Friday, December 11, 2015

Try/Fail Cycles

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

This past week I heard try/fail cycles referenced several times. Have you heard of the try/fail cycle? It's a wicked cool writing device that deserves a place in your tool belt. The third time the topic crept up this week, I did a little research here on the Go Teen Writers site, and I don't see that we've talked about this one yet.

So, let's do that, okay? Let's make sure you have this handy dandy little weapon at the ready.

A try/fail cycle is just what it sounds like. It's the process your protagonist must go through before he finally reaches his goal. We've talked extensively on Go Teen Writers about how your protagonist (main character) needs a goal. He  must be reaching for something. But here's the kicker, you cannot let him succeed until he's tried and failed multiple times.

Watching a character fail--especially a character we're digging--is hard on a reader in the best possible way. We want to root for a character, we want him to get that THING he wants most. Probably because, somewhere deep inside our own guts, we need to know that reaching goals is possible. That conquering mountains is something we can do too.  

So, since it's a fun metaphor, let's say your main character's goal is to be the very first person to reach the top of a particular mountain. He loads up his back pack and buys the right shoes and on a bright sunny day, he sets off on a journey. After days and days of unencumbered climbing, he does it. He reaches the summit and names the mountain after himself. Yay!

Bo-oring, right?

I mean, it's not even a story. We have a goal, we have progress, but absolutely nothing standing in the way. We need a problem. Or three. Or forty.

The way we prevent our stories from becoming snooze-fests is by filling our soggy middles with the stifled efforts of our main character. Regardless of how brilliant (or strong, or talented) he is, there must be things standing in his way. And they should not be obstacles he can breeze past. There must be some stumbling, bumbling, failure-filled moments.

Hard? Yes. But worth it. Readers will cheer for a protagonist who struggles like they do. And when at last he succeeds, readers will feel the triumph of that moment in a very deep, very personal way. 

To do this with style, repeat these words after me: Yes, but . . . No, and . . .

Four syllables that will revolutionize your writing if you'll let them. Let's use these magical words on our mountain climber, okay?

Mountain Climber wants: To reach the halfway point and make camp before the incoming storm.
Will he do it? Yes, BUT he breaks his leg.

Now, the Mountain Climber wants: To find something he can use as a splint.
Does he succeed? No, AND he slips and falls into a ravine.

Of course, the Mountain Climber wants: To be found.
Is he? Yes, BUT he's found by a mountain lion.

Desperate now, the Mountain Climber wants: Help.
Does he get it? No, AND while fighting off the mountain lion, he drops his pack down the ravine.

Mountain Climber wants: To get back to the trail.
Does he make it? Yes, BUT he has no supplies now and his leg is showing signs of infection.

You see where I'm going with this? Trying and failing doesn't have to look the same every time. We can give the protagonist little victories along the way, but they must always come with a level of sacrifice or loss. Our mountain climber must suffer.

Every obstacle you give your protagonist can be turned into a Yes or No question and while it is certainly your right to answer them simply Yes or No, you're better off employing the Yes, but . . . or No, and . . .  strategy.

Doing so will move your story forward in leaps and bounds and will propel you into one try/fail cycle after another until AT LAST you have this moment.

Mountain Climber wants: To make it the last few steps to the summit.
Does he FINALLY get there? Yes, but!

(I'm SO MEAN. Watch this.)

Yes, but while he's basking in the glory of his triumph, tears streaming his face, gangrene climbing up his leg, he catches sight of something flickering in the sunlight. Stooping to lift it from the rocky peak, his breath catches. It's the wrapper of a peppermint candy. H-how? How is that possible? He's defeated a mountain lion, fought through the pain of a broken leg and made it all the way to the top of the mountain, BUT he was not the first person to do it.

Okay, that was REALLY mean. And you certainly don't have to end your story with a BUT or an AND, but once you've discovered the effectiveness of try/fail cycles, it can be hard to break the habit.

There's oodles of information out there on the web about try/fail cycles and how to employ them. I've barely scratched the surface here, but what do you think?

Do you think try/fail cycles will help your writing? 


  1. Oh my gosh, definitely! I can't wait to try this out. My MC is about to try to start an uprising/revolution, and she plans to achieve it by going to every city in the country and cause chaos (she's kind of mean, honestly) and anyway, I think now with this try/fail cycle I'll get her to fail before she successfully causes chaos in a particular city, so it doesn't get too boring.

    1. Oh yeah! Give it a go! I bet you'll try/fail that character right to her destiny.

  2. I think I sort of do this, but definitely not this well. Time to check out my middle! Thanks so much for this awesome post, Mrs. Dittemore.

    1. I'm like that too, Linea. I do things instinctively and then when people want to dissect it, I'm not quite sure I like that idea. Going back through is very helpful when you're learning a new tool.

  3. Oh wow this is amazing. I was kind of aware of this and have done it, but oh I could do so much more. I'll definitely work this into my editing. *evil grin*
    Thank you, Mrs. Dittemore.

    1. Yes, right. Me too. Kind of aware and then when you learn how powerful it can be, it really changes things.

  4. I love the idea of a try/fail cycle! I've heard of it before, but this was an awesome summary of it. Thanks!
    I must admit, I am an evil writer. I like making my characters suffer.
    That's a good thing, right? :D

  5. Ohhhh, this is so interesting. I can't wait to use this. :3

  6. Oh yes, I need this. My soggy middle needs this. I've got good goal, and my ending is great (or so I feel, haha) but my middle... Yes, this is perfect. Thank you!

    1. I know all about middles! I wish you luck!

  7. OHHHHHH! This is perfect. I'm about to create my plotline for my second draft, and I can't wait to use this method while I'm twisting things up a bit:)

  8. Very interesting, Shan. I love this. Oddly enough I didn't realize that the Yes, but/No, and plot system was the same as try/fail cycles. I always though of them as two separate things, though I can't remember why...

    1. I don't believe they are one and the same, Jill, but they are--as far as I can tell--often taught together. Funnily enough, most of the research I did before putting this together referenced Brandon Sanderson. ;)

  9. Great stuff! I used to be Mistress of Angst when I wrote fanfic, but I recently gave my crown to a friend of mine. :) Still doing this some with the fantasies I am working on. Will have to do it more. *evil laugh*

  10. Oh, this is GOLD. In critiques, it's been mentioned that my characters should not meet their goals so easily. I throw great obstacles in their way, but sometimes make it too easy to successfully get past them. The try/fail cycle is such a helpful way of looking at it! Thank you!

    1. I felt the same way when try/fail cycles were introduced to me. I wish you much luck!

  11. Wow, thank you so much! I am so bad at putting conflict in my novels but this will help me so much. This is so amazingly helpful, bless you.