It’s been a while since I’ve done a case study, and since I enjoy talking about them so much, I figured it’s been long enough.
What I’d like to do is talk about a plot type and then see it in action. This plot can be used as a side-plot or a main plot depending on what type of story you want. Because I subscribe to Brandon Sanderson’s WriteaboutDragons. He calls it the Try/Fail plot. The idea is that when a character reaches a challenge a two-pronged series of options happens.
He fails AND the problem gets worse, or he succeeded BUT something else goes wrong. Sanderson also calls this the “No-and, Yes-but” system.
So let’s see this in action:
I’m a huge fan of The 100. My mom turned me on to the show, and I think it’s fantastic. One thing it does better than any other show I can think of is use that plot to keep the conflict going and the tension high. The whole show is a giant “no-and, yes-but” plot, and each challenge follows the same formula. I’ll go over a short example in a part of an episode, just to avoid spoilers and any lawyers looking to take the $5 I have to my name.
The episode title is Many Happy Returns. It’s Episode 4 of Season 3: Here’s the scene. A group of teenagers are searching for one of their friends. During their search, they discover someone trapped, hanging off a cliff by a thin branch. They’re already looking for someone they lost, but they can’t leave this person to die.
One teen grabs a rope and begins to go down to help the trapped teen. Does it work?
No! The rope breaks AND the kid who went down to save said trapped person FALLS TO HIS DEATH!
So what do they do next? Trapped person is still stuck on a branch.
They scour the area (some wreckage) for things to cobble together to get some stuff they can use as a rope. (You see they lost their rope on the first attempt.) Down goes one of the MAIN characters. Does it work?
Well, YES…he gets to her….BUT….
Their hodgepodge rope breaks. One of the characters has to hold the pieces in each hand becoming a human link in the rope. Does he hold on?
(Well, lets pause for a second. That character holding the rope? He tried to kill the main character currently hanging by that hodgepodge rope. So it’s not hard to believe the guy would just let go. So here’s added tension. Let’s get back to this plot though.)
Does he hold on?
Yes…BUT….a group of “grounders” (savages) starts attacking!
Do they hold on? Yes, BUT one member of their team takes an arrow in the leg.
Do they hold on? Yes, BUT while they’re being attacked by grounders a horn sounds, which symbolizes that a vaporous acid is about to blow through the area. They have moments before they’re melted.
They pull their friend up. The main character realizes the kid who tried to kill him a few episodes back was the very one who was instrumental to saving his life.
What about that death mist? Turns out, that was the main character’s sister distracting the enemy.
Sanderson says in his video that he usually likes three failures before the characters reach the goal. If you look above, you’ll notice this mini-plot works in that regard too.
The try/fail plot is a great way to build tension. The trick is to look for ways to make complicated situations even more complicated. I hope this example helps you see how this plot works and is successful. I highly recommend The 100 because it’s good fun, and it’s great for studying plot structures. I’m a bigger fan of it now than I’ve ever been, though I like it for intense scenes like the one above. When there’s a struggle of some sort or conflict or important goal, I tend to ask myself, “Now how can I make this even more difficult.”
NOTE: Beware rage quit! The readers tend to want resolution. And if you keep delaying the issue without some sort of reward for the reader, you’re going to abandon them. If I had to offer you a number as advice, I’d say, don’t exceed five complications for a minor plot, especially if this is a sub plot. Readers tend to be more forgiving if you have a no-and followed by a yes-but. So yes, they get the guy off the rope, but now their party is smaller, and they’ve been delayed in finding the friend they originally went out to save. So the plot moves forward, and the subplot provide an added degree of complication. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,
2 thoughts on “Case Study: The Try/Fail Plot”
Interesting! I actually stopped watching the show because it was just getting too disturbing for my tastes, but the action did keep me engaged.
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I can see how there were things that crossed a line for some. One thing I think about is how these are all supposed to be adolescents (or at least they were in Season 1). Some of what happens based on that premise. I’ll confess the premise (especially season 2 and 3) was so fascinating, I couldn’t stop watching.