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Monday, December 13, 2021

Myth: "Keep Your Character Failing until the End."

Sometimes in the writing community, people say things like, "Keep your protagonist failing until the end"--in fact, I've probably said this more than once. But like a lot of writing "rules," it's sort of a half-truth . . . or even a quarter-truth, especially if you are writing a long story like a novel. 

What people really mean is that almost always, the protagonist's main conflict shouldn't be fully resolved until the end. I mean, that's pretty much how story works. 

Still, there are a couple of exceptions even to this, such as if you are writing a story that comes across as more biographical or episodic, so that we are following the protagonist through sequential conflicts, where each gets resolved within its appropriate section. 

With that aside, however, it's still important to not take this advice too literally. 

Reading a story where the protagonist is quite literally constantly failing is as boring as reading a story where the protagonist is quite literally constantly succeeding. In fact, it may even be more boring, because at least the latter has a sense of progress. 

As New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson talks about in his writing lectures, a sense of progress is key when it comes to writing a satisfying plot. 

In some stories, this may actually be a sense of progress--meaning, the protagonist (and often by extension, the audience) thinks they are making progress, when in a twist, it is revealed that they aren't, or that they are making progress in the wrong direction. Nonetheless, there is still a sense of progress (read: success) along the way. 

In contrast, a story that doesn't have any sense of progress can start to feel rather stagnant. A plot where the protagonist is only ever dealing with setbacks (read: failures) gets frustrating. If taken to an extreme, it can also convey that our choices and actions don't influence our life's course--that it doesn't really matter what we do because we'll always fail.

That's probably not the type of story you want to write.

You also probably don't want to write a story where the protagonist constantly fails and then suddenly, magically solves the problems at the end.

Instead, it's usually best to allow the protagonist to experience both progress and setbacks--like real life. 

Typically, you want your protagonist to gain some ground through the middle. They may accomplish smaller goals that tie into the major goal, or they may at least succeed in a plan--even if it's not the best plan or it doesn't fix their problems completely. 

Often if a protagonist succeeds in a goal before the end, they will discover that obtaining the goal doesn't actually solve the right problems, or, alternatively, that getting the goal has led to new obstacles. This will keep the story interesting whenever the character finds success.

In his book Story, Robert McKee recommends switching up failures and successes when it comes to major plot points. This has also been echoed by others, like Blake Snyder in Save the Cat!. What this means is, if the midpoint is a seeming success, then the second plot point should be a seeming failure, or vice versa. 

While this can definitely be helpful, personally, I sometimes find it misleading and confusing--mainly because in many stories, seeming successes and seeming failures will go hand-in-hand at major plot points. Often a major failure is followed up by a big success, or a big success is followed up by a major failure. Nonetheless, I like the overall idea of creating a sort of zigzag on some level--whether that's scene level, act level, narrative level, or something else. When we have the protagonist zig toward a success then zag into a failure, each moment feels sharper and more powerful, because of the stark contrast. Still, this doesn't necessarily mean you should perfectly alternate between the two: success, then failure, then success, then failure. It's okay to have two scenes of success, followed by a failure, or vice versa.

Basically, the main idea is to use both progress and setbacks to best effect.

Don't take any "failing" advice to an extreme. I was once at a writing conference where the instructor said the way to write a story was to think of the worst things you could possibly do to the protagonist, and then do them. This may be helpful to some writers, for some stories, to some extent. But if our protagonists literally never catch a break or never gain at least a little ground, their stories probably won't be very satisfying.


The Advent Calendar for Writers Giveaway is currently happening at Writers Helping Writers. Each day from now until Dec. 14th, a new writerly giveaway is revealed.

And in case you missed it, I'm giving away a content and line edit of a winner's first chapter. 

The best part? If you already follow me online, you already qualify to enter! You just need to make a few clicks. And you can start by going to my advent calendar giveaway page. 

These gifts, and more, have been revealed:

Dec 1: A 1-Year Subscription to Fictionary Storyteller ($200)

Dec 2: A consult with publishing insider Mark Leslie ($99)

Dec 3: The Spun Yarn’s Manuscript Feedback Package ($499)

Dec 4: A 1-Year Subscription to ProWritingAid ($79)

Dec 5: A First Chapter Professional Edit ($115)

Dec 6: A Month of Story Coaching ($450)

Dec 7: A 1-Year Subscription to One Stop for Writers ($90)

Dec 8: A $200 Gift Certificate for Lawson Writer’s Academy ($200)

Dec 9: A Storrior Subscription Box for Writers & Screenwriters ($39) . . . 

Visit the advent page to enter! You have until Dec. 19th to enter any of the giveaways. 


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