Tuesday, May 12, 2020

3 Ways to Make Failure Fascinating

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: If the protagonist succeeds right away, it makes for a very short novel. Laurence MacNaughton shares tips on how to make failure the best part of the story.

Every story is about somebody who wants something and has trouble getting it. It doesn't matter whether your book is about a detective trying to catch a killer, a young professional trying to find true love, or a sorceress trying to save the world from doomsday. Somebody wants something and they fail to get it. (At least until the end of the story.) The problem is, failure is inherently boring. How do you write about a character who is failing, and yet still keep the reader fascinated?

Every scene is driven by a story question.

Essentially, a scene is a unit of story where your viewpoint character tries to achieve some specific goal. Maybe they're trying to get a particular piece of information out of someone. Or maybe they're trying to sneak inside a warehouse without being detected. Or maybe they're trying to rescue an innocent victim from a gang of bad guys.

Figure out what your character is trying to do in this scene, and write it down. Start with a strong verb: find something, escape someplace, rescue somebody. You get the idea.

Here's why this is so important.

The moment you make the character's goal clear, the reader will wonder: "Will they get the information they need?" or "Will they rescue the innocent victim?" The reader wants to know.

That question creates tension in the reader's mind, and leaves them in suspense. Your entire scene should drive toward the answer to that question. And once we get to the end of the scene, you have basically three different ways to answer it. 

(Here's more on How to Write Scenes (and What Qualifies as a Scene))

1. Yes, but...

Yes, they get what they're after, but now there's a new problem.

Maybe something goes wrong. Maybe now they're missing someone or something important. Maybe they get into trouble for their actions.

Or you can build on the original problem. Maybe they discover that the problem is actually much worse or much bigger than they thought. Maybe they've only seen the tip of the iceberg, and the truth is much worse than they suspected.

Or maybe they've been hit where it hurts. Maybe they have to sacrifice something important in order to get what they want, and there will be consequences (emotional, relational, moral) further down the line.

This is sometimes called "success at a cost" because the character pays a price to get what they want. It may be an intentional choice, it may be an accidental slip-up, but either way their life becomes harder because of it.

2. No, but...

No, the character doesn't achieve their goal, but they do get something that moves them forward.

Maybe they find or learn something surprising, and it sends them in a new direction or gives them a useful flash of insight.

Maybe they uncover the truth about their problem, and it changes their situation for both better and worse. Now they have to deal with an unexpected problem while trying to figure out how this new twist changes things.

Maybe they get help from an unexpected source, and now things start to unfold in a way they didn't expect.

Whatever the outcome, the character is "failing forward" in a different direction than the reader expected. That switch-up makes your story more interesting. It keeps the reader on their toes as they wonder what the character will do next, now that the situation has changed. 

(Here's more on Will They or Won’t They? Plotting With Yes or No Questions)

3. No, and worse...

No, the character doesn't achieve the goal, and worse, now they have even bigger problems.

From the character's point of view, this is the worst possible outcome. Not only did they fail to get what they were after, now the situation is much tougher than it was before.

Sometimes this means that they have an entirely new problem that they must deal with immediately, before they can go back to trying to solve the original problem.

In fact, if you need to raise the stakes in your story, you can do "No, and worse..." several times in a row to quickly ratchet up the tension. Suddenly, one thing after another goes wrong in the hero's life, and problems start cropping up faster than they can handle them. 

(Here's more on 5 Reasons Our Characters Need to Fail)

Here's an example of making failure fascinating.

In this excerpt from Forever and a Doomsday, the characters Salem and Dru (both sorcerers) have been attacked by an evil creature. Watch how Salem almost succeeds, but ends up (spoiler alert) failing to achieve his goal:
Salem lifted his glowing hand higher. His magic threw the shadowy creature against the brick wall and pinned it there. With its long bony arms splayed out to either side, the thing squirmed and struggled, unable to break free. Under the constant onslaught of Salem’s unrestrained power, it shriveled to no more than a skeletal wisp of a thing, shrieking with an inhuman keening cry.

It dwindled until it was nothing more than a wrinkle of shadow, easily mistaken for a jagged crack in the wall. In moments, it would be completely destroyed.

But just when Dru was starting to think Salem had saved the day, his knees buckled. His trembling arm drooped, and the blinding light of his spell flickered and faded. Dru knew what was about to happen, but she was powerless to stop it.

The problem was that Salem didn’t do anything in moderation. Even on the best of days, he had the tendency to overtax his own powers to the point where he ran himself into the ground. And right now was anything but the best of days.

Salem’s head lolled. As he toppled to the floor, unconscious, Dru came to the cold realization that there was no way to stop the creature now. They were all as good as dead.
In this scene, the story question is: “Will they defeat the evil creature?”

The answer is definitely “No, and worse...

No, they didn't destroy the creature. Even worse, Dru has a new problem: Salem is now unconscious and about to be killed. And without him, there's no way to fight the creature. It appears they're doomed.

Not a bad way to keep the reader turning pages.

To become a better writer, study how characters fail.

The next time you read a novel or watch a show, pay attention to how the story hands setbacks to the protagonist.

What happens at the end of each scene? Is it a success at a cost? Are they failing forward? Are their problems getting worse?

Look closely, and you will start seeing these "Yes, but..." and "No, and worse..." moments in every story.

Do you have trouble letting your main character fail?
Leave a comment below or connect with me on my author website at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo


  1. Absolutely true. The cliched, childish notion of a story is "the good guy always wins" -- and that's boring. And of course "You lose, The End" is terrible writing too.

    Using failures to find a way between those two is *required* to keep any story going.

  2. Thanks for the helpful article and tips!