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Try/Fail cycles for conflict

Using try/fail cycles to build your short story

David Gane
David Gane
1 min read

Yesterday, I shared Mary Robinette Kowal’s lesson on building your story around milieu, inquiry, character, or event (MICE) and nesting them inside of each other.

Today, we’ll continue by looking at her discussion of try/fail cycles and how they can build out the center of your story.

In the beginning, your character has a problem they need to resolve. This is your story’s dramatic conflict.

As they move towards it, they must encounter try/fail cycles. Your character will try different actions to solve their problem, but they must continually fail.

If they don’t fail, they resolve the conflict and the story ends.

These fails come in two forms:

  1. yes/but - yes, their action succeeds, but a new problem happens.
  2. no/and - no, their action doesn’t succeed, and a further complication occurs.

Each of these try/fail cycles continues to progress the story forward.

The story ends when they resolve the problem with a try/success cycle. Again, it can happen in two ways:

  1. yes/and - yes, their action succeeds, and an additional thing now happens.
  2. no/but - no, they don’t succeed, but something occurs to move the story forward.

If we revisit our nested story from yesterday, you can see both a try/fail and try/success cycles occur:

  1. the character investigates a murder
  2. but falls into a hole. (fail)
  3. He doesn’t get out of the hole and now a tornado approaches. (fail)
  4. He survives the tornado (success)
  5. and gets out of the hole. (success)
  6. He doesn’t solve the murder but finds a clue. (success)
Remember that the best way to study this form is to practice with it.

David Gane Twitter

Co-writer of the Shepherd and Wolfe young adult mysteries, the internationally award-winning series, and teacher of storytelling and screenwriting.