Many years ago when I was first getting into the writing world I had no idea what a Try/Fail was when I heard someone bring it up. (Maybe I was a bit slow on the uptake.) I also happened to be painfully shy at the time and couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone. So for those people like me who are not quite getting it here’s a short explanation.
Basically a Try/Fail Cycle is having your character need or want something and fail to get it several times before finally achieving it.
Let’s take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for an example.
First Harry wants to find out more about the Sorcerer’s stone and why it’s being guarded by the giant three headed dog on the third floor. He asks people and no one will tell him anything. He searches the library for weeks without luck. Finally he finds a reference on the back of a card he gets from a box of candy, (this was very well foreshadowed by the way, but that’s not what we’re looking at in this article) which leads to him finding the information he needs and confronting Hagrid about it.
So he tries and fails many times before finding some success.
The Try/Fail Cycle isn’t limited to just this instance in that story either. J.K. Rowling placed several of these cycles interwoven together throughout the book, but I won’t outline them for you here. Now that you know about one I’m sure you can think of several others.
Now think about other stories you’ve read. If the character succeeds too quickly then the reader ends up not caring; obviously that problem wasn’t so difficult to deal with after all. But if there are too many failures, if the writer drags their audience through attempt after attempt after attempt without giving any success it wears on the reader and makes the book drag no matter how well the sentences are written.
Readers want characters to succeed-eventually. They want to see these people that have come alive in their heads work past insurmountable odds because it gives them the courage and strength to go back to their stressful lives.
3 to 5 Try/Fail Cycles are normally just about right. Any less and you cheat the reader of the emotional ride, any more and it starts to feel draining (which is not why people read books).
So when working on your own stories remember to have the characters need something, whether that’s an item, a task performed, to get somewhere, or anything else you can imagine, and then have them fail to achieve it several times before finally, triumphantly succeeding.