In fiction, things have to go wrong. This is how tension is created, how the stakes rise, and how the danger becomes real. =When used right, in-story failure can catalyze ingenuity and creativity by creating setbacks that force your characters to find out-of-the-box solutions. Below, I lay out why failure is important and how you can use it to do great things.What stories without failure look like:
Lucy and Alice go off on a quest to kill the Raxgnor. They journey up the mountain, and though it’s a tough climb, they make it to the monster’s lair. Before they can go in, they’re accosted by their rival, who has also come to slay the Raxgnor. They fight, Lucy and Alice win, and together they advance to the lair. After a long battle, the Raxgnor falls and our heroes emerge victorious.
Seems like an okay story. But it’s missing danger and urgency. Nothing goes wrong. Some of the things that the characters must do are difficult, but they always succeed. This is bad for the story because it undermines the sense of danger. If Lucy and Alice progress through the story without failing, readers begin to suspect that it’s because the author won’t let them fail.
When success is the only option, readers get bored. First and foremost, if the driving question is whether or not the characters will succeed, it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion that they will. Meanwhile, allowing your character to fail a few times on the journey creates tension by suggesting that there’s a real chance they might not win.
Second, success isn’t horribly interesting. When characters succeed, they pick up plot coupons and keep moving. This makes for a straightforward linear plot. When they fail, they make enemies, lose important items, injure themselves, and generally create disadvantages that must be overcome. Failure creates complication while shooting down obvious solutions.
But if my character fails all the time, how will I move the story forwards? Good point, anticipated reader. Let’s break this down and nuance it a bit:
Alice and Lucy are fighting their rival outside of the Raxgnor’s lair and…
- Unconditional success: Everything goes according to plan, and the victory comes
at no cost. Alice and Lucy curb-stomp their rivals, loot their gear, and come out with an advantage. This will move your story forwards, but it also implies that the rival wasn’t very dangerous, and it makes the next fight easier.
- Conditional success: The characters get what they needed, but it comes at a cost. Alice and Lucy defeat their rival, but Alice is gravely wounded and has to stay behind, or the kickass magic sword they’ve been using is destroyed in the fight, or their rival gets away. They are allowed to progress, but they have incurred a penalty that will make the next stage harder.
- Conditional failure: The characters fail at their goal, but they get something useful that they can use later. Alice and Lucy are defeated and their rival goes on ahead of them, but there’s a catch. Maybe Alice sabotaged the rival’s gear. Maybe one of the rival’s henchmen defect and join them. Maybe they realize there’s another opportunity to head off their rival inside the lair. They’re badly set back and they have a new problem to solve, but they also have a few tools for solving it.
- Unconditional failure: The characters fail at their goal and get absolutely nothing for it. Alice and Lucy get beaten to a pulp, their magic sword is stolen, and their rival takes all the glory for defeating the Raxgnor. This significantly changes the trajectory of the plot, since the original goal will require a completely different approach, if it doesn’t stop being an option all together.
Conditional success and conditional failure are incredibly useful tools for driving the story forwards because both increase complication while also allowing the plot to progress. They heighten the danger by showing that your characters never get anything for free, but they also make it much harder to write yourself into a corner.
Another benefit of conditional success and failure is that they create a sense of motion. Each one ends with a lead-in to the next event, since the character always gains something that can be used later.Even if it’s two steps forward and one step back, the characters always progress towards their goal in some way. On the other hand, unconditional failure means that a particular path to the goal is completely shut down which, while potentially interesting, also risks stalling or derailing the plot.
How to write failure:
When a character fails or is set back, there are two common reasons. The first is that the enemy is just that good. This raises the enemy’s threat level or, if it was a task that couldn’t be completed, the perceived difficulty of the task. The second is that the character is at fault. Maybe they rushed in without a plan or they didn’t quite stick the landing, but one way or another they have responsibility—and therefore agency—in their failure. This aids in their characterization and gives them a chance to learn. Ideally, you want a bit of both.
Having a good reason for the failure allows you to use it for tension and characterization. It also stops the failure from feeling contrived, and lets you keep it plot relevant.
The failure also should have consequences. Repercussions are what make consequences interesting, especially if they ripple through the story. If the failure changes nothing, it implies that the character’s choices are largely irrelevant to the trajectory of the plot.
The consequences should follow logically from the situation. They should also match the severity of the failure, as well as the tone of the story. If you’re writing a brutal adventure novel and your character’s life is at stake, losing a limb is an acceptable consequence. In a contemporary romance story, that’s going to be a much harder sell.
Lastly, consider how the character bounces back. If the character has no way of getting themselves back on track after the failure, you’ve written yourself into a corner. As I said, failure closes off options. For this reason, you want to make sure that there’s a second route—or a different goal—available before they fail. This way, the failure moves the story forwards rather than shutting everything down.
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