The Try-Fail Cycle

Believable Success and Resolution Must Follow Failures

I used to go on months-long lecture tours around the U.S. talking about practical Western application of Taoist principles. I learned a lot in my travels, and I met a lot of ardent seekers. They had already hit some sort of bottom and decided that their life needed to change. They wondered if the ancient Chinese philosophy I promised to talk about would offer any previously hidden path to a more balanced life.


I particularly remember a woman in St. Paul, Minnesota, who worked at a shelter for battered and abused children. When I talked about the neutrality of events, and that it is our interpretation of them that evokes emotional responses, she wanted me to tell her how in the world was she supposed to stop hating the perpetrators (usually a parent) of child sexual or physical abuse. She was occasionally required to interface with them and couldn’t dredge up any compassion for them.

That tour ended on the East Coast, and I started making my way back to my home in Los Angeles at the time. Close to a year later, I heard from the woman in St. Paul again. She had tried talking to an abusive parent at her job after several months of mulling over my proposition, and she discovered that abuse is a learned behavior and most abusers have themselves been abused earlier in life. (You can read a bit more about this strategy in my post “Was It Something I Said?” from a month ago.)

In fiction, as in life, we need to recognize that change rarely happens smoothly. New skills take time to master. We have a tendency to project backward on our successes and omit the failures that we suffered in the process. We shake our heads at younger or less experienced people in our lives and remind ourselves that everyone seems to need the confirmation of failing before they follow someone else’s advice.

If we omit the struggle in fiction, readers pick up on it immediately. Characters who easily solve problems on the first try are boring, because they create no tension or anticipation the reader needs to drive them forward in the story. Fiction writers in all genres recognize the importance of the try-fail cycle. (For more detail on how to construct them check out Karen Woodward and

Conventional wisdom suggests a character must fail 2-3 times before succeeding, but that is an overly simple mnemonic. Your character can fail just once before succeeding, but you can build tension by making the success create a new problem, or by making it only a partial success. You especially don’t want to set up a rhythm to your plot complications. Keep the reader guessing by making some things surprisingly easy and some incredibly hard. The reader learns more about your character by seeing how he or she deals with conflict and adversity, and the more they learn, the more they will like your character.

And when you’re out there dealing with real people in the world, be patient with other people’s failures. Perfection is boring!




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