Sunday, February 12, 2012

Four Elements of a Try-Fail Cycle (as Demonstrated by Breaking Bad)

I had a breakthrough about try-fail cycles while I was watching Breaking Bad yesterday. (Dan Wells and Marion Jensen recommend this as a great show for writers who want to learn about plot and character development, and they were right, at least for me.)

I've heard a lot about try-fail cycles, of course. I knew the basics--the protag keeps trying and failing until something works--, and I could probably even have recited some of the basic principles of a good try-fail cycle if asked to, but I didn't really get it. In fact, the try-fail cycle in my own novel was killing me.

So instead of writing, I spent several nights watching Breaking Bad. (I would not recommend watching TV instead of writing, and normally I wouldn't have done it, but I was stuck, yo) and suddenly there was an episode that illustrated try fail cycles incredibly well. I think it was because the objective (to get the RV to start so they don't die in the middle of the New Mexico desert) was clear and simple and each cycle was so discrete that it allowed me to easily identify and analyze each component of the cycle. While watching, I realized that each cycle had several important characteristics.

Now an analysis of those cycles, and a total spoiler alert for Breaking Bad 2.9, "Four Days Out."

I learned that good try-fail cycles have at least four important characteristics.

  • First, each attempt increases in either the level of sacrifice or the level or resourcefulness, possibly both, that it requires.
  • Second, each try-fail period has a failure penalty (usually foreshadowed in some way) that makes the situation worse, either by using up a needed resource or introducing an additional complicating element to the situation. The failure penalty is different from the sacrifice required. The sacrifice required to make the attempt is known to the character in advance, and they choose to make it. The failure penalty is an unexpected outcome of the attempt that complicates the situation further.
  • Third, each attempt comes progressively closer to succeeding but ultimately fails.
  • Fourth, the attempt that finally works requires either great sacrifice or great resourcefulness in ways that are unique to the protag's situations and ability and that, ideally, the audience does not predict.

Using these four characteristics to increase the narrative tension makes it so that when the solution ultimately comes, it's satisfying to the audience. Solving the earlier, lower-risk version of the problem with any of the earlier low-sacrifice, low-resourcefulness attempts results in a low-satisfaction ending. (Personally, I think this is why so many readers were dissatisfied with the end of Breaking Dawn. They say it's because it lacked a battle, but I think what they really mean is that it lacked a satisfying try-fail cycle.)

So here's how that played out in this episode:

Attempt One: They siphon gas out of the trailer into the generator so that they can use the generator to jump the RV's battery. When they start the generator, it bursts into flame because Jesse has unwittingly spilled gasoline on it. In order to put out the flame, Jesse dumps their drinking water on the generator.
Sacrifice required to make this attempt: Low. (Walt gets a little gas in his mouth, but it's no big deal.)
Resourcefulness required to make this attempt: Low. (Pretty much anyone could think of that.)
Closeness to success: Low. They couldn't even get the generator started.
Failure penalty: They lost their water and, one assumes, damaged the part of the generator that uses gas to create power. The penalty, running out of water, is foreshadowed earlier in the episode where Walt asks Jesse if that's really all the water he brought and Jesse asks him how much water he thinks they're going to use.
Audience satisfaction if that solution had worked: Low. No one wants to see a low-risk situation resolved with little resourcefulness and little sacrifice.

Attempt Two: They use Walt's cell phone to call for help. Unfortunately, the person they call gets lost and the phone's battery dies as a result of the phone call.
Sacrifice required: Moderate. (Walt has resisted using his phone to call for help because he believes his wife tracks his cell activity. Now he's forced to take that risk.)
Resourcefulness required: Low.
Closeness to success: Moderate. They believe for many hours that their buddy is on the way and that they're out of trouble.
Failure penalty: The phone battery is dead. This penalty is foreshadowed during the first phone call when Walt briskly warns Jesse to make it fast because roaming drains the battery. Therefore, we are not surprised when the battery dies during the second phone call. They now no longer have that option even as a last resort.
Audience satisfaction if that solution had worked: Low. I would have been relieved that they were alive, but I would have expected another complication or some other larger plot to define the episode.

Attempt Three: They spend all day in the blazing sun with no water manually winding the generator. After exhausting themselves and pinning all their hopes on this attempt, they are able to start the RV engine, and they burst into cheers, but the engine immediately dies. Since it took all their physical energy to generate enough power to start the engine once, they have no hope of being able to try again.
Resourcefulness required: Moderate/high. Only through Walt's scientific expertise do they get this idea. Most people wouldn't think of manually winding the generator or if they did, they wouldn't know how.
Sacrifice required: High. The video makes it clear that this is an exhausting, dehydrating process that takes many, many hours and all of their physical energy.
Closeness to success: Painfully high, but not quite there.
Failure penalty: They've taxed themselves to the point of dehydration and extreme exhaustion. They are now many hours closer to dying and there's no chance of them being able to walk out of the desert. Additionally, because they had pinned all their hopes on this succeeding, they pay a high penalty in loss of morale when it fails. Both of these penalties are foreshadowed when Walt says to Jesse earlier, "This has to work. Do you understand me?"
Audience satisfaction if this solution had worked (which I thought it would): Moderate. It would have felt acceptable, but not really triumphant.

Attempt Four: Walt has given up, but Jesse gives him a frantic talk about doing "something scientific" to save them. In a flash of inspiration, Walt realizes that they can build a battery from scrap metal and parts of the trailer. They build the battery from loose coins, nuts, and bolts, and hook it up. The engine starts. They make it home.
Sacrifice required: Low, though they are required to have one final rally.
Resourcefulness required: Extremely high. It's important to note that the resourcefulness relies on the protag's specific strengths. This solution is exciting only because it draws upon Walt's scientific knowledge, which is his distinguishing trait. It's not easy for Walt to execute this solution (that would be unsatisfying), but it would be impossible for almost anybody else.
Audience satisfaction when this works: High. At least good enough for a single plot element. I suspect that series satisfaction will require a higher level of sacrifice, but for a plot resolution, the high-risk, high-resourcefulness solution works.

If you've stuck with this post this far, thank you. I'm not a published author, so you have no reason to think that anything I have to say about the craft of writing is worthwhile. In truth, I wrote this largely for myself. It helped to clarify my understanding and even generate some additional insights. But if you've already done me the favor of reading this, I'm asking one more: before I plunge into outlining my own try-fail cycle, I'd like to know if there are any other elements I'm missing. Is there anything else that's vital to a successful cycle that I should make sure I include? If so, I'd love to hear your explanations and examples of those elements.


  1. Doing some of my own research for try/fail cycles today I came across your post. This is great stuff. I really like the way you connected it to character. I think that's something that's normally left out of the lessons taught about the try/fail cycle.