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What is the simplest action?

Using actions, try/fail cycles, and Die Hard to tell stories simply.

David Gane
David Gane
1 min read

Yesterday, I referenced an interview with Mary Robinette Kowal, where she said:

What’s the smartest thing my character could do to get to the next stage? How does it go terribly, terribly wrong?

I often say that story is WOARO: a character wants something, an obstacle stands in the way, the character takes action, there is a response, and this goes back and forth until there is an outcome (good or bad).

But a story can be simplified to action and response. A character does something to get to the next stage, and the response makes it difficult.

As well in the past, I have mentioned Kowal’s Try/Fail Cycles:

  • yes, but - yes, the character succeeds, but something else happens.
  • no, and - no, the character doesn’t succeed, and something else happens.

So let’s go back to Die Hard, which I mentioned yesterday, and see it in action:

  • John McClane tries to reconcile with his wife, and they fight, and terrorists invade.
  • He sets off the fire alarm to alert the authorities, but the terrorists send them away and send someone up to where John is.
  • He tries to get the cop’s attention by breaking the glass, and he can’t break it, and they send more terrorists his way.

When you are looking for a story, keep it simple. Find a thing a character is trying to do, then make it go terribly, terribly wrong—at least until they finally achieve a Try/Success Cycle:

  • no, but - no, the character doesn’t succeed, but something else happens.
  • yes, and - yes, the character does succeed, and something else happens.

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