Writing Excuses 10.29: Why Should My Characters Fail Spectacularly?

We’re past the middle of the Season 10 Master Class, but we’re still in the middle of our month on middles. Perhaps some spectacular failures will help us all enjoy the middle a bit more as we write our way past it.

(Filed under: “I see what you did there.”)

(Filed also under: “spectacular failure.”)

Character failure is a big part of making the middle of a story work. We talk about why, and we provide some tips about how to make this work well for you.


“Yes, but/no, and…” Think of the smartest thing your character can do. Now have them fail with either “yes, but” (they technically succeed, but something else has gone wrong) or “no, and” (they fail, and the failure deepens the mess.)

The Edge of the World: Terra Incognita, Book 1, by Kevin J. Anderson, narrated by Scott Brick

15 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.29: Why Should My Characters Fail Spectacularly?”

  1. A slight disagreement to Mary’s point near the end about the number of try / fail cycles being related to how important it is: Sometimes failing a small, trivial, insignificant thing can be a running joke, AND it can be a somewhat humorous stand-up-and-cheer tension release valve when it fiiiiiinally pans out.

    Loved this cast, though. Lots of excellent food for thought for me!

  2. It’s funny about Raiders of the Lost Ark – Indiana Jones actually doesn’t affect the outcome in any way. If he’d stayed home, the Nazis would have found the Ark, opened it, and died anyway.

  3. The try / fail cycle reminds me of Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde–in it, the character is in a video game where it resets when she dies and it resets about five times, if I remember right, and she has to keep going through the same cycles and choosing different paths and failing.

  4. Relvaris adjusted his tunic and rolled his eyes.
    “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but do any of these people look up to refilling the barrel?” Alnas asked. He walked off to apply more bandages.
    Everyone Relvaris could see was either crying or wounded. The impromptu tomb grew larger and larger as more room was grown for the bodies.
    Relvaris climbed up the side of the stone barrel and rested on its edge. He was still terrible at the spell, but he was not one to ignore a Mage. As clearly as he could, he said, “Rison”. Nothing happened. After ensuring no one was looking he pulled out a small slip of paper, glanced at it, and put it back.
    “Rirson” he said into the barrel. The small puddle of remaining water at the bottom began to quiver. He adjusted his tunic and looked over his shoulder, hoping Alnas was not watching.
    A geoglomite emerged from the barrel’s rim, growing her stalk until her head was next to Relvaris. “Do not worry friend. I can not forge an arrow from sunbeams,” she said. After closing her eyes she muttered “Rirson” and the barrel filled with water from the bottom to the top.
    “That’s not magic,” Relvaris said. “That’s just something I was born with; like you being able to manipulate stone.
    The geoglomite smiled, then disappeared back into the barrel’s rim. There were dozens more to fill, and it was clear Relvaris was not going to be the one to fill them.
    He tried to focus. After drinking a few sips of water to make room, he checked the paper again. After closing his eyes he said, “Rirson”. The barrel filled from the bottom to the top, hurling a column of water into the air.
    “How’s it going?” Alnas said from behind Relvaris.
    The water crashed down, knocking Relvaris to the ground. He hopped to his feet and adjusted his tunic. “I got the spell to work.”

  5. You talked a lot about failing, but I feel like you didn’t spend enough time on the importance of ‘spectacular’ in the episode title.

    I’m reminded of a line from The Lies of Locke Lamora (edited slightly for language):
    ” ‘Someday, Locke Lamora,’ he said, ‘someday, you’re going to [mess] up so magnificently, so ambitiously, so overwhelmingly that the sky will light up and the moons will spin and the gods themselves with [throw] comets with glee. And I just hope I’m still around to see it.”

    Also, what do you guys have to say on the subject of delaying the ‘but’ or ‘and’ until later in the story? For example, in Schlock Mercenary, Future!Kevin makes a fortune gambling. This comes with a fairly serious ‘but’ that we don’t see until several books later.

  6. Excellent discussion, folks!

    I would like to emphasize something that isn’t mentioned.

    The more that I look at try/fail cycles, there are some criteria that I want.

    1) The try cycle should feel organic. In other words, the character tries to succeed in a way that that particular character would try.
    2) The try cycle should represent the protagonist’s best efforts.
    3) The try cycle is best if it is surprising–something out of the norm, so that thing tried surprises the audience.
    4) The character chooses his or her method of resolving the problems from a complex menu of options. In other words, they don’t simply react to the problem, but consider a dozen ways to react, often incorporating several possible reactions.
    5) When the character either fails or succeeds, the character fails or succeeds spectacularly, and in a way that surprises both the protagonist and the reader. (For example, Frodo takes the Ring to the Crack of Doom, but rather than throw it in, it is Gollum who bites off his finger and falls in while celebrating (in response to a curse that Frodo put on him earlier in the novel.)

    This is a great topic, and very complex–deserving of another broadcast, I think.

  7. Indiana Jones meets the Princess Bride, with a side helping of Star Wars? What a spectacular idea! But what could go wrong? The Ark, the Force, and don’t forget the Game of Argonauts! If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again… whoops, there goes another rubber tree?

    Read all about it, in the archives or over here in the transcript!


  8. Failing at something small can do the butterfly effect thing too… especially in political thrillers, or where there are constant moving parts.

    BTW, getting the princess from the castle is such a Victorian notion of the Medieval period that’s so wrong. Many women kicked butt and didn’t even have time to take names. Heloise, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila. Maybe she doesn’t want to leave the castle at all. Maybe they are trying to get her out, but she’s absconded already. Many the prince rescuing her is a dufus whose tried so many times and he just won’t get the fact that when she kicked him in the face it wasn’t an accident.

    Some Swamp Princes want to just sing and don’t even want large tracts of land.

    But plot doesn’t only revolve around conflict. It also revolves around things like releasing and controlling the release of information in well placed spots. It’s discovering past histories, and critical information…. for both the characters and the viewers.

  9. In regards to the “Indiana Jones” comment: Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t about the quest to get the Ark. It’s about whether or not Indiana Jones gets the real treasure: Love. The Ark is a plot device.
    Indy goes through several try/fail cycles to “repay his debt”to Marion. It’s not a monetary debt: it’s an emotional one. And he fails spectacularly, getting her killed as far as he knows in a truck explosion! Even when he finds her alive, he fails again and chases the Ark instead of rescuing her, and the two of them are imprisoned again. When he recovers the Ark and Marion, on the boat back to the US? They kiss, they don’t stare at the Ark.
    After Marion and the Ark are stolen away by the submarine, he eventually is tied to a stake with her, and only by turning away from his quest for the Ark and closing his eyes does he save her, and by the end of the film, he has his true reward: Marion Ravencroft, while the Ark is sealed away, forgotten. When they are the only ones left alive with the Ark, the emotional payoff isn’t them and the ark, it’s them embracing and then holding hands.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark is about Indiana Jones getting a heart, not about finding artifacts.

  10. What is bad writing, and what are the signs? If you four were those bad writers from the first question I asked, what (bad) advice would you give and what would be the name of the podcast?

  11. As I listened to this episode, it occurred to me that these same try/fail cycles can be used when writing an antagonist’s plot line to increase tension or create a believable sudden twist. In Les Miserables, Inspector Javert keeps showing up at the most inconvenient moments. He doesn’t succeed, but he manages to screw things up for Jean Valjean. In the Half-Blood Prince, I’d almost written Draco Malfoy off as a threat until he disarms Dumbledore on the castle tower. This moment wouldn’t have had nearly the impact, had the reader not already seen Draco fail. It creates a certain sympathy between reader and antagonist that makes the world feel more real.

    Villains are people too, and should have their fair shot at try/fail.

  12. Hey guys, when the cultural aproppiation podcast will come out? I’m very anxious for this one, because is something that I’m really worried about. For example, I’m brazillian, and our official history it saids that we’re the mix of “Portuguese, Native Americans and African (from many countries)” cultures, so it’s okay for me to use African mythological elements on my story?

    1. We wanted to do it this week, but there were serious audio glitches. Some of the best comments and statements were completely inaudible. We’ll be recording this again another time.

  13. I have a feeling that the ‘Buy Dan Bacon’ line is a spectacular failure. He seems to be fond of those. :P

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