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.

The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.

Milieu

Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.

Inquiry

Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.

Character

Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.

Event

Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.