As I’ve mentioned before, I outline my novels with three disasters and a climax.
(I picked up the bare bones of that from here.)
Others simply ask the question, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to my main characters now?” Depending on their answers, they receive similar results.
Three disasters and a climax.
The majority of modern fiction is written in this format. Perhaps we picked it up from the hour-long televisions shows. A teaser, three ten to fifteen minute blocks of progress to ratchet up the tension, and the finale.
The Try/Fail Cycle is another version of that.
If you’re an outliner, you need to know your characters well enough to apply this tool. You know where your characters start out—their state of mind, their levels of happiness versus dissatisfaction. You know where you want them to be when you write “The End.”
What’s the worst thing you can do to your characters in the beginning?
Orphan Maker — Loomis’s life is in upheaval when she’s suddenly saddled with four new mouths to feed, one of them a smart ass woman who won’t listen to reason.
Alaskan Bride — Callie Glass’s brother dies.
The Strange Path — Whiskey is being beaten by teenagers.
That’s the first try/fail cycle in those books. Loomis must learn to live with the street-hardened Gwen, Callie has to deal with a stranger in her house that will not go away, Whiskey is rescued by people that are leagues ahead of her in viciousness.
In each case, the characters fail, only to try again. And fail.
Orphan Maker — Just as Loomis becomes comfortable with Gwen, she discovers that her new friend has been lying to her by omission. Trust is everything to Loomis and it’s apparent that Gwen can’t be trusted.
Alaskan Bride — Callie allows herself to be convinced that Clara should stay with her. She begins to let her guard down until the bullies in town beat her into unconsciousness.
The Strange Path — No matter how hard she tries, Whiskey can’t seem to shake Fiona and her crew. And then she discovers that one of the rare stable people in her life is a Sanguire.
Again a try/fail. All three characters are struggling to get passed whatever fail occurred in their life, whatever disaster. Just when they think they’ve succeeded, something or someone comes along to send them spiraling again.
And then it happens a third time.
Orphan Maker — Loomis is attacked by Gwen’s former boyfriend and the choice boils down to one thing: kill him or let him kill her. This brings about a flashback from Loomis’s youth when the world went to shit and she’d been placed in the same situation. Can she do it this time?
Alaskan Bride — All Callie ever wanted was to have her family around her, to live a quiet life in the Alaskan bush. Instead, she drives Clara away in order to protect her from the gang of bullies that are on their way to kill her.
The Strange Path — Whiskey defends herself against an adult Sanguire and challenges a youth to a duel she can’t possibly win. She’s spent the entire week coming to terms with the knowledge that she isn’t Human and must drink blood to survive, fighting an innate compassionate nature that she developed on the streets.
The difference here is that there’s no more fail. In each of the above cases, the characters succeed in their goals.
(I won’t mention specifics. You’ll have to read the books to find out what exactly happens!)
I’m sure that if you wanted a longer book, you could add a few more try/fail cycles to push it along.
Or you could add two or three mini try/fail cycles in between the major ones.
You have to be careful though. As I stated earlier, modern fiction has evolved into a tighter version of writing. Gone are the days when you could put out a one thousand page book (unless you’re George R.R. Martin with a thousand character arcs.)
Here are a couple of links that you might find helpful:
The first is a chart example of a Try/Fail Cycle.
I’d love to hear from you!
Writers, do you outline? How do you know where to put the peaks and valleys in your manuscript? Do you follow a similar plotting device or simply feel it out? And if you don’t outline, do you go back after you’ve completed the manuscript to add material?
Readers, what do you think? Are you able to see the try/fail cycles in your favorite books?