If At First You Don't Succeed

Depending on your experience as a writer, you've probably heard of anywhere from one or two to a dozen or more structural styles for story telling. Hero's Journey, Three Act Structure, Save the Cat, the Snowflake Method, the Seven Point Story Structure, a Disturbance and Two Doorways. Successful writers always seem to have a unique take on what system works for their books. The point, they often tell you, is to keep trying until you find what works for you.

In a fun twist, this same concept is also...you guessed it...another story structure! We call it the Try-Fail Cycle. Let's look at an example from a writer's conference I attended several years back to illustrate this system. It goes something like this:

Basic Try-Fail Cycle

At first your main character has a problem. Maybe your character's wife is pregnant and desperately craving pancakes. Your character, being a good spouse, tries to get their wife some pancakes. If they have the ingredients in the house and are a good cook, they succeed at making pancakes, deliver the fluffy, syrup-covered result to their spouse, and you've just written a boring story.

What would happen if your character doesn't have ingredients for pancakes, or is a terrible cook? Then they fail to make pancakes, and the story continues.

Keeping Interest

The key to a good Try-Fail Cycle is complication. Your character can't simply fail to make pancakes, they must fail and have something else complicate the situation. So, your character fails to make pancakes because they don't have ingredients, and when they go outside to drive to a store, they see a strange man running from their neighbor's house covered in blood. Now we've moved from a rather simple story about making pancakes into a possible murder mystery, and your reader is likely intrigued.

This system continues in the same vein. The character tries to respond to the strange man, fails to get the response they want, and something else goes wrong. Gradually, through the story, the character will become more competent and move from try-fail-and (something bad) to try-fail-but (something good), into try-succeed-but (something bad), and finally, at the resolution, into try-suceed-and (something good).

Maintaining Coherency

Here's the thing. That opening is a pretty big narrative leap, and you probably don't want to start your murder mystery with an opening scene about someone trying to make pancakes. The opening scene of any book needs to set the tone for the story, and every twist in the plot needs to make sense and feel natural within the world of your story. This is true whether you're writing about the difficulties of finding your place in an ever-changing and ever more insular society or about the trials and tribulations of a group of wood elves who communicate over long distances using flying raccoon messengers. Be silly, or fantastical, or gritty, or inspiring. But if your story doesn't feel like a natural progression of events, your readers won't care.

Here's a nifty idea for how to use Try-Fail Cycles without derailing your story into confusing, random absurdity: Nest it inside a different structure.

I'm partial to Three-Act Structure myself, so here's how this works with that combination.

Act 1

Three Act Structure starts with an Opening Scene to establish status quo and introduce an opening conflict. This is where you'll establish what central desire the character has that will influence what types of actions they'll take during their Try-Fail Cycle. For example, is this the type of character who tells their wife to deal with no pancakes because they don't have ingredients, or the type who goes to all possible lengths and ends up chasing murderers?

The next part of Three Act Structure is the Inciting Incident which propels the character into the story by offering a potential solution to an initial conflict. So, a murderer running out of the neighbor's house is a terrible Inciting Incident because that doesn't offer a solution to the character's problem...unless the character can't buy ingredients for pancakes because they're a poor beat cop who needs a bonus from a closing a big case to afford the exorbitant brand of flour their wife demands. Now we're chasing a murderer for a reason.

After the Inciting Incident comes Plot Point 1, and here's where the Try-Fail Cycle really comes in handy. Any guide on Three Act Structure will tell you that the Inciting Incident should be in the first scene or two, maybe three, and after that “tension rises” until the character faces Plot Point 1 about a quarter of the way into the novel.

Wait...but how do I make “tension rise” effectively? By using a Try-Fail Cycle, of course! Before Plot Point 1, your character will experience try-fail-and. At Plot Point 1, the biggest, baddest and of the first act happens, throwing your character into all sorts of trouble.

Act 2

Plot Point 1 naturally leads into the Rising Action that marks the beginning of the ever dreaded and often sagging middle of your book. And here's where the Try-Fail Cycle functions beautifully once more.

Three Act Structure guides will tell you that your middle consists of rising action until you reach the Mid Point Reversal, which occurs at the middle of the novel and is where the remaining status quo is subverted. That's great. How do I write rising action again?

Well, through here, you're writing a try-fail-but sequence. In act 1, our intrepid beat cop lost track of the strange man and was forced to tell their wife they couldn't make pancakes. She, in a fit of pure pregnancy rage, threw them out. No amount of pancakes are going to solve this problem, but our beat cop can't just abandon their family. Determined to be a good spouse despite their wife's frustration, our beat cop applies for a second job as a security guard at a local distillery. At the interview, they fail to impress the manager and lose the job, but on the way out, they see the strange man from before making a delivery at a nearby warehouse.

Mid Point Reversal will add another layer of complication and often danger to the plot. Remember, in our murder mystery (which should be approximately 80,000 words long), we're only halfway through. Most Three Act Structure guides from here will simply say “The Mid Point Reversal leads directly into Plot Point 2, which happens about three fourths of the way through the book and is the break into Act 3.” Anyone else missing that other 20,000 words between Mid Point Reversal and Plot Point 2?

This is our Try-Fail Cycle's try-succeed-but sequence. Our beat cop tries to follow the strange man and does so without being noticed, but discovers that it's really the police captain! Now they know breaking this case open won't get them a bonus unless they can bring down a full crime ring with corruption all the way through the police force. They're gonna need some allies. As they begin building confidence and strength, they progress further through the try-succeed-but until they reach Plot Point 2 (sometimes referred to as the Act Two Disaster), where everything seems to fall apart. Our beat cop gets found out by his captain and accused of committing the murder he's investigating. How will he ever get free?

Act 3

The Climax and Resolution of a Three Act Structure are often very short. The formal definition says about a quarter of the novel, but this is commonly a bit shorter. This is because you want the climax to be fast and the post-climax resolution not to drag on. Also, there's only so long you can remain in a try-suceed-and sequence before your reader just wonders why they're still reading...or gets jealous of your characters.

Our beat cop goes to trial but accuses the captain while on the stand with evidence gathered by their allies to prove their point. And, their wife is there and is so impressed with their hard work that she apologizes for being unreasonable and invites them to come home, pancakes or no. Much more than that and you're just getting gushy.

Choosing Your Mix

Now, the Three Act Structure mixed with Try-Fail Cycle is the one I enjoy, probably because it's easy to apply to a vague concept without having to outline the whole story arc first.

But maybe you love outlines. Maybe you never know what to do next without an outline. Great! Try mixing the Snowflake Method with the Save the Cat beat sheets. Or put your Hero's Journey protagonist through a series of Try-Fail Cycles. Play with the structures, don't get bogged down in any one, and find the bits that work for you. Try, and fail, and keeping trying until you get into that annoyingly sappy-sweet writer's ending that we cut out because we got so annoyed (and a little jealous) with how great our beat cop's life is now that they've got their wife back and their job is secure.

The point is to keep trying new systems, mixing things up, and learning new ideas until you find what works for you. But there's no reason you can't write some murder mysteries about making pancakes while you're learning.

P.S. I made up the non-binary pancake-making beat cop in the middle of writing the first draft of this blog post, and they remain largely unchanged from their original form. That's what discovery writing looks like. If you sometimes find yourself designing your version of a pancake making beat cop determined to succeed against all odds despite their wife's unpalatable mood swings when you're supposed to be writing a basic outline, or a memo for work, or editing a completely different novel, then you may be a discovery writer—and structure is still your friend. But outlines don't have to be.

Author: Chelsea Harper