As the holiday season comes to a close, we finally get the time to sit back and relax before our lives get back to normal. However for some of us, this time of year means anything but returning to a regular routine. New year's resolutions are a popular tradition for many people wanting to have a fresh start with the beginning of another year. Sadly, many of us will fail those objectives because we often set goals too high or lack the motivation to reach them. Failure is an important part of the learning process which everyone goes through.
Though this might sound like the beginning of a motivational speech or a self help book, I do have a point to make. As in life, failure plays an important part in fiction.
You must fall before learning how to pick yourself up.
Here is a condensed recap from some of my previous lessons:
A story is a series of interconnected events, built around a setting and cast of characters, which leads the audience to an intended conclusion. This outcome is the central objective of a story which motivates the Protagonist to act. Before reaching their goal, the Protagonist is usually confronted with a conflict or an obstacle, hindering the progress between them and their goal.
In literary terms, failure is easy enough to understand; it is a negative consequence to an action if success is not achieved. But how does this apply to fiction? Look at consequences as a coin toss; your possible outcomes are heads or tails (win or lose). The concept of “win or lose” can therefore be considered as an integral component of both the goal and the conflict. Without failure, (or at least the possibility thereof) the characters in a story would have no challenges to overcome, making the story stagnant.
Making the audience believe the Protagonist might fail is important, as it adds tension to the storyline. Failure is also vital for character development, as it adds credibility to their existence as well as being a part of their personal growth throughout the story. The risk of failure also makes the pitfalls or antagonists more threatening, because if the source of conflict did not have the power to defeat the Protagonist, they would seem irrelevant.
Failure can be happen in many ways, but usually originates from one of two sources: either from lacking or misinterpreting. In terms of lacking, the Protagonist simply does not have what is needed to achieve his goal. This could be anything from not being strong enough to defeat a monster, not having enough charm to win someone’s attention or not having enough money to buy a car. In terms of misinterpreting, the Protagonist fails to achieve his goal through a mistake on his part. An example could be when a trap backfires because the Protagonist did not take into account a certain piece of information (à la Scooby Doo).
However, correctly integrating failure in a storyline can be a challenge in itself. Here are eight steps to incorporating failure in a story.
Guidelines to proper failure:
1. Goal: Before we can show how the Protagonist will fail, we need to determine what they will fail at. The plans the main character decide upon must be defined and shared with the reader in order to see how failure will affect their expected outcome. Goals must also be important in the eyes of the characters, so as to amplify the costs of failure.
2. Conflict: The conflict is the obstacle preventing the Protagonist from reaching their goal. Conflict needs to be clearly defined, as it is the why failure has occurred. Keep in mind, the more imposing the conflict, the bigger the threat of failure will be, creating more tension in the process.
3. Confrontation: A confrontation is the moment the Protagonist interacts with the conflict. It is the pivotal moment where the audience witnesses the results of the Protagonists planning and decision making. A story will usually have more than one confrontation, often being series of failures leading up to a final, overall victory.
4. Consequence: The outcome from a confrontation is either success or failure, depending on actions taken or decisions made. If successful, the conflict is rectified, the goal is reached and the setting returns to normal. If unsuccessful, the Protagonist must now deal with the new situation resulting from the failed attempt.
5. Recovery: Having lost the confrontation and failed to achieve their goal, the Protagonist will temporarily distance themselves from the conflict in order to recoup from the new situation. Depending on the type of story, the recovery phase can be anything from narrowly escaping a dangerous situation to storming out of a dinner party.
6. Contemplation: Having distanced themselves from the conflict, the main character takes time to react the situation resulting from their loss. They evaluate the consequences, analyze any new information and try to understand why they failed.
7. Planning: In this phase, the Protagonist changes their strategy and considers a different approach to resolve the conflict. These alternatives should prove to be a bigger challenge than the initial attempt, requiring new elements the main character must acquire before proceeding (these elements could be abilities, items, knowledge, etc.). Once these new requirements have been obtained and a plan is chosen, the Protagonist makes the necessary preparations for another attempt to reach the goal.
8. Repeat: Armed with a new plan, the character confronts the conflict again. Go back to step 3, and repeat the process until the Protagonist is successful is step 4.
There is no limit to the amount of times a character can fail in a storyline, as no one ever accomplishes a difficult task on the first try. However, like everything else in literature, there must be balance. If the character fails too often, the reader will begin questioning the Protagonists abilities and motives. If a character proves to be so talented that they always succeed, the story will have no tension and the reader will lose interest. In both cases, the story risks losing credibility with the audience.
Who ever thought learning how to fail would come in handy! That is all I have for now, I hope you all take away something from this lesson. Until next time.