Friday, May 18, 2018

Why Failure is Necessary

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

As writers, failure is one of our greatest fears.

It strikes me that the very act of writing a story should bring both the value and necessity of failure into sharp focus. As students of plot and structure, we understand why a hero's first attempt at reaching a goal is usually unsuccessful.

In Empire Strikes Back, we understand why Luke's effort to kill Darth Vader isn't successful. He's not in possession of all the facts, he's not strong enough, and he hasn't finished his training.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we watch Harry struggle with Dementors again and again, and while we feel for him, we understand that mastering the charm that will protect himself is difficult. It will take time and practice. He has to come to grips with his fear and find a memory happy enough to defeat it.

In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, we're aware that Edmund's moral failure opens up the door for redemption. Without it, there's no stone table, there's no sacrifice. Any victory over the White Witch is simply a battle of strength versus strength. Aslan's unique ability to redeem Edmund's failure gives the plot a depth we couldn't have otherwise explored.

The more we read and the more we write, the more we learn about the usefulness of failure in story. We find that one character's failure can set the stage for another character's assent. Tolkien uses this device masterfully. Aragorn fears failing in the same way his forebears failed. It's why he hid from the throne, why he was so reluctant to rise to power as the rightful king. The failures of his ancestors make readers acutely aware that Aragorn may not succeed at his task. This reality pinned expertly into place by Tolkien, pays off beautifully when Aragorn conquers the frailty in his blood and does not succumb to the temptations that unseated his elders.

Failure is a lush backdrop for success and while we're keen to use it to enhance the stories we write about fictional characters, we're reluctant to believe it could have any place in our own, ever-unfolding, story. When failure rises up in our own lives, specifically on our writing journeys, our first response is often one of surprise. We're shocked that we could work so hard and still come up short of our goal.

Frustration, embarrassment, irritation, disappointment, anger, maybe even grief. These are all reactions that I can sympathize with. But, shock? A disciple of story should never been surprised when our efforts do not yield the desired outcome.

Here's what the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios said about failure:

As creatives who are always pushing the envelope and crafting new art, this is a lesson we must learn. The sooner we embrace it, the easier it will be for us to navigate failures in our own lives. So! Let's take a look at why failure is necessary, for both your hero and for YOU.

What does failure do for a story?

Failure brings direction 

We talked about Luke Skywalker earlier, but consider his actions after the events of Empire Strikes Back. The movie ended with a measure of both success and failure. By abandoning his Jedi training, Luke was able to reunite with some of his friends, but not before Han was frozen in carbonite and handed over to Boba Fett. Luke's fight with Vader was also a colossal failure that cost him his hand and shed light on hurtful family ties, injuring him further. Luke could have chosen to wallow in his failure and in the harsh truths he heard, but he didn't. Instead, he put together a plan to rescue Han and then he returned to Dagobah to finish his training.

If we're careful to look for it, failure can provide direction in ways success never will. Failure leads us back to the practice arena so we can work harder on our craft. It shows us the chinks in our armor, the weak spots in our discipline, and the cheats that have cost us quality. That kind of knowledge can be painful to process, but if we choose practice over bitterness, we take one more step toward success.

Failure takes raw talent and demands discipline

So many of the stories we love revolve around a Chosen One and a moment of destiny in the offing. The Matrix has Neo. Lord of the Rings has Frodo. There's Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Kung Fu Panda has Po and Ender's Game has Ender himself.

My favorite moment in these stories is when the Chosen One realizes that the special qualities he was born with will not be enough to win the day. The raw talent that resides somewhere inside of him must be transformed into a weapon. And the only way that can happen is with discipline, experience, and often wisdom from a group of supporters who believe in this would-be champion.

You're no different. If you're attempting to succeed based on raw talent alone, failure will be an eye-opening rest stop as you journey. Raw talent doesn't require anything of us. We're all born with a measure of it. It's what we do with it that matters. You need to live and learn. To train alongside others who believe in you and will support you even in the rough moments. Not only will these things move you closer to success, but they are just plain old good for you. They will make you a well-rounded, worthy person, as well as a better writer.

Failure gathers genuine support

It can be devastating to learn that failure cost you an opportunity. But that's nothing to realizing that failure cost you relationships or reputation. In the movie, The Dark Knight, Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent's killing spree and his only remaining supporter is Commissioner Gordon. Failure, or perceived failure, can cost you affection. But failure is also good for shining a light on those who value YOU more than your successes.

Remember the movie Sandlot? When Scotty Smalls knocks his step-dad's prized, Babe Ruth-autographed ball over a fence, his friends could have jumped ship. They could have left him standing in that dirt lot all by himself without a prayer of retrieving the ball from the gigantic mastiff guarding the yard beyond. But they didn't. In that moment, Scotty learned what it truly meant to be part of a team, to have friends who would stick by him when leaving was the easier thing to do.


Failure begets empathy

When we watch characters screw up on the page or on the screen, it becomes much easier to identify with them. Even if we haven't failed in the same way, we have failed and we understand the complicated emotions that follow.

In the TV show The Flash, Barry Allen screws up time and again as he tries to uncover the mystery of his mother's murder. Unfortunately for Barry, his ability to run faster than time often causes problems that he feels honor bound to fix. We understand this need because we share it. When we fail, we want to go back in time and fix things. There's a part of us that envies Barry's ability to do what we cannot. And then his speedster ways screw everything up and we understand, again, the agony as he is forced to apologize for failing to patch up his own mess.

Here's the truth: it can be embarrassing to admit you tried really hard to succeed at something and came up short. But failing is human. It unites us all. And finding a way to share those painful efforts gives those around you the freedom to try difficult things without worrying about the negative opinions of others. Failure isn't something you should be ashamed of. It simply means you tried. Pick yourself up, use what you learned from the experience, and try again. Unless you're attempting to run backwards through time and then PUH-LEASE learn from Barry's mistakes and let us all come to grips with life as it is.


Failure sets the stage for a success story

I would love to tell you that you'll have a storybook ending full of success and that all your dreams will one day come true, but I'm not going to do that. I don't know what the future holds for you, just as I can't guess what tomorrow has in store for me. What I do know is that failure is not a sign that you should give up.

If you're considering walking away from storytelling, leave your failures out of the decision-making process. Everyone who's ever succeeded at anything worthwhile has failed first. And often, they've failed spectacularly.

Remember Special Agent Gracie Hart from Miss Congeniality? Early in the movie she botches an assignment and gets another agent injured. That failure follows her throughout the movie and sets her up for a shot at redemption. In real life, we're not guaranteed a splashy finale that pulls us full-circle, but if you let past failures dictate your actions, you'll never know if that success story is forthcoming or what it might look like for you.

Success doesn't look the same on everyone. Lightning McQueen is a fantastic example of this. After the opening scene of the Disney movie, Cars, he believes that success means winning the tie-breaking race and hoisting the Piston Cup so he can impress all the fancy sponsors. His journey along Route 66 teaches him that winning at any cost isn't success after all.

Sometimes the road we're on takes us to the pinnacle of all we've ever dreamed. And sometimes our dreams change. Either way, failure will play an important role. It's a necessary obstacle that will help your heroes grow. And if you'll let it, failure can do the same for you.

How has failure or a fear of it impacted your writing journey? Do you have any advice for writers struggling with failure right now?


  1. Oh wow, this was SUCH an encouraging post. So much wisdom and truth here. Something we all need to remember, especially as writers where failure just comes with the title.

    Thank you for sharing this! It has blessed me.

    1. I'm so glad! It was an empowering post to write because you're correct! Failure is just part of this gig. Thank you for reading.

  2. Love this article, Shannon! Why is it so easy for us to recognize failure as an important aspect of our characters' journeys but so hard to recognize that in our own lives? This is such a wonderful reminder.

    1. BECAUSE WE THINK WE'RE SPECIAL! It's nutty how often failure takes us off guard though. I've stewed on it long and hard and I think it's a skill-set most of us lack. We must learn to fail well. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but man! It changes everything. Thank you so much for reading, Gillian.

  3. Very good points, Mrs. Dittemore!

    1. High five, friend. I saw your comments on FB and I'm grateful you took the time. THANK YOU.

  4. Excellent thoughts, Shan! I think writing failure feels particularly difficult when you've had some successes. It feels like it should just be a continuing ladder up, but it's really more of a roller coaster.

    1. Yes! It IS a rollercoaster. That's the perfect metaphor, if a little painful.

  5. Wow. First I think I relate to this more in my life than with my writing at this point... I really haven't had any major failures with writing... just a lot of work toward them, most likely ;D

    I really like what you say about "choosing practice over bitterness". I just relate to that so much this last couple years with what's been happening in my life... and what's been happening has definitely been shaping my writing. So in a way the failures in my life are still molding my writing. They just aren't all originally writing related.

    I really love this post!

    1. Oh yay! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. And you are so not alone in dealing with failure in areas other than writing. This stuff applies to our whole lives, doesn't it? Thank you so much for sharing.

  6. This is so inspiring. It's easy to recognize that failure is part of a character's journey, but much harder to see ourselves in the same way. This reminds me of something I was thinking lately, applying the "lie they believe" character advice that I've seen on this blog to life. The reason things like that work in a story is because in real life, we all have a lie we believe-- depending on the arc, mine is something like "I'll never have true friends" or "I'm not good enough"-- and fail at things. This post is a reminder that it's all just part of our road to success. Even if the end destination isn't exactly what we thought of as success-- or, like Stephanie commented, success doesn't guarantee no more failure. It's all just part of the character arc.

    1. What a thoughtful comment! You're so right. Our own arcs leave us so many lies to believe and so many possibilities for failure. I'm glad you're able to see the truth in that. Happy writing, friend.