Try/Fail cycles – what are they and how do we write them

As a writer you have probably heard of Try/Fail Cycles, and as a reader I’m sure you instantly grasp the concept. The hero faces great adversity, he comes up with what seems to be an ingenious plan, only to fail, and sometimes even making things worse. Sound familiar?

Success-Try-Fail-Try-FailSo why do we need them? Well, the try/fail cycle can be a very effective plotting tool. A well-built cycle will drive the plot forward at a good pace, and keep the reader invested in the character. If your protagonist is so awesome he instantly overcomes each obstacle that comes his way he might be some kind of superhero, but he will also be pretty boring. Winning without failing means he didn’t really earn it, which will make your protagonist a lot less likeable. Readers want to watch the struggle (the famous conflict that every good story contains). They want to follow along on the journey, and they want to identify with the character. Failing is a part of life, and it makes the subsequent success that much sweeter.

In this article by Karen Woodward I’ve found the most helpful plotting advice I’ve ever seen. To outline your try/fail cycle, follow this simple formula.

For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:

1) Yes
2) Yes, BUT (now there’s another problem)
3) No
4) No, AND (things just got worse)

If the answer is “Yes” or “No”, the story is over. In the middle of a try/fail cycle the answer is always “Yes, but” or “No, and”.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has a series of lectures on YouTube well worth watching. He recommends letting the protagonist fail at least twice for any given thing they attempt, before they succeed.

Brandon Sanderson Lecture 7: Try/Fail Cycles (4/6)

Sometimes, like for instance in Andy Weir’s book The Martian, the entire novel is a try/fail cycle. If you’ve read The Martian you’ll know it works like a charm. If you haven’t, I suggest you remedy that at your earliest possible convenience. If nothing else it will provide you with a perfect example of a successful use of the try/fail cycle.

In conclusion, the try/fail cycle should be a part of every story’s outline, because it keeps the reader invested in the story, while driving the plot forward at a good pace.