Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Failure Is A Dead End

I'm going to keep talking about success and failure in narrative because it's an important and broad topic and we should all be aware of it.

Last time we spoke I said that success should come with conditions and unconditional successes are boring and should not be common for your protagonist. I'm going to expand on this a little and we'll do that by talking about doors.

A locked door is a basic catch all obstacle for narratives. The protagonist wants to go through the door but the door is locked. The door might not be a door, it might be a wide chasm, a foe he has to fight, a guardsman to sneak by, a shape shifting fox woman he must seduce, a wall he much climb, etc. etc. The point is, when I say "locked door" I'm using it as a kind of stand in for any obstacle which your protagonist must do something to in order to get past it to his or her goal.

A Locked Door.

Broadly speaking, there are four results that can come from trying to go through the locked door. I'm going to borrow RPG terminology again because it's where my brain is lately. Your protagonist can have a...

Critical Success (They get through the door.)
Conditional Success (They get through the door but with a consequence.)
Failure (They do not get through the door.)
Critical Failure (They do not get through the door and something bad happens.)

We've covered why Critical Success is dull and Conditional Success is preferable. So now we'll cover Failure and Critical Failure.

I may have said that writing your protagonist to fail instead of succeed is generally preferable as it does a better job of building tension and drama and excitement and all that good stuff. This is true. But you can write yourself into a trap very easily in doing this so be careful.

Failure is, or can easily be, a dead end. Your protagonist tries to break through the Locked Door and his attempts end in Failure. Now the protagonist is in front of the Locked Door and what he wants is on the other side and he... What? He tries again? He gives up and goes home? More than likely he walks off and finds another Locked Door to go through to reach his objective.

We have a couple of problems immediately with these options. If he can just try again or find another route, then your scene runs the risk of being pointless. It has become padding. If you took this scene out and started with his second attempt to overcome the Locked Door (or his attempt at a different Locked Door) and that's where he succeeds, then you've lost nothing except words and time. It hasn't impacted the plot.

If you can excise a scene from your book and it doesn't change the plot in any way, then maybe that scene shouldn't be there anyway. Judge for yourself. Give scenes purpose.

So Failure at the Locked Door creates problems with your narrative. It can mean pointless scenes and it can mean narrative dead ends (more on this later.)

So instead, consider a Critical Failure. Your protagonist tries to break through the Locked Door. Your protagonist not only fails, but he alerts all the Locked Door's friends of what he's doing and they start gunning for him. Or he fails to break through the Locked Door and knocks himself unconcious, letting the Locked Door take him prisoner. Maybe the Locked Door knew he was coming all along and prepared a trap to drop the failing protagonist into a vat of toxic waste.

What all these results have in common is that they create new scenes out of the protagonist's failure. They up the tension and up the ante and make things happen and move us from one event into another natural event. No dead ends here.

Before we finish I'd like to just elaborate on this idea of a "dead end."

When I say dead end, I'm talking about a scene that stops the narrative flow and forces your protagonist to start again and build up more momentum. A story shouldn't always be moving at 100km/h but it should always be moving. Anything that grinds the flow of scenes to a halt and stall your plot is probably a bad thing.

You might be thinking of another kind of dead end, however. The kind of dead end that impacts you the writer. You say in Chapter 1 "The only way to get the McGuffin is to go through Locked Door 1. There are no other Locked Doors." And then in Chapter 2 the protagonist gets to Locked Door 1 and tries to go through and he fails - because Carl said failures are better - and now you don't know what to do because there's nothing else your protagonist can do to. We call this "writing into a corner." It's something I hear mentioned from time to time and don't worry because it's really easy to fix.

Delete the corner. Just go back, highlight that corner and delete it. Change things up and try again. Or even easier still is if any kind of failure is going to write you into a corner, give the protagonist a break and offer him a Conditional Success. Let him get the McGuffin from behind Locked Door 1 - but in doing so he breaks his leg and then in the next chapter that broken leg means fails to stop the antagonist from stealing his McGuffin.

Writing yourself into a corner sucks and we all do it from time to time, but all it takes is a little work to get out of it. No sweat. Corners are not the same as dead ends. They're more like creative road bumps or caltrops that you drop in front of yourself like a buffoon.

Okay, so, what did we learn today class? No dead ends! Failure is an option but it might be a sucky one so avoid it where you can.

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