Failure is Fun!

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.


54 thoughts on “Failure is Fun!

  1. Although I’ve never seen “How to Train Your Dragon,” I have seen Finding Nemo, and completely agree with what you said. During the scene where Nemo enters the water filter for the second time, I’m always a little nervous for the guy, even though I already know what happens.

  2. I saw you had movie titles in your post, and I smiled mischievously because that meant I get to use italics for a real reason in my comment.

    I agree with what you say about the movies. The bittersweet part about How To Train Your Dragon is that in the end when he….well, succeeds, he still fails in the end to stay in one piece. Poor guy. That plot twist had me bawling.

      1. Interesting. Either my computer’s being odd or something, but my last few comments I’ve published haven’t shown up. Oh no….it’ll probably publish them all later, and then you’ll see two comments from me that make no sense. *facepalm*


    RH’s insight…
    Hiccup starts as a failure to everyone even his dad. He’s scrawny and little, a klutz, and just can’t seem to do anything right outside of smithing. He starts out wanting to kill a dragon, wanting to be like everyone else. Then he learns about dragons. Really learns the truth about them and wants to change everyone else’s POV. If Hiccup succeeds, there will be peace on Berk. If he fails, there will be war of species and he will be disowned by his dad.
    Hiccup succeeded in little spurts… he got Toothless to trust him, he convinced Astrid that everything was okay about the dragons, he came very close to convincing his dad (he failed here), he convinced Snotlout, Fishlegs, and the twins, then he finally convinced his dad and Berk. Even though Hiccup failed and crashed in the end, he won the big victory. Crashing your dragon (and losing your foot) is a small failure compared to the victory stopping a war of dragons and Vikings, having your dad’s approval, and changing everyone’s opinion for the better. Those things weren’t as important in that perspective.
    Hiccup also had two kinds of successes and failures. One was with Toothless, the other was with the Vikings. But those two things were intertwined.
    I think for this to be successful, you have to have your MC start out a seemingly total failure, then you have a little success. Hiccup got Toothless to trust him. He still failed to the other vikings for a while, then he became popular by success in the arena. Then he shattered everyone’s world when he refused to kill that Monstrous Nightmare and when admitted he was friends with Toothless. He just lost all the respect from his dad. Then he earns it back in the end by leading Berk to victory and taking on the Green Death. You would have to remind your readers of the past failures and the little successes (without sounding cheesy) at the climax. And your readers have to know what is at stake and why that is important to your MC. Make those things count at the beginning of the story, too. And if MC is going to have a little failure at the end, (and I think this is a good idea) he had better win the big victory. I think we could call this a Frodo-Victory (“I lost my finger and I have a bad shoulder now, but I saved the world and my friends”).
    I think I just wrote a blog post…

  4. Failures are awesome. For characters. Er…I’m not so fond of them personally, but with Mr. Bean’s intellectual insight there, I’m pretty sure I’m a step away from being a genius too. A book about a character who ONLY failed would be depressing, that’s for sure. 😉

  5. Hear hear! Nobody wants to read about a superpowered character who can do everything perfectly right from the off. That said, sometimes its fun to set off a usually very competent character’s weaknesses. People respect a competent character, and if you can play it right they’ll feel horrifically sorry for them when they do hit failures, because both you and they realise that they can’t do everything. People can relate that to personal experience, and of course, that makes it all the more effective.

      1. Indeed. But it’s also kind of fun to break a reader’s complete faith in a character, in a way. They trust them and believe in them . . . and then you show them that their champion is just as mortal and fallible as they are. There’s a lovely pathos to that, if done right.

      2. “Competent” characters may be skilled, but they will still be naturalistic in the fact that their skills may generate or attempt to compensate for other weaknesses. “Completely bulletproof” characters translate roughly as Mary Sues. And if you don’t know what those are . . .

  6. Good post. Nothing makes success shine more than failure. And I totally agree with what Charley said.

    HTTYD wasn’t one of my favorite movies, but I do love that soundtrack, and I know exactly the part in Test Drive you’re talking about. I actually found a guy who figured out the sheet music for several of those pieces. I’m attempting to learn Forbidden Friendship, hoping do to Test Drive next.

  7. Hmmmm. Very, very good to know. Thanks for pointing that out. Failure creates suspense…


    I mentioned it over on the other post, Help me. Again, but I’ll mention it here, too. I haven’t seen that movie, but I love those parts of the soundtrack!

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