The Dangers of Failure
First, we need to go over how failure can damage your story when used incorrectly. While the specifics are nearly infinite, they nearly always fall into one of three broad categories.
The Story Stalls
The most common issue with failure is that it leaves the story with nowhere to go. To reach the boss fight, the hero needed to pick a lock or find a clue. When they fail to do that, there’s no way for the plot to advance. This bores the audience to tears and usually results in the heroes wandering around for a while until the author can think of another way to get them what they need.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are on a quest to find Voldemort’s horcruxes, but they fail every time they investigate a lead. Eventually they’re left without anything to do, which is the cause of all those infamous camping scenes. Then the story has to insert a random goblin who just happens to say critical information out loud where the heroes can hear.
The Story Gets Too Dismal
For conflicts to be meaningful, they need compelling stakes. That means when a hero fails, they usually lose something important. The downside is that if the hero loses too much, the story just gets too upsetting to follow. This is especially bad for stories that aren’t meant to be super dark, as many readers simply don’t enjoy depressing plot points. Even if you’re going for a dark story, eventually you’ll reach a point where it doesn’t feel credible for the heroes to triumph anymore, at which point the audience loses interest. Even if the protagonists somehow manage a win, it likely won’t be believable or satisfying.
This is what happens in the final third or so of The Last Jedi. Technically, the surviving Resistance fighters do escape, but so many of them have died that it seems like their cause is lost anyway. From three large ships, the Resistance has been whittled down so much its remaining members can fit inside the Millennium Falcon. There’s just no way they can challenge the First Order after that. And, predictably, the next film’s solution is to just generate more fighters and ships from nowhere.
The Failure Isn’t Believable
Every once in a while, authors need their hero to fail at something, but the failure isn’t credible. This is particularly likely when the hero is really powerful or has a lot of miscellaneous abilities. Readers expect heroes to act rationally unless given a strong reason to think otherwise. If the hero doesn’t use every tool at their disposal to defeat a challenge, it will feel contrived.
That’s a serious issue in A Darker Shade of Magic, where protagonist Kell has control over the four classical elements. The story needs him to lose a fight to some random goons, but he shouldn’t lose that fight because of the aforementioned elemental control. It is established that Kell can’t mind control the dudes, but he should still be able to beat them by, I don’t know, summoning a wall of earth to trap them. Which is exactly what he eventually does, but only as part of a last-minute escape.
Making the Failure Believable
Heroes tend to be pretty good at what they do. Even unlikely protagonists like Frodo Baggins usually have some trick up their sleeves to help them win the day. If you don’t account for this, the audience won’t accept it when your heroes fail.
The easy way to make failure believable is simply to show how the villains are capable enough to win the day. This might be through brute strength, or it could be through cunning. You don’t need to spell out exact troop numbers, and usually you shouldn’t, but the audience should have some idea what the bad guys can do. This is a little more challenging in prose stories with only a single viewpoint character, but you can still make it work. Your hero can hear rumors or cryptic prophecies about their enemy, which will prime the reader for the hero’s loss.
If you want the failure to be a surprise, you’ll need to foreshadow it ahead of time. The 100 employs this method in the penultimate episode of season two, when Clarke’s attempt to invade Mount Weather fails spectacularly, because of her ally’s betrayal. The show had already established that Clarke’s ally, Lexa, was in it more to help her own people than to assist Clarke, so that fits. The show also took pains showing that Mount Weather’s leader was a master of understanding what drove his enemies, so it made perfect sense that he’d make an offer Lexa couldn’t refuse.
Another option is to establish a character trait that will cause your hero’s failure. This might be a clear flaw, or it might be a trait that’s normally beneficial, so long as it affects the action in a major way. With this method, you’re turning the failure inward, and in most cases, your reader will take this as a sign that you’re building a character arc. So only do it if you’re interested in addressing the issue later in the story.
Most of The 100’s characters have numerous flaws, but the most relevant to this example is Finn in early season two. He goes from a peaceful idealist to a revenge-obsessed crusader, because he thinks the Grounders killed Clarke. This is shown numerous times through both his mannerisms and his dialogue. It comes to a head in the episode Human Trials, when during a search for his missing friends, Finn massacres a group of unarmed Grounder civilians. This has serious consequences for diplomatic relations, and eventually leads to Finn’s death.
Maintaining Momentum After a Failure
When your characters fail to accomplish their goals, you need to make sure there’s still somewhere for the story to go. That’s how you avoid the dreaded camping scenes. If the hero loses a battle, then they should retreat and prepare to find new allies. If they don’t find the mystery-solving clue, they should instead uncover a rumor that points them to a different suspect entirely.
Maintaining your forward momentum means that you can have your heroes fail as often as you like without stalling the story. It’s perfect for setting up twists and turns to keep the audience guessing. This is most applicable to high-action thriller stories, but even slow-burn romances benefit from a little unpredictability.
Characters on The 100 fail a lot, so the writers have plenty of experience in maintaining the story’s momentum. A prominent example takes place near the end of season one, when Clarke seems to have won a major victory. She’s just used her oratory skills to convince her comrades that they need to flee from a Grounder attack rather than stay and fight. The odds are insurmountable; they’ll die if they stay!
But then the Grounders cut off Clarke’s path of retreat, so she and her comrades have no choice but to return to their camp. This could have easily resulted in a stalled story, as the heroes wait around for another chance to flee. Instead, Clarke and her friends realize that fighting is now their only option, so they dig in and prepare for a siege.
Making sure your story has somewhere to go has another benefit: it tells your audience that failure is more likely. When the hero is making a Hail Mary pass with everything on the line, savvy audiences will realize that there’s no way they can actually fail, because then the story would be over. But if the hero is gambling with a loss they could actually survive, then it’s perfectly plausible they might fail. This raises tension even if the hero doesn’t actually fail.
Restoring Hope After a Failure
If you’ve read Chris’s posts on tension and conflict, there’s a useful concept you might be aware of: after your characters win a victory, you need to reestablish tension. Usually, this is done by showing a new problem looming on the horizon, so the audience knows your heroes aren’t out of the woods yet. If you don’t take steps to restore tension, the story will turn boring fast, as it seems like the protagonist is destined to win.
When your characters fail, there’s no need to restore tension because tension is already turned up to eleven. Instead, you have to restore hope. Otherwise, the story will get too bleak. Some of your audience will lose interest because it seems like your heroes can’t possibly win, while others will be put off by the increasingly dismal mood.
So what does restoring hope look like? Usually it’s as simple as having something positive happen in the face of dismal failure. Don’t go too big, or you risk negating the original failure, which is unsatisfying. If the hero just lost their ship, they might find a new sword to help them in their fight. If the villain captures a bunch of civilians, the protagonist might be reunited with their true love to soften the blow.
Restoring hope often goes hand in hand with maintaining momentum, but they aren’t the same. Giving your heroes something to do after a failure may not matter if the audience has already checked out in despair. At the same time, while restoring hope is important, it doesn’t automatically keep the story from stalling out.
You can see this dynamic at work in the 100 episode Twilight’s Last Gleaming. One group of characters has just been forced to cull 300 people to keep life support functioning on their space station, which is grim indeed. Meanwhile, Clarke and friends were working hard to signal the station that excess people could be sent to the ground instead of culled. They failed. Their signal came too late, and the culling went ahead. However, seeing the signal was still a moment of hope, as before now, the station characters thought that Clarke and her friends were dead. Realizing they’re alive opens up new possibilities and hints that maybe things can get better after all.*
Building Your Story With Failure in Mind
Many storytellers have trouble with failure because their characters don’t have enough to lose, and their world isn’t robust enough to provide the options needed for recovery. If you’re telling a tale of a single farm kid against an all-powerful empire, it’s likely that the hero has to win every time or the story is immediately over.
If you wait until the plotting stage to consider failure, you’ll likely struggle, especially if you’re working on later installments of an existing story. To make things easier for yourself, you can build a world that has more give to it and then craft a plot that will drive the heroes to action without killing them for the slightest misstep.
The most important part of this equation is giving your heroes something to lose besides their lives. If they have resources that can be taken away, or loved ones who can be captured, you have meaningful stakes for failure that won’t end the story. Meanwhile, if the conflict is over something other than whether the hero gets to live, it’s easier to build in a believable failure. Finally, having a more robust world in general just gives you more options for when the protagonist has to recover from their latest blunder.
The 100 is built for failure from the ground up. The story starts with multiple factions who are in pretty good shape, but all are running low on some kind of critical resource. This brings them into immediate conflict, while also giving each side plenty to lose. And since most of the conflicts are political in nature, it means Clarke and the other heroes can fail without dying. Finally, the writers can always bring in new groups of people when they need to strengthen one side or another.
If you’re looking for practice, I recommend trying your hand at roleplaying games. Game masters have no choice but to plan for failure, since the random nature of dice means that any character can fail at any time, regardless of the plot you’ve worked out in your head. Working under those constraints will teach you to plan ahead and set up stakes that can keep your story going no matter which way the conflict goes. Your players will be happy to point out when your failures aren’t working.