One Big Try/Fail Cycle: a new take on seven-point plotting

So you may or may not have seen Dan Wells’ lecture on Seven-Point Story Structure. (I mentioned a blog or two ago that I wanted to talk about it. This is the one you’ve all been waiting for.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it breaks down your basic narrative structure into the following seven points:

Hook

Plot Turn 1

Pinch 1

Midpoint

Pinch 2

Plot Turn 2

Resolution

Some of these terms may be a little unfamiliar to you, so I will expound on them briefly.

Hook- this is the opposite state to your Resolution. If your protagonist ends the story a hero or in love or dead, they need to start the story in a state where they are not those things. Their lack thereof, for whatever reason, ought to be compelling enough that, right from the get-go, we would like to see them in this final state.

Plot Turn- this, contrary to whatever you might think, is not a negative twist. This is the meetcute. This is going down the rabbit hole. This is you’re a wizard, Harry. And the final Plot Turn before the Resolution is the ultimate moment of Neo, you’re the One. Use the force, Luke.

Pinch- these are the negative twists that test and try the protagonist where things tend to go either horribly awry or horribly awry but in a way that further pushes our protagonist into proactivity. Earlier on this serves to strengthen our desire to see the character reach whatever the resolution may be, and later on, often serves to make us think all hope is lost before the final plot turn occurs.

Midpoint- this is the deciding moment where the protagonist chooses to do something about whatever the central problem is and is therefore advanced towards their Resolution status.

If you’ve never heard of that before, it may seem a little confusing or overwhelming. But hopefully everything that comes after this ought to help explain it a little more clearly.

Okay. Now that we’ve covered that, let’s talk about the Try-Fail Cycle and the process of escalation.

If you’ve done any creative writing/story plotting before, you may heard of the Try/Fail Cycle. In short, before your protagonist succeeds at anything they’re trying to achieve, they ought to try and fail at least twice before succeeding. This creates sympathy in the audience. We feel like that character’s really earned it.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, that’s not true, some of my favourite characters are completely awesome and hardly ever fail, let alone two-thirds of the time.

Ah, young grasshopper, how wise you are.

You see, the Fail in Try/Fail isn’t necessarily failure to achieve one’s goal, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some unfortunate reaction or consequence to their success that makes their eventual job harder. We summarise this as writers as the Yes, But.. No, And.. rule.

It’s pretty self-explanatory when you understand it. Does my protagonist succeed? Yes, But.. (some sort of horrible/unforeseen circumstance happens as a result/in addition and everything is harder now) Does my protagonist succeed against this new complication? No, And.. (everything is now even worse because.. they just gave away their position/used up their last mag/now she thinks you like men)

You can do all your Fails as Yes, But..’s and have a character who seems awesome and life is just crazy hard for them. You can do them all as No, And..’s and have that eventual success be beyond satisfying to your reader. (The example Dan Wells uses for this is Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. He literally fails eleven or twelve times to find and kill the six-fingered man before he succeeds. That is why that moment is everybody’s favourite moment in the film.)

You can also do some mixture of both Yes, But..’s and No, And..’s. But, as a loose rule, you want your protagonist to Fail twice before succeeding. (But what about Inigo Montoya, you say? Ah, well, to be fair, it is a loose rule. Although you can temper that with the sliding scale that is: the more important the goal is to the character, the more times they can believably Fail and still be trying.)

Acclaimed short science fiction writer, Eric James Stone, has said that in his short fiction, he’ll do Try/Fail Cycles as simple as, “Well, what if we do x?” “No, that would never work because y.”

Now, you may have noticed that there was no And.. attached to that No. That’s because the But..’s and And..’s are there exclusively to help escalate the situation. In most cases, you want your story to be building to some sort of climax, and these tools help escalate the dramatic tension. In short fiction, you may not need it whatsoever, because it’s enough that your problem still isn’t solved and you’re quickly running out of words.

Now, the reason that all of this was pertinent… They follow the same exact pattern.

Seven-Point Try-Fail diagram

Voila! As I was trying to apply Seven-Point Story Structure to each individual subplot of my novel, in wrapping my head around the concept and how it worked in each scenario, it hit me that it’s really just a Try/Fail Cycle but on a macro plotting scale.

Now, obviously, they are needed in different plotting situations, but in essence, conceptually, they are one in the same. You need to get from your car to your house in a blizzard. You take one step forward. The wind knocks you one step back. You take a bigger, more determined step forward. The wind gusts hard and knocks you even further back. You summon the Super Saiyan within and charge blindly forward. Success!

I hope this helps you in your writing as much as it is helping me. And if it is helpful in any way, please comment and let me know. Maybe I’ll do more technical writing blogs as opposed to book reviews.

QOTD: What writing tool/rule has helped you most in your writing?

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