Being a Better Writer: The Try/Fail Cycle and the Evolving Story

Sorry for the late post, guys. E3 stole some of my attention.

So, stop me if you’ve read this one before.

Hero enters the villain’s lair/stronghold/fortress/secret base/cave/space station. Hero immediately faces down a group of mooks.

Hero effortlessly defeats said mooks. Only to face down a trap. Hero also effortlessly defeats said trap—possibly before the trap can even spring. Hero continues forward, facing traps, mooks, plot twists, and minibosses, defeating each one in turn, without difficulty, before reaching the villain and the final confrontation. Hero emerges supreme and returns home victorious.

Now, I ask you … if you were reading that story, about how far into that “climactic” series of events would you get before coming to the conclusion that no matter what, the hero is going to emerge victorious every time? Granted, this was a pretty threadbare example, because I didn’t go into a lot of detail, but how many stories like that have we all read? A story where the hero goes into situation after situation, and by about halfway (or a quarter) into the book, we can already see exactly what’s going to happen because the hero always wins?

Now, I’m going to preface things with a caveat here: We know that the hero is going to win. Usually. 95% of the time, it’s a safe bet that the hero will emerge victorious in some fashion or another. But on the journey there? A hero who simply crushes all in their path doesn’t really make for an entertaining read because the reader always knows what is going to happen. If your hero fights mook after mook, takes down trap after trap, and comes out on top every time, well, even if your action is written in an incredibly well-done manner, you’re still going to start running into readers who just start skipping over things. Why?

Because they’ve gotten bored. Because the book becomes going to a sports match where the players and the audience already know who is going to win. It get predictable. The action loses its tension. A great fight simply becomes not so great because the reader already knows who is going to win: the hero.

Again, we accept that most of the time we assume this about the ending, but why would it matter during the story? The answer? Narrative tension.

Which is why today we’re going to talk about two things: the try/fail cycle, and the evolving story.

The Try/Fail Cycle

As a concept, the try/fail cycle is pretty simple: Over the course of the story, your protagonist (hero or not) is going to be working towards a goal. This can involve anything from overcoming internal strife and personal problems to fighting for a law in court to beating down an army of a dozen mercenaries who just kicked the door in with the intention of killing the protagonist. Maybe all of them in the same story. Regardless, you’re going to have challenges like these that present themselves to your protagonist.

Now, they must fail.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. And not entirely correct; after all we want our protagonist to succeed in the end. But there’s the key part: In the end. Until then, anything is game. Our protagonist does not have to succeed. In fact, many times it’s much better if they do not.

All right, I’ve hammered this point home, now let’s back it up. Why should our character fail? Let’s look at some reasons.

It Keeps the Tension High … and Therefore the Reader Interested

As pointed out earlier, if a protagonist is overcoming obstacle after obstacle with a minimum of effort (or even just an average amount of effort), the reader is going to get bored. While their interest in the overall story may stay about average (mostly if there is a burning question that they want to know the answer to or something of that nature), their interest in the actual scenes themselves is going to drop downhill. Because after all, what’s going to keep a reader tense when the protagonist faces another challenge that the reader is already certain that the character is going to overcome? Especially if the scene is similar to any scene that’s come before, the reader is going to be slightly less interested. They know the protagonist will emerge victorious, and if it’s a challenge that’s been posed to the protagonist before, the reader will begin to assume that said protagonist will overcome it in the same way—especially if they doovercome it in the same way.

However, if every time they face a new challenge, the reader remains unsure that the character will come out on top … then they’re going to be interested. Intrigued. If the protagonist is winning some battles but losing others, there is a sense of unease going into each event, a question in the reader’s mind of “Will this work … or won’t it? And what will happen if it doesn’t?” We’ll talk more about that second bit in the latter half of this post.

But you see the advantage. A reader who is sure that the character is coming out on top each and every time isn’t going to be too interested in reading each scene aside from the spectacle of the scene itself. They won’t be invested in the event’s outcome, since that’s already known. Instead, their interest will only be held by what specifically occurs in the scene—the action, rather than the result. And if the action is something that they’ve already seen … well, then they’re not going to find it as interesting the second time around.

Pacing

I’ve talked about this one before, and with good reason. Pacing is a big deal. But the try/fail cycle, if used in key moments, allows us to control our pacing a little better. After all, if we need a low point between our high points, we need both an ability to grant those low points as well as the assurance that our high points are actually high. In a story where the characters are effortlessly moving forward, as pointed out earlier, tension is lost. So these high points stop being such.

Now what will that mean when you try to move to a low point? You can’t, at least not very well. The dip will be pretty small if your reader is already not that tense.

Now, what if you’re in a try/fail cycle, hitting a high point as the protagonist breaks into the antagonists home to steal and important macguffin and … is caught. Beaten bloody. Thrown in a cell.

That’s a failure. And now you have a real low point … though one that will rise with tension as the character reacts. We get our breather if the cell doesn’t immediately become another action piece, with the character recuperating while slowly the tension rises again, and then they break out—which is another high point.*

*If this sounds familiar, it’s been used in number of movies, books, and other entertainment mediums, The Dark Knight Rises being only one of many (also, not what I was thinking of when I wrote this).

It Gives Growth to the Characters

Have you ever watched a Brosnan Bond film? Have you compared it to any of the newer, Daniel Craig Bond films? There are a lot of differences, but one of them is in our subject matter for today. In the Brosnan boss films, Bond’s success is never in doubt. He conquers each new obstacle with a relentless tenacity, but he almost always comes out on top (in fact, I’m struggling to think of a situation where he doesn’t) … and in general, just keeps the same impassive look on his face. He’s Bond. Bond is unchanging and always winning.

Now, compare this to the Daniel Craig Bond films. Look at the challenges posed to Daniel Craig’s Bond. He’s still tenacious. He’s still persistent. But does he always win? No. In fact, he loses a lot. Quite a lot. The entire opening chase sequence of Casino Royale, in fact, is a failure. Bond is supposed to capture and question the bomber, instead the bomber is alerted and goes on the run. Bond chases, but the bomber escapes to an embassy. Failure again. Bond sneaks into the embassy and captures the bomber, only to end up at gunpoint and surrounded. Failure once more. He pulls a switch and shoots the bomber, getting away only with the bomber’s backpack rather than the interrogation he wanted, as well as a bunch of heat from his boss for attacking an embassy.

This trend follows through the Craig Bond films. Bond reaches a challenge, tries something … and quite often, fails.

But it’s his character’s reaction to the failings that makes his character come to life. Each time he fails, not only does he come back with a new strategy, but we often learn something about his character in the process (the fullest extension of this is in Skyfall where Bondfails, succeeds, and then ultimately fails, the villain coming out on top and achieving their goal). While each of these scenes is important to the plot, Skyfall also went out of its way to make sure that with each failing, we learned something about Bond’s character and what he is like.

Part of a proper try/fail cycles usefulness is that it allows us to explore our characters in a new light. How does our protagonist react when they fail? Are they fragile enough to shatter? Do they get angry? Do they accept their failings and move on? Do they blame others?

Seeing our characters fail is a big way to explore their makeup in a more real manner. How a character acts after failing—and what they do from there—can tell us far more than a character who simply succeeds every time they face a challenge.

However, it’s not just a vehicle for presenting character attributes and helping our reader understand them further. It’s also a way to help with character growth. After all, if our character is constantly succeeding, what need do they have to become better and change? But when a character fails, suddenly what they thought they knew or understood comes into question. They must ask why they failed, and if the failing was with them or something else. Failure means that a character needs to try something different, to change in some way or come at things from a new angle. And whether the challenge they failed at was physical, emotional, mental, or … well, anything really, the point is that letting them fail means that they will need to change. They’ll need to adapt. Which in turn will allow you to explore that character and move them in a direction, rather than leaving them some static force.

 

The Evolving Story

So, that’s the try/fail cycle, but what about this second bit? What’s the Evolving Story? What does that even mean?

It’s actually pretty straightforward, and there are probably other terms for it. Essentially, an evolving story is one that deviates from its initial objectives and moves all over the place as a result of the main characters trying something and then failing at it.

Basically, this is my name for the effect that the “try” part of the try/fail cycle has on the story following a fail. Earlier, when I spoke about a story where the character overcomes all their challenges, there’s another facet to the story that makes it boring: It’s a straight-line plot. Nothing deviates. The characters have a destination and they go towards it in a straight line, breaking down the front gates of the finale.

Is it a spectacle? Sure, it can be. But it’s also predictable. It’s static. Set in place. Characters come up with a plan and carry it out. There’s no tension. Worse, there’s no reality, since as the real world teaches us, reality is unpredictable, and the plan is usually the first thing to go out the window.

So, how does the try/fail cycle help prevent this? It forces the story to change. It requires the characters to come up with new approaches. Rather than storming the final scene at the gates, they have to adapt, tackle things from a different angle. They may learn that the fortress itself isn’t what they needed to attack in the first place. Or maybe that they need to go somewhere else and acquire something before going further.

Basically, an evolving story is a living story, one that shifts and adapts. Rather than a straight line, we have a twisting path with its own pitfalls and tension. The reader is not only kept interested by the shifts to the story, since they want to know what’s coming around the next corner, but they also are subject to a story that seems much more like real life, where workarounds, new angles, and changing variables are often part of the game.

Let’s look at an example of an Evolving story: Gears of War 2. Trust me, it’ll make sense.

Gears of War 2 opens with mankind making a massive, make-or-break push against the Locust Horde they’ve been fighting for so long. It’s a big military strike, with a whole army charging out in one final attack that they hope to shatter the Locust stronghold with.

Except it mostly falls apart. First the army gets ambushed on-route. But they make it to the beachhead anyway. They drop into the subterranean realm the Locust have been operating out of (The Hollow) and start battling their way through … only for a bunch of odd earthquakes to start to disrupt everything. Turns out it’s a giant worm and they need to stop it …  but they can’t, and it destabilizes and sinks a whole city around the main characters. The invasion going poorly, they turn to pull out … only to get their evac wasted. Another evac shows up … only for the giant worm to eat them. Then they carve their way out of the worm, killing it from the inside. This is the first 2 acts of a six-act game. There’s a lot of room for twists and turns with all those failings.

I’m simplifying, but you can see how the story evolves away from what was expected. What started out as “invade the enemy stronghold” quite literally turns into “check for survivors in this city” followed by “don’t get eaten by the giant worm” and then “you’ve been eaten by the giant worm, now escape.”

From there, the story continues to evolve in different directions. Why? Because the characters aren’t succeeding at their objectives. They’re trying, but they’re failing, and that, combined with the antagonists doing their own thing, moves the story in unexpected directions.

The same can be true in your stories. Your characters will try something, fail … and then perhaps realize that what they were trying wasn’t the solution. In fact, when you play with a story like this, the same can even be said for a success. Succeeding, failing … both used in a mixture will take the story in new directions, to new places, and to new areas not considered or that the reader doesn’t see coming, but that will make the experience all the more real.

 

Conclusion

So, what have we learned? We want to have a try/fail cycle in our stories. We want our characters to both succeed and fail. Doing so will make our stories and characters shine in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. They will force our characters to adapt, to change and grow, and in doing so will give the reader insights into those characters.

In addition, the mish-mash of success and failure will help keep the reader invested, help the tension stay where you want it—high during the high points, and then lower during the low points. Additionally it will help the story evolve in new directions, give your story reasons to twist and strike out for new, unexpected directions and elements.

These are good things. You want them in your story. Therefore, you want your characters to fail from time to time, to face the unexpected.

Crud, even where they fail can be a great tool. Use properly, failure in what the reader thought was a sure success can be a powerful game changer, and emotional pulling of the rug that shocks, fascinates, and tugs the reader in even further than they had been before.

But to do that, you’ll need practice writing the try/fail cycle yourself. You’ll need experience pulling out this powerful tool from your writer’s toolbox and putting it to work. Because it is a powerful tool, but also one that must be wielded with finesse in order to be effective.

So practice. Get good with this tool. Learn to use the try/fail cycle to your advantage, to keep the readers turning pages even as the story and characters evolve in unexpected and unique directions. Make the most of it.

When used properly, in the right place, with a few of your other tools, a proper try/fail cycle can be the thing that takes a good story to a great one.

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