Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Try/Fail Cycles with Yes, But/No, And

Without conflict, there is no story. You’ve probably heard this before, and it’s true. For a story to work, you need:

a) A protagonist who wants something, and

b) Something to get in the way of the protagonist achieving that goal

You need to give your protagonist a treasure to find, a dragon to slay, a puzzle to solve, or a lover to woo. And then you need to put obstacles between your protagonist and the prize. Your story will look something like this:

try cycle hero

Of course, your protagonist doesn’t just go charging straight through all those obstacles. Instead, most stories have the protagonist working through the obstacles one at a time, with the level of difficulty and stakes rising at each turn. This creates a “story arc” that looks something like this:

try cycle 1

But, in better stories, the protagonist’s climb up that arc is anything but smooth. No easy stroll up a gradual hill for the protagonists of better stories. Nope. They have to climb the stairs one at a time, and each stair is an obstacle that (once overcome) brings them one step closer to their goal. And sometimes, they do the one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance. That looks like this:

try cycle 2

But, even more engaging than the “stair” story arc, is the story arc that has not only multiple obstacles, but also pitfalls and false wins. In this story arc, your protagonist isn’t just checking off steps in the journey like a paint-by-numbers quest. Oh, no. In the best stories, the protagonist must endure the ups and downs of the Try/Fail Cycle.

try cycle faces

The Try/Fail Cycle is what makes up the middle of your story. It’s what drives things forward, ups the ante, and raises the stakes. It’s what gives your protagonist the chance to earn the happy ending. The story arc with Try/Fail Cycles looks something like this:

try cycle 3

… your protagonist not only has to climb up the “big picture story arc,” there are also all these smaller peaks to climb and valleys to fall into. Your protagonist hikes up and thinks, “Oh! This is the top!” only to realize this peak is only an interim goal, and then suddenly tumble into a crevice or fall into a pit. Oops! (That’s the fail part.)

To help you ratchet up the tension even more, try employing the “Yes … But/No … And” technique:

try cycle yes no

Did the protagonist achieve the interim goal?

  • Yes, but [insert complication or new obstacle here].
  • No, and [guess what? things just got worse, because …].

“Yes, But/No, And” works at the scene level as your protagonist either succeeds or fails while attempting to achieve interim goals. Some examples:

  • Derek wants to buy the girl at the bar a drink. Does he succeed?
    • Yes, but he finds out that she’s a he.
    • No, and the girl’s boyfriend is none too pleased.
  • Julia is being chased by bad guys and wants to get her horse to jump over the creek. Does she succeed?
    • Yes, but the horse breaks its leg on the landing, leaving Julia stranded out on the trail.
    • No, and now Julia’s pursuers have her cornered.

You get the idea.

Try/Fail Cycles and the Yes, But/No, And technique. Go, now. Have some fun with these. Let me know how you make out!

··• )o( •··


NOTE: Though I believe these concepts are pretty universal, I must tip my hat to the excellent writing folk at the Writing Excuses podcast for bringing them so clearly and helpfully to my attention. (Seriously, if you’re not listening to these guys yet, TUNE IN!)

For more from Mary, Brandon, Howard, and Dan, check out Season 10, Episode 29.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

43 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Try/Fail Cycles with Yes, But/No, And

    • Thanks. The sketches were a last minute (late-night) addition, but kind of fun to do. 🙂
      Glad you enjoyed it!

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    • I have a love/hate relationship with those kinds of stories. On the one hand, I think they are much more realistic (and, therefore, relatable). On the other hand, I hate being left dangling. I do find myself craving a bit of closure at the end. I struggle with most short stories for this reason.

      Do you think you are better able to appreciate the ambiguous endings because of your familiarity with poetry?

  4. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Try/Fail Cycles with Yes, But/No, And | writingfoodpaintingfun

    • Definitely check them out. It’s a fabulously informative and entertaining podcast. Hope you like it!

  5. Great advice and very clearly presented! I’ll definitely keep that Yes but/No and -method in mind. I’ll also have to check out Writing Excuses, thanks for mentioning them!

    • Thanks, Niina. I’m so glad you found it helpful.
      And, I hope you do check out Writing Excuses. They are the best!

    • Love that these tips will make your diary. That’s awesome.

      I don’t have any online writing courses at the moment, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about pulling together for a while. When I do, it’ll be announced here on the blog, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can think of any other resources out there that might help you … and I’ll share in a future blog post if I think of them.

      Definitely check out the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s free, and the current season is set up as a sequential writing class that walks listeners through all the major pieces of story telling from concepts to character, scene structure to pacing, etc. It’s really great.

  6. Yes. Appreciate all the helpful courses and advice etc but also….If you have a relationship with the characters in your stories. ie (you look at life from the perspective of people in your imagination) then what happens to them is like life itself unplanned and as you write their journey unfolds. Find your people get inside their minds and then write…..lwrite….write. When you read back you will find to your surprise that conflict, resolution, and dramatic events you had never (planned) like life itself just flow. Creativity and writing to me are like a flowing river………not even the writer knows what is around the bend in the life of their characters until they get there. This is of course unless you want to be famous and make lots of money then you have to be crafty to find current trends often at the sacrifice of your unique voice. Just a thought. Thanks for the blog.

    • I love how you’ve described this, Faye.
      Though I am a die-hard plotter (vs. panster), I agree wholeheartedly that there’s a “relationship” factor that comes into play in any story creation. If writing stories was nothing more than filling in the blanks in a formula, then I suppose everyone would do it. But there’s something else in play … almost like stepping into another world or reality, where though you are the “creator” you are never fully in control, and sometimes things happen that surprise you, and sometimes the things that surprise you are the best parts. There is definitely an “unfolding,” as you put it – a discovery, an unearthing, a reveal. There is the journey you start out to take, and there is the journey you actually take, and they are hardly ever exactly the same.
      Thanks for this valuable add. It’s something that deserves more exploration in a later post.

  7. Pingback: [Reblog] Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Try/Fail Cycles with Yes, But / No, And | An Alien out of Time

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    • Thanks very much. It’s a topic about which I could write much more, but I wanted to try and keep this intro as bite-sized as possible.
      Glad you enjoyed the drawings, too. 🙂

  9. Reblogged this on vellichor cafe and commented:
    I don’t know about you, but I’ve read hundreds of student’s stories that are lacking any sort of plot. Stories without any kind of driving action, usually are incredibly boring. I found this great article to help create conflict in your stories.

  10. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Try/Fail Cycles with Yes, But/No, And | free2changeblog

  11. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Try/Fail Cycles with Yes, But/No, And | readwritebabble

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