Add Tension and Build Suspense with Try/Fail Cycles

In the first imaginings of our stories, we often have an end goal in mind. Character X is put into situation Y and comes out changed (whether that’s for better or for worse depends on whether it’s a positive or negative character arc).

Our story would be rather short if the goal you set for your character is achieved without any sort of failure. We writers introduce stumble blocks for our character to unfold conflict and generate tension. It is the missteps along the journey that create a compelling narrative that grips a reader’s attention.

What is a try/fail cycle?

The try/fail cycle, in most basic terms, is whenever a character goes after a goal and does not achieve the desired outcome. It is used in story writing often as a tool to generate suspense and conflict by increasing the difficulty of what is required to achieve the ultimate goal.

Why we try (and fail)

I’ve read a few articles while researching this topic that made try/fail cycles seem optional. I disagree. Try/fail cycles must be included in every narrative. It is as fundamental as having a goal and a character arc.

If your character always succeeds, your story will lack something at its core. That missing piece is conflict. In order to keep readers interested in your story, you want to inject as much conflict as possible. Thus, we want our characters to fail spectacularly.

The advantages of utilizing failure are numerous. Try/fail cycles give a “fall down seven times, get back up eight” mentality that illustrates perseverance for your protagonist. It illustrates the importance of the goal and that it’s worth continuously fighting for. The heightened importance of the goal paired with delayed gratification will make the achievement all the more satisfying.

Not to mention, moments of failure give you as the author an opportunity to show the reader your character in a less-than-ideal light. Sure, we always present our best selves when things are going our way, but who do we become when things go south?

How many try/fail cycles should I include?

The typical number that comes up is three. Traditionally, this goes as follows:  

  • First, the character tries, and obviously, it doesn’t work. The reader most likely knows it won’t work and so it’s no surprise here.
  • The second time they try is when things get so much worse, it eliminates what hope the reader might have had. This is also a great place to add unexpected twists.
  • The third time the character tries and fails should cause the character to realize they need to change in order to resolve the problem, thus creating the impetus for the final solution.

Although three is the number often tossed around, there is no set rule. Try/fail cycles should occur as often as they can. Facing conflict naturally creates upward and downward momentum in the story, especially when handled with a try/fail cycle.

When should I include a try/fail cycle?

Try/fail cycles should be included whenever lies a conflict. As your protagonist searches for a solution, they should inevitably fail in some fashion. With every problem they face, the outcome should answer the question “did they solve their problem” in one of two ways.

Yes, but…
No, and…

“Yes, but” means that on a baseline, they did solve their problem, but in doing so, they created another problem, (perhaps several). It might sound contrary to have a character “succeed” as part of a try/fail cycle. Giving them a small win teases that feeling of victory, but gives several reasons why this victory is premature.

A common example of this is for the character to feel a false sense of security, only to find out later that their efforts were in vain. Or the character experiences a tradeoff where succeeding in one conflict makes them vulnerable to a larger conflict.

“No, and” means they did not solve the original problem, and they either created another problem or the original problem got worse. This will stack on greater tension and add more weight to the ultimate solution.

If you use a three-act plot structure, most of the try/fail cycles will happen in act two, which is when it’s most pivotal to build upon the escalation of your plot.

When not to Try/Fail

The only time I would recommend cutting out a try/fail cycle is if it serves no purpose for building tension or developing the character/storyline. This might happen if you have two try/fail cycles that are doing the same thing. Look out for beta feedback that points out parts that lag. Maybe the development feels monotonous. Kill the darling and move on!

And obviously, if you want to establish a happy ending, you will not include a failure at the very end. The characters are allowed to succeed then!

Have more than one problem to solve

As I close upon the meat of this article, I want to recognize that most of how I explained try/fail cycles regard the main problem in a story or the primary goal needed to achieve. However, try/fail cycles can and should be utilized for whatever problem, no matter how big or small. The try/fail cycle is an escalation tool that can make those small problems even bigger.

A story that is rich in its narrative will have multiple subplots threaded throughout the main plot. Subplots are allowed to resolve prior to the primary plot but should follow a consistent structure (which includes cycles of trying and failing).

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