What is better, success or failure? Success feels better, yes, but what is more productive, say, for a story?
Emma Coats, former story artist for Pixar, says, “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.” The question, “What could go wrong?” is crucial for the plot of a story.
A character’s failures do oodles of good. They have to succeed sometime, but that can come later. In the meantime, the character can trip over stools, miss trains, and make a fool of himself time and time again. It helps the story, honestly; not to mention the humor.
In a book called The Million Dollar Shot, by Dan Gutman, the main character is thrown into a contest to win one million dollars by shooting a basketball. Through the course of the story, he misses a lot of baskets. Furthermore, he doesn’t do well shooting in front of an audience. At the end of the book, he stands in a basketball stadium, surrounded by crowds of people, about to shoot a basket he doesn’t know he can make. Because of his previous failures, it’s harder to predict his success.
That’s called suspense.
Failure adds suspense to a story because it generates questions. Can he do it? Is it even possible, considering what he’s gone through? Will I ever get my sandwich?
The movie How To Train Your Dragon has a wonderful soundtrack which, I confess, I enjoy too often. As I’ve listened, I’ve noticed a few recurring themes within the music. In Test Drive, there’s a section in the middle that’s full of dissonance and sustained chords, all waiting for a brilliant resolution that you know has to arrive. At this point in the movie, the character and his dragon have lost control and are plummeting toward the ground. It’s the character’s first real test drive of flying his dragon, so the scene is full of suspense, asking whether the character can pull it together and survive this thing. Eventually, he does, and we get the resolution we were waiting for. But this incident is the sort of thing that would convince anyone else not to try flying again. It was a close shave– much too close for comfort.
In this case, that counts as a failure. The character wasn’t able to keep it together at a crucial moment, and he barely survived. If it happened again, what would he do? Could he pull it off again?
Later, in a track called Battling the Green Death, the main character and his dragon are, unsurprisingly, battling their biggest foe yet. The music is full of action and loud noises and evil and good themes, and everything sounds great. At the very end of the track, approximately one minute from the end, the dissonant section from Test Drive returns. It resolves quickly. It reappears twice more, but resolves quickly each time. Each time, the music shows the character’s new mastery of flight. But then, as anyone who has seen the movie knows, the scene from earlier reappears; the character and his dragon lose control and plummet toward the ground. The character can’t pull it together this time.
In this case, the character actually succeeded the first time, and failed the last time. The first time, however, it was a hard-won victory to regain control. The second time, the expectation is that the character will succeed again with room to spare. We are proved wrong.
The failure to keep control in Test Drive is resolved by the ability to keep control in the final battle; however, the ability to regain control in Test Drive is offset by the failure to regain control in the final battle. This comparison of success in one place with failure in another is intriguing. To be honest, I have no idea if this is effective and useful, or if it’s a one-time deal. How To Train Your Dragon did extremely well with it. I don’t know if we can recreate that success. If you have any insight, it would be welcome.
Almost ending in death, Nemo’s failure to block the water filter in Finding Nemo created suspense for the second time he tried, which time he succeeded. Dory’s inability to remember things creates suspense later for when she’s trying to remember who Nemo and Marlin are. Marlin’s failure to let go early in the story creates suspense when he’s forced to let Nemo go.
Raising many different questions, failure is crucial to suspense. The art of generating suspense is the art of generating questions. As long as it doesn’t kill the main character, failure is good for stories. There is nothing that will kill a story more than a dead main character.
I think I’ve proved that failure is good, but failure is only good in moderation. I have a character named Isaac Phael, who I created specifically to be dull, inept, and ready for a lot of character development. That idea backfired. The character couldn’t do anything because I had made him that way. He failed constantly, but his failures pushed him through his circumstances until he finally achieved success. Well. That’s what I had hoped for him. He never did achieve success– he ended up blind and I never finished his story. Oops.
Characters have to be good at something, however minor. (I read that yesterday from Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint.) They can fail occasionally, but don’t make them inept. They have to succeed. Eventually.