Try, Try Again

I’ve recently discovered the concept of ‘try-fail cycles’ in writing. Like many things, I knew this existed for a long time before I learned exactly why it’s important or had the vocabulary to describe it. Okay, that last bit is debatable. I’ve been winging these blog posts for four- I think?- years; I’m not about to suddenly change my habits. Bear with me; I’m also half-asleep.

Anyway. Try-fail cycles occur when a character (usually the protagonist) tries to accomplish their goal and fails. But you, the writer, can’t stop there; it’s a cycle for a reason. The character should pick themselves back up and try again. Whether they succeed on the second attempt is up to you, but they should succeed in the end, maybe after three or four tries, otherwise it’s not a very satisfying arc. The character should also learn something after each failure, and try new methods of accomplishing the goal, not more of the same thing that led to failure in the first place.

The idea is on my mind lately because I’m putting a character through the ringer, and serial try-fail cycles are good for that. In this case, the character has been in a new body for about twenty-four hours when she’s obliged to participate in an athletic activity. The other characters expect her to be slightly clumsy, because the body is that of a teenager going through a growth spurt, but they also expect her to know the set-up and taken-down routines, where equipment is located, and how to do tasks she’s done for years.

Simple try-fail-try-succeed cycles can get boring, so I made these more like try-fail-think about it-try again, differently- succeed cycles, with some try-notice something’s wrong-change direction-succeed cycles mixed in. If you’re feeling very nice- I was- and want to keep things slightly unpredictable- give the character an unadulterated moment of success, where no failure precedes it. Make sure it’s something the character could reasonably expect to succeed at.

Most try-fail cycles occupy whole chapters if not multiple chapters, and if I remember right, most plotting diagrams say you should have two or three in the book, all related to the protagonist’s main goal.

Oops, she said, with a wry smile. So much for that advice. I think I have three or four small try-fail cycles in this chapter alone. Since the character is persistent, learns fast, and has a strong interest in appearing normal until she figures out what’s going on, she’s going to make lots of mistakes and fix them, then move on. To the next mistake.

We’ll see what the readers think of it. Too many try-fail cycles can make it look like the author is kicking the character just for the fun of it. Too few makes for a boring story.

Out of all the issues I’ve having with this story, too few try-fail cycles isn’t one of them.

10 comments

  1. Beware of kicking the character too much. Some characters will search you out to Kick Back. [Very Very Evil & Crazy Grin]

    1. Might be too late for that; this story has been kicking me since the beginning.

  2. OTOH, it’s also a simplification. Frodo and Sam try to get to Mordor, and succeed in getting to Mordor. Shorter on supplies than intended, but successfully.

    1. There’s a lot of “fail” in there, though:

      1) Frodo and Sam get Gollum to guide them to the Black Gate and realize it would be suicide to try to get through. They have to find another way. That’s pretty clearly a try-fail.

      2) They try to go through Shelob’s lair, get attacked by the giant spider, Frodo ends up in a coma, and then captured. Admittedly, they “got into Mordor,” but I’m pretty sure it still counts as failure if they end up unconscious in a dungeon in Mordor.

      And then there are all the try-fails that happen after they get to Mordor: getting mistaken for orcs and being forced to march the wrong way, getting attacked by Gollum, and of course the ultimate try-fail of Frodo reaching Mt. Doom and realizing he can’t destroy the ring after all…

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