Every person who has seen a movie or read a book knows what a try/fail cycle is, even if they don’t know that they know it. If, “Show don’t Tell,” is the most common piece of writing advice then, “Try/Fail Cycles,” is the underappreciated sibling. Before we can get into how to use them to improve a story, we need to discuss what they are.
Think of a try/fail cycle as a problem solving process. First, the character must try to do something, and they will either succeed or fail. It seems pretty straightforward but a true try/fail cycle is not simply, “The hero swings his sword and cuts off the dragon’s head,” because that result halts the story. Either a new challenge has to be brought in or the story will end. A real try/fail cycle pushes the plot forward by making one of two things happen.
A) Yes, but… The character successful completes whatever they were trying to do, but an unintended consequence arises from their action. Using the previous scenario, this is the, “yes, but…” option in the try/fail cycle. “The hero swings his sword and cuts off the dragon’s head, but two more grow in its place.” The hero has not solved his/her problem; in fact, they have made it worse. This is one way that try/fail cycles can increase tension and move a plot forward.
B) No, and… This option starts the same as Option A, but instead of letting the character be successful, you make them fail and pay a price for their attempt. Using the hero and the dragon, here is an example of the, “no, and…” answer to a try/fail cycle. “The hero swings his sword but the dragon melts the blade with a blast of fire.” Not only did the hero fail an attack, but now they have lost their weapon too.
Try/Fail cycles are a great way to push a story forward. It becomes easy to create a plot-line filled with conflict, because nothing is truly resolved. Try/Fail cycles are also useful for foreshadowing certain story points. By having you characters fail at a specific task throughout the story and finally achieve their goal in the climax will make your ending feel much more fulfilling.