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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
… 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:
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!
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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 Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.