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.

Changing Characters: Evolution and Transformation

There’s a popular truism in fiction writing: rounded characters, and especially protagonists, need to change over the course of the story. Now, you might argue that characters don’t always need to change, or that you want to focus on other engines to drive your story. But let’s say you do want your character to change. You want that change to be believable, and you want that change to meaningfully affect or even drive your plot.

In that case, let’s talk about two strategies for making that character change happen: evolution and transformation.

Building Character Background

Characters usually don’t spring into existence at the start of the story. They have history, and that history should affect their current personality, their fears, and their goals. Characters need reasons to be who they are. This gives them depth and makes them believable.

If your character is going to change along the course of your story, they need to have a starting point — a steady state that gets disrupted by the events of the story, leading to change. For the change to make sense, the character has to start in one place, with certain ideas or point of view, and end up seeing things differently by the end.

By this logic, a character change can be broken down into four parts:

  1. The background that shaped the character before the story.
  2. The state of the character at the beginning of the story.
  3. The event(s) that change the character.
  4. The state of the character at the end of the story.

These parts don’t all need to be given equal attention. There may only be hints of the backstory. They also don’t have to be revealed in order. Many great villains initially appear to be unreasonably evil, until their background is revealed later in the story, humanizing them.

In my opinion, one of the easiest ways of figuring out character transformation is to start with #2 and #4. If you know where your character starts, and where they’re going, it’s just a matter of coming up with the reasons why they are the way they are, and the troubles you’re going to put them through to force them to change. However, you can really start with any of these and build out the others. It all depends on what aspect of the character comes to your first, or excites you the most.

Now, let’s look at the actual methods of changing the character during the story.

Sudden Transformation

The sudden transformation is the epiphany, the “ah-ha” moment, the shocking twist, or maybe even the sudden-but-inevitable betrayal.

The sudden transformation is a form of character change that happens all at once…or at least appears to. There is a particular event or short period of time where the reader sees the exact nature of the change. This is usually going to be an important point in the plot. If the character is a protagonist, it almost has to be.

This might be an event where the character’s strength becomes a weakness, or vice-versa. They may undergo something terrible and develop a debilitating fear, or they may be forced into a situation where the only way forward is to overcome their fear. The event might make the character’s goal obsolete, and introduce a new goal. Perhaps they wanted to save someone from the villain, but they failed, and the villain killed that person. Now they have a new goal: revenge.

Superheroes are great examples. Many super-heroes have a sudden transformation where they gain their super-powers and also undergo some event that gives them a reason to use those super-powers.

Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, and he can suddenly run up walls, shoot webs, and smack a bad guy with every limb simultaneously. His first instinct is to use his powers selfishly, but his uncle Ben is almost immediately killed by a criminal, making Peter realize that he has to use his powers to help others.

Let’s look at a more villainous example: the Darth Vader of the original Star Wars trilogy. Vader spends all three movies working to crush the rebellion and bring Luke to the dark side. Only at the very end, when Luke has pleaded with him and Vader sees his son about to die, does he kill the Emperor, sacrificing himself to save his son.

You may notice that most of these sudden transformations aren’t completely sudden. It often helps to throw in a few moments or bits of dialogue that lay groundwork for the change, essentially preparing the character for that vital moment. Peter Parker has conversations about responsibility with Ben before he dies. Luke repeatedly tries to convince Vader to leave the dark side before the final battle.

Slow Evolution

In contrast to the sudden transformation, where character change happens all at once, the slow evolution requires a longer series of events and revelations that add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

The character may go through events, conversations and internal realizations that eventually lead to a change in perspective. The character may or may not realize that they’ve changed, but it should be evident from their words or actions that they’re behaving differently than they did before.

On the other hand, this series of small changes could culminate in a moment of realization when the change becomes clear, or impossible to ignore. This is often a decision point for the character. Whereas a sudden transformation comes as a shock that makes sense in retrospect, the slow evolution makes it clear that this moment is what it’s all been leading to.

To contrast with Vader’s sudden transformation, look at another character from the original Star Wars trilogy: Han Solo. Han starts out as a loner, worried about his own problems. He is willing to use people for his own ends, and he tries to avoid getting too close to others. However, Luke draws him into a rescue operation with the allure of a reward, and from there, he ends up entangled with Princess Leia and the Rebellion.

Han’s past catches up with him when he’s caught and imprisoned in Jabba’s palace, but it’s his friends who rescue him: proving once again that being a lone wolf is not a good strategy for him. By the third movie, we find that Han is not only a willing member of the rebels, but is marked as a leader and even volunteers to lead a dangerous mission that is vital to the success and survival of the rebels.

Alignment With the Plot

Characters don’t exist within a vacuum. They interact with other characters. They drive the events of the plot, and the events of the plot affect them in turn.

One of the most effective ways to make character change feel momentous to the reader is to make sure it aligns with the plot. In a traditional three act structure, this means that the most powerful places for character change to occur is at the boundaries of the acts.

Events at the beginning of the first act may influence or illuminate the personality of the character for much of the rest of the story. The end of the first act and the start of the second is typically a major disaster or setback that might cause a character to reevaluate (or double-down!) on their point of view. Likewise, the end of the second act and start of the third usually leads into the point of the story when things look bleakest for the protagonist, and when they are most likely to see a need for change, or have change foisted upon them. Finally, the end of act three is when the plot points resolve. This might be the culmination of a character’s change, when they have the opportunity to make a decision that really highlights the difference from the beginning of the story.

Change is Powerful

It’s always worth evaluating who your characters are, and how they change over the course of a story. Where do they start, and why? What do the events of the story do to them? Do they undergo a slow evolution, with many little points of change along the way, or a carefully foreshadowed sudden transformation? Look for opportunities to align the change with story beats, and use it to drive the action.

Characters have a history that affects where they start. They have experiences that affect who they are, and can subtly or fundamentally change them. Those experiences and that change are one of the reasons we read fiction, and some of the most emotionally impactful parts of a story when done well. Carefully crafted character change is one of the best ways to make characters spring to life, jump off the page, and endear themselves to readers.