which they found, placed carefully on the sidewalk.

Complementary behavior means people tend to mirror each other. If someone treats you warmly, you are warm back. If they display hostility, you respond with hostility. Non-complementary behavior means reacting in an unexpected way—breaking the pattern. Conflict is inevitable, but how we respond is powerful. Flipping the switch.

Flying home from Dallas, I realized that in my second Kate Hamilton mystery, A Legacy of Murder, one of the characters—Lady Barbara Finchley-fforde—responds to a crisis with non-complementary behavior. Her unexpected behavior is the game-changer that leads to the resolution of the crisis. I just didn’t have a name for it. Now I do.

Have you experienced—or demonstrated—non-complementarity? What was the result? How might you use the concept in your WIP?


  1. I love the idea of non-complementarity…. and will give this some thought. I’m also making a sticky note with “delete what’s not the book!”

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