Try/Fail Cycles and Character Circuitry

In this post, I invite you to think about character circuitry and gain an understanding of try/fail, and try/succeed cycle patterns in genre fiction. 

Conflict:

Before we get into what character circuitry is plot-wise, and how try/fail and try/succeed cycles work, let’s take a moment to talk about conflict.

In genre fiction, it’s important for the protagonist and antagonist to have both external and internal conflicts. 

If the protagonist and antagonist don’t have conflicts they will have nothing to struggle with as they each strive to attain their story goal.  

And, a story where characters have no goal, no motivation to go for their goal, and no conflicts to struggle with, will be dull and boring.  

Dull and boring characters lead to the reader losing interest and wandering off to do something else with their valuable time.  

Tip: Remember that characters, all characters, even minor ones, act from an internal, often hidden agenda. They don’t act without a reason for doing so or without having something to gain. Keep this in mind whenever you’re developing characters because this will help with creating characters with goals, motivation and conflicts.

Character Circuitry:

Character circuitry happens when one character makes a decision and takes an action that affects another main character. The back and forth happens in a circular pattern when the protagonist versus antagonist, or vice versa.

As the character circuitry and try/fail cycles move through the plot, the characters play off one another which leads to escalating conflict and rising action to climax in the story. 

The character circuitry images above show how the action of the antagonist kicks off a cause-and-effect ‘because of that…’ act and react story pattern which results in the protagonist taking an action, and moving into a try/fail cycle. The protagonist tries something to overcome the antagonist and reach the story goal, while the antagonist acts against the protagonist in a try/succeed cycle. 

Try/Fail Cycles and Character Circuitry:

When thinking about story structure, keep in mind that story conflict happens when one character’s goal, motivation and conflict intersects with another character’s goal, motivation and conflict. In these scenes, the characters spark off one another and character circuitry begins to happen.  

If we think about the hero’s journey, the protagonist is living their normal life, then something happens, and this results in an inciting incident. The inciting incident is the moment in the story when the protagonist knows their world has changed forever and they are called to act. 

But does the protagonist jump in and act? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. 

Often in adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, and epic stories that follow the Hero’s Journey plot the protagonist will refuse the call to action, but then something else happens in the story and this forces the protagonist to answer the call to act. 

But who or what kicks off the inciting incident?

Often it is the antagonist who has taken an action that violates the protagonist’s world/happy life, and character circuitry begins to happen in the story as the conflicts escalate.

What is a try/fail cycle?

A try/fail cycle is an attempt by the protagonist to get to their story goals but the antagonist stands in their way and the protagonist fails. The character interaction and fall out between them creates conflict and a try/fail cycle for the protagonist. At the same time a try/succeed cycle happens for the antagonist.

When the protagonist fails they are forced to try again because they are motivated to keep going for what they want. Most stories have at least three try/fail cycles before the protagonist succeeds. This is the structure you’ll see in a lot of action films.

Tip: Watch movies and study try/fail cycles of the protagonist, and try/succeed cycles of the antagonist. This will sharpen your awareness of these story patten cycles and character circuitry. Also take note that in most popular fiction, try/fail and try/succeed cycles happen in threes. We humans like patterns of three in stories.

When the protagonist tries a second time they fail again, and this results in more conflict than the first try/fail cycle, which leads to the protagonist having to go into deeper reflection, regroup again, and plan for the third attempt. 

If the protagonist has a small win instead of a fail at the try/fail point of the story, then the conflict needs something else to keep driving the story forward. So, what do you do then? 

Easy!

Something worse happens as a result of their win. 

This brings about more conflict and the protagonist has to deal with the story-related issue as an additional conflict in their quest to get their story goal. But, a word of caution here… make sure the additional conflict marries with the point of the story and doesn’t spin the story off on a tangent which will need to be cut out during the structural edit/manuscript evaluation phase. 

The third try/fail attempt takes place around the climax of the story when the protagonist faces their arch nemesis, the antagonist. 

Often, in this scene the protagonist fails at first, but in a twist or reversal they find a way to dig deep and overcome whatever has been holding them back from giving their all, and they finally try and succeed in overcoming the antagonist. Yay! 

At the climax, when the protagonist is failing and at the mercy of the antagonist, they have to find a way to believe in themselves, or they may decide to throw caution to the wind and sacrifice themselves for those they love etc., and in doing so, they step into their power and win the battle...

or not… depending the type of story you’re writing. 

Honestly, watch movies and look for underdogs rising to overcome the oppressor. It gives us a joyous hit of yummy story delight to see the underdog win the day.

The story ends with a wrap up of the plot lines and answers the story’s question which would have been posed at the start of the story. 

For example, if it is a mystery then the story question will be who committed the crime and why? The end of the story will fulfil that promise and the reader will know who committed the crime and why. 

Hidden in the 'try/fail' and 'try/succeed' cycles of a story there is character circuitry.

Character circuitry is what happens between one character and another as I said above. It creates an escalating cause-and-effect conflict-driven trajectory for the story. Scenes build on one another because of what happened before and how the characters choose to act or react. 

In brief, here’s a reminder of how this try/fail and try/succeed story structure works:

  • The antagonist takes an action that kicks off the inciting incident of a story. 
  • This forces the protagonist out of their normal life and they are called to take action, but maybe they don’t want to answer the call for some reason so they refuse the call. Think Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins is called to act but he isn't too keen on going on an adventure even though a part of him does want to. This causes him to have inner conflict and challenge the cultural expectations of the hobbits. 
  • But then the antagonist does something worse, and it’s closer to home for the protagonist. This is a difficult time for the protagonist, but something compels them to act and gives them the motivation to go after their story goal. They choose to accept the call to action. 
  • The protagonist takes action then and it directly affects the antagonist. Maybe the protagonist stops one of the antagonist’s hench people from carrying out the antagonist’s orders, and that infuriates the antagonist. 
  • The antagonist takes another action that affects the protagonist. And so it goes as the story builds to the climactic scene. 

Character circuitry and try/fail cycles build conflict, tension and drive the story forward to the climax. 

As the external plot unfolds, the protagonist character moves through inner conflicts that prepare them to be who they need to be to face the climax of the story. There is internal character development that happens as a result of the external plot. 

How the protagonist perceives what is happening in the story, the meaning they make from what is happening, and how they respond to what is happening, all mix together and add to the character’s internal development in the story. 

As characters move through stories, most of them learn something important that conveys the point of the story to the reader. This revelation is shows the culmination of the character’s inner experiences too. But it’s subtle and shown through a scene, not by telling the reader. 

You’ll see this try/fail and character circuitry pattern happen between the protagonist and antagonist of many action movies. Think super hero movies, adventure movies, science fiction movies. 

If you’re interested, I recommend watching Star Trek Generations to see how Jean-Luc Picard moves through the try/fail cycle until he enters the try/succeed phase and is successful at thwarting the antagonist. Pay attention to what he learns at the end of the story. He reflects on his experiences and this connects with the point of the story. 

Until next time, happy writing. 

And if you need help with your story, why not book a discovery call.

Selina writes paranormal romance and mystery.

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