The Try/Fail Cycle

Many authors feel that the most challenging part of writing a novel is the middle. It makes sense. It’s easy to bring lots of enthusiasm to the beginning — all the ideas are exciting and new. The end is usually exciting because you’ve fought your way through and you’re finishing the damn thing. But the middle…well, that’s the place where that early, irrational exuberance is fading and you start to discover all of the challenges that the book will require you to overcome.

The middle is often the least-well-defined part of the book. In terms of typical 3-act structure, it’s also the longest. It can be a dangerous mire where the story slows to a crawl, and neither you nor your characters are quite sure what they’re doing.

Luckily, there are some great tools for navigating the squishy center of a novel. I happened to learn about these ideas from the Writing Excuses podcast. One of these principles is the M.I.C.E. quotient, which we talked about previously. The principle I want to talk about today is the try/fail cycle.

Characters Need Goals

Conflict or tension in a story typically comes from characters with goals, and obstacles that prevent them from achieving those goals. It’s a wonderfully simple idea that can be executed in myriad ways.

These don’t have to be explicit goals. The character might know exactly what they’re looking for (e.g. a fantasy quest for the magic sword) or they may have vague needs or wants (the abused orphan who just wants a feeling of belonging and family). However, it’s extremely hard for a character to stay interesting unless they have some goal, some desire, that they’re striving to fulfill.

Try, Try Again

From this first idea (characters with goals are interesting) we can derive more simple yet powerful principles.

  • If a character has a goal, they will try to achieve that goal.
  • When the character unequivocally succeeds (or outright fails) at all of their goals, they stop being interesting.
  • If the character tries and partly succeeds, or partly fails, they will try again.

These are the basic principles of the try/fail cycle. In general, if the character gets what they want, or it becomes impossible for them to get what they want, their story is over. Characters can have multiple goals, and resolving goals or introducing new ones can make for interesting inflection points. In most cases though, the character shouldn’t outright succeed or fail in their biggest goal until the climax of the story.

Luckily, for most interesting character goals there are many possible outcomes. Success and failure are two ends of a large spectrum. Many good plots are full of characters trying to achieve their goals over and over again, each time facing setbacks or only partly succeeding.

The idea of partial success or partial failure are often described as “yes, but…” or “no, and…”. Partial success (“yes, but…”) means that the character gets something they want, or moves closer to success in a goal without outright achieving it. Perhaps the fantasy hero finds an old map that will lead them to the sword, or the orphan makes a friend who seems to have some ulterior motives. Partial failure (“no, but…”) is a setback that can still be overcome or that introduces a new opportunity. Maybe the hero finds the secret tomb, but the evil henchmen already took the magic sword, or the orphan’s friend betrays them, but only to save their kidnapped family.

Consequences and Complications

One of the important things about the try/fail cycle is that each outcome (each “yes, but…” or “no, and…”) should change the status quo. While the character is trying, they are on a path. After their partial success or partial failure, they have to change course before trying again.

These outcomes can be split into two different categories: consequences and complications. A consequence means that the situation has changed, but the character’s goal remains the same. The hero still wants the magic sword, but they need to get it from the henchmen instead of from the secret tomb. A complication introduces a new goal or desire for the character. The orphan still wants a friend, but now they need to help save the kidnapped family as well.

It’s important to be careful when adding complications. In terms of M.I.C.E. threads, adding a complication introduces a new nested plot thread. That thread now needs to be pushed forward and resolved appropriately, while still managing the character’s original goal. Complications literally complicate the story — they add more complexity! A story where every try/fail cycle ends with a complication can quickly spiral out of control, as the many different goals and conflicts collapse under their own weight.

Tightening that Middle

If we break down a story by the M.I.C.E. quotient idea of nested threads, then any long-running thread can naturally be composed of multiple try/fail cycles. Each cycle will have consequences (changing the status quo and advancing the plot in some way) or complications (introducing new goals).

The natural shape of many stories is to introduce one or more major goals (and main M.I.C.E. threads) at the beginning, ramp up the complexity and introduce new goals (via complications) in the middle, and then resolve those complications one by one approaching the end, saving the resolution of the most important goals for the climax.

For a story that’s dragging in the middle, this is a great framework. Do the characters have goals that they’re trying to achieve? Are their try/fail cycles changing the status quo? Are there too many or too few complications to make the story interesting?

This kind of writing craft naturally appeals to me as a planner, but even if you’re more of an exploratory writer, it can be nice to have these sorts of frameworks to use when inspiration is in short supply. That novel’s difficult middle isn’t so intimidating when you’ve got the tools to work through it.

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