One of the most useful tools or techniques for writing engaging prose is the try-fail cycle. The try-fail cycle lies at the heart of how to unfold a conflict in such a way that it generates suspense.
The nuts and bolts of the try-fail cycle.
For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:
2) Yes, BUT
4) No, AND
Let's look at each of these.
Although in real life we love it when we get what we want, this is boring for others. When families get together at Christmas what's the gossip about? It's all about who got divorced, who lost their job. It's about the bad things--or at least the sad things--that have happened to the people in our lives.
Being told that, yes, the hero will succeed won't generate conflict. It's not interesting.
Imagine someone told you the following story:
Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob promptly got up and took himself over to the nearest waffle house and ate a hot, flaky, buttery, waffle. The End.
Even if we give Bob some motivation, it still doesn't help matters:
Bob's wife, Cindy, woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Cindy was seven months pregnant and hadn't had any appetite for the last three days. Her doctor was worried. When Cindy woke up wanting waffles Bob was overjoyed. "You wait right here," he said, "I'll get you a stack of the fluffiest, most mouth watering, waffles you've ever had. Be right back."
Bob jumped in his car, got the waffles, and gave them to his wife. She scarfed them down in no time and everyone was happy. The End.
See? Still boring.
I won't write it out, but what if we gave Bob a few obstacles? What if Bob jumped in his car and it wouldn't start? He investigates and discovers his battery is dead. Bob heads over to the neighbor's house hoping he'll help jump start his car but his neighbor isn't home.
Bob peers through the neighbor's window hoping the man just fell asleep on the couch. Instead of seeing his neighbor--an ancient relic who shuffles about, his underwear sagging dangerously--he sees an attractive young woman he doesn't recognize. She's moving around the living room putting valuables into a sack. His neighbour is being robbed!
Bob tries to call the police on his cell but can't get a signal. He wonders if he should bang on the window or say something to the intruder to scare her off. As Bob peers through the window wondering what he should do the woman turns and sees him. She screams something at him he doesn't understand (it's muffled by the glass), pulls a gun from her pocket and points it at him.
Bob, a spike of fear raising goosebumps along his arms ...
And so on.
That's not as boring. I might be able to do something with that. And it's all because we didn't give the hero what he wanted.
2. Yes, BUT ...
As we've seen, a hero needs setbacks because if what he desires were handed to him that would be dull.
With "Yes, BUT" we give the hero something he wanted but introduce a complication. For instance, in my story, Bob's goal was to drive to the waffle house and buy his wife some waffles. Is Bob able to get into his car? Yes! BUT his battery is dead. That's the complication.
By setting up goals and obstacles and making Bob hop from one to the other, getting in more trouble each time he fails, the story becomes more interesting. Why? Because character is revealed through adversity.
For fictional characters, answering the question, "Will the hero get what he desires?" with "No" is almost as bad as answering it with, "Yes." We don't want to see our heroes fail. We want to see them triumph over adversity, or at least make some progress toward triumphing. Imagine this scenario:
Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob tried to drive to a waffle house but his car wouldn't start. Dejected and waffle-less, Bob climbed back into bed. The End.
4. No, AND ...
This is very common. Not only doesn't the protagonist achieve what he set out to but another complication is thrown in his path. We saw it above. The question is: will he get a jump start from his neighbour? The answer: No, AND he has a gun pointed at him.
I'll talk more about this in a minute.
Conflicts & Setbacks
Your main character has goals, he wants things. But if he got everything he wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: be mean. Give your main character setbacks, lots of them.
In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie he finds the ark but is captured and, along with Marion, sealed inside an ancient burial vault and left to die.
What follows is one of the best sequences of conflicts and setbacks I've come across. Let's start after Indy finds the ark.
Question: Does Indy find the ark?
Complication: BUT Indy is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.
Remember that it has been established early on in the movie that Indiana hates snakes. Spiders and all manner of creepy-crawlies he's fine with, just don't bring him near a snake! (And, yes, I know that there's no logical reason why there would be that many snakes in an ancient burial vault, but the scene still works.)
Question: Do Indy and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Answer: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay.
Complication: BUT the torches are about to burn out.
Question: Do Indy and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Answer: Yes, Indy crashes a pillar through a wall providing them an escape.
Complication: BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that seem to come alive.
Question: Will Indy and Marion escape the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Complication: BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indy needs to get it back.
Notice that after every goal Indy achieves there is a setback.
Another fabulous sequence in the first Indiana Jones movie occurs a little after the midpoint when Indy decides he and Marion need to get on the plane that the German's will be using to fly the ark out of the country.
Indy fails in the end (the plane blows up) but the sequence of goals and conflicts create a memorable scene. Let's take a look.
Question: Will Indy commandeer the plane?
Complication: AND Indy is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.
Question: Indy and a bad guy fight. Will Indy win?
Complication: BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indy (AND the pilot sees indy and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).
Question: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indy. Will Indy escape being hit?
Answer: Yes, Indy dodges the pilot's bullets.
Complication: BUT the pilot keeps shooting.
Question: Indy is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indy, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Answer: No, Indy is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain.
Complication: AND the pilot is still shooting at him.
Question: The pilot takes aim at Indy, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indy survive?
Answer: Yes, indy survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious.
Complication: BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indy fights the Man-Mountain on the ground below.
Question: Marion climbs into the cockpit to remove the pilot and stop the plane from moving. Does she succeed?
Complication: AND Marion gets locked inside the cockpit.
You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.
One thing I want to point out before I leave this chapter is that the stakes for our hero gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indy just wants to board the plane, then he gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge guy he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire.
At the end of the scene an ocean of gasoline is rushing toward the burning remains of the gas canisters while the Man-Mountain continues to beat Indy to a pulp and, of course, the whole camp has noticed the gasoline barrels explode and is rushing to investigate. It's quite something.
Try-Fail cycles are present in every story. The next time you read a book or watch one of your favorite TV shows, look for the try-fail cycles.