Let your MC succeed while they’re failing – the power of reward

Hmmm... is there an upside to being upside down?

I’ve been chatting with Jonathan Moore about plots and he asked this very good question: Do you think the idea of worsening failures needs to be applied comprehensively for a plot to be compelling?  What happens if you give the MC a break now and then?

Most plots feature struggles – things go from bad to worse. The hero tries to do something (or stops something happening), and that kicks off a series of events that escalate. But Jonathan has identified an important point here.

Before the MC finally gets what they want (or doesn’t), you have to give them a break.

There are two reasons.

1 Predictability

A plot can seem too predictable if all we see is failure after failure. The reader can get bored, not to mention punch-drunk. And for a story to have momentum, the reader needs the feeling that things are changing – a story of novel length needs to, as I said a few weeks ago, move the goalposts. So unless you specifically intend to bludgeon the reader with misfortune (which I find Thomas Hardy’s novels do), the MC needs some rewards before the end.

But variety isn’t the only reason to cut the MC some slack.

2 Giving rewards makes a story more compelling

Often, giving the MC rewards can kick off an even better story. He wants something, he seems to get it. He gets more embroiled and that leads him into deeper do-do.

In Andrea Newman’s An Evil Streak,  a lonely single man has a creepy, obsessive relationship with his niece. When she was a child she was his angel. She bursts into puberty and starts dating, and he’s abandoned and jealous – the first blow. But then she falls in love and needs a place to sleep with her boyfriend. Kind, creepy uncle offers her his flat – a triumph as she is in his power like never before. Even better, he puts up a two-way mirror and watches. The rest of the story is a seesaw of successes that ensnare him more and scrapes that make the failures worse.

A perhaps less amoral example is The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. The Unit features a futuristic world where childless single people are given at age 50 to medical science. They live in the lap of luxury while undergoing medical experiments, and will eventually make the ultimate sacrifice as organ donors. The story follows a woman who goes into such a clinic… and falls in love. Suddenly she has found what she has missed all her life – but is it too late? She is given hope, has those hopes dashed, is given more hope again… and the reader is right with her on the rollercoaster, heart leaping and stomach lurching.

This early success – where the character seems to get what they want, makes what unfolds so much more powerful. By involving us in the successes, the failures become more devastating.

Who else might you give a break to?

Giving a character a break is used to very interesting effect in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which became the first Hannibal Lecter film. For much of the novel we have watched the murderer Francis Dolarhide as an appalling monster. Then, unexpectedly, he strikes up a relationship of genuine tenderness with a blind girl. This goes to the very root of what he needs in life and lets us see a human side to him (while also making us afraid for the poor girlfriend as we’re sure she’s going to trigger his vicious instincts at any moment). Just as we wonder if this will redeem him, he sees her talk to a colleague and gets jealous – and then we know that as far as he is concerned, the universe has betrayed him and nothing will stop him. And that makes him even more formidable.

Rollercoasters need ups as well as downs. So when you’re making things worse for your characters, don’t have them fail all the time.  Explore what happens if you give them what they want – and snatch it away. Maybe do it several times. Thanks, Jonathan, for a provocative question as always!

Share your favourite examples of characters being rewarded!

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  1. #1 by netta on February 20, 2011 - 5:15 pm

    In Robin McKinley’s “Deerskin” (one of my favorite books) Lissa undergoes a horrific experience and it seems like she’ll never recover. She does, and meets someone that could heal her completely. She finds a certain amount of peace and healing, but she has unfinished business and her own inner demons to overcome. In the end, she resolves her unfinished business but is it enough to grab her “happy ending”? Is there a happy ending? What I love about this book is McKinley trusts her readers throughout the roller coaster ride.

    Great post, Roz, and definitely something to think about as we craft our own stories.🙂

    • #2 by rozmorris on February 20, 2011 - 5:19 pm

      Ooh, Netta, that sounds interesting. Trusting the reader is such a finely judged business. Thank you for the recommendation.

  2. #3 by Alexander M Zoltai on February 20, 2011 - 5:16 pm

    Kinda like life, eh?🙂

    • #4 by rozmorris on February 20, 2011 - 5:22 pm

      Sure is, Alexander. In fact, so many storytelling principles are merely imitating laws of nature.

  3. #5 by Alexander M Zoltai on February 20, 2011 - 5:36 pm

    “…merely imitating laws of nature.”

    As in worthwhile grammar and awesome art… 🙂

  4. #6 by Chila Woychik on February 20, 2011 - 7:34 pm

    great thoughts, roz. thank you.

  5. #8 by Dave on February 20, 2011 - 7:47 pm

    Imagine how Spielberg would handle a guy falling over a cliff. It’s not just going to be he trips, “Yikes!” and he goes over. Maybe he starts sliding down a scree slope. Not too serious yet, he grabs at a branch but no sooner does he heave a sigh than the branch snaps and he’s slipping again, and now he sees a vertical drop. He can’t stop! He’s at the edge but there’s a narrow ledge. Whew. So he gets his feet on that, starts to edge along it and then it crumbles and over he goes. All the false victories give us time to appreciate his predicament and invest in him emotionally.

    Better still, as the bad guys close in and things go from bad to worse, those momentary victories or breathing spells can not only be used to crank up the tension, they can plant seeds for the character’s eventual triumph. For example, in Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter goes back to Godric’s Hollow and sees the burnt-out ruin of his parents’ house. He gets into a battle with Voldemort’s snake familiar in which his wand is destroyed and Harry himself is injured – but he also gets away with a couple of useful clues. His defeat in this encounter contains the seeds of his final victory.

    • #9 by rozmorris on February 20, 2011 - 7:55 pm

      Great example, Dave. There’s something about near misses that makes us want victory even more – in the right character.

  6. #10 by erikamarks on February 21, 2011 - 1:42 am

    This is a great post, Roz–I think both reader AND writer need the relief of a (however small) reward for a character. No one wants to read (or write, frankly) a character who never sees any progress. We can stand the obstacles and the challenges, so long as our characters have encouragement. It’s vital.

    • #11 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 8:59 am

      Thank, Erika! I’m finding it myself as I write a character who faces enormous odds that get more and more stiff. Instead of ending every chapter with another blow, I end some of them with a note of new hope. That makes it sound rather a dour book but it’s also meant to be uplifting!

  7. #12 by Ann Marie on February 21, 2011 - 3:00 am

    Who is it that says that every scene has a goal, and every scene must answer “Was the goal achieved?” with “no” (so now they must do –), “yes” (um–so now the author must do –), or “yes, but” (the goal is achieved, but in fact that somehow complicates things). I love it when you can work out “yes, but” solutions.

    A book where things get better and better, for a while, for the heroine: Venetia, by Georgette Heyer. For a modern reader, one effect is suspense: you’re thinking, “This can’t last!” But it also raises the stakes and our investment in the heroine. Things for her haven’t been so great, it’s starting to turn around, here’s a vision of a better life, and kaBLAM, enter Problem, stage right.

    • #13 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 9:02 am

      Ann Marie – that is a brilliant analysis with the questions. And ‘yes but’ is what takes the story in a new direction and makes us feel the character is creating their own destiny.

  8. #14 by Dom Camus on February 21, 2011 - 7:55 am

    It’s interesting that you word this issue in terms of failure. I like reading books where characters meet stiff opposition and maybe even suffer setbacks, but I would find myself quickly turned off a lead character who spent too much of their time actually failing.

    For example, you mention Thomas Hardy – one of the things I liked least about ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ (which was a school set text, so I had to finish it) was the way the lead character repeatedly makes poor choices with predictable consequences. I don’t want to read about this person!

    • #15 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 9:10 am

      Hi Dom! Yes, The Mayor of Casterbridge was infuriating after a while. It was the first ‘proper’ book I read for pleasure after my English degree and although I was drawn in and fascinated, I got weary with the way he made such a pig’s ear of everything. My English lit teacher at school used to mutter darkly about how she couldn’t stand Jude The Obscure. I never read it, but when I saw the film I could guess why.

  9. #16 by Jat on February 21, 2011 - 9:11 am

    Ah, Dom, you’ve just dismissed all of classic tragedy: a great man with a fatal flaw comes to inevitable ruin. Characters like Othello and Michael Henchard have moments where we think they might turn things around, but the fault is in themselves and doom is assured. You’re not alone in not liking that kind of story – tragedy doesn’t seem to be a popular form these days. Which is surprising, given that the USA is a tragic hero if ever there was one.

    • #17 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 9:24 am

      Jat, what an interesting point. Have we lost our tolerance for tragedy?
      It’s a while since I read or saw a Shakespeare and I have a memory like a tea-strainer. But I always felt the character who kept me watching in Othello was Iago. He makes the choices while Othello (if the tea-strainer serves me correctly) is a puppet.

  10. #18 by Dom Camus on February 21, 2011 - 9:23 am

    @Jat> Good point… maybe there’s an element of escapism involved? If the news provides all the tragedy we need there’s perhaps less room for it in fiction?

  11. #19 by Sally on February 21, 2011 - 12:05 pm

    I agree with that Dom – I do think with the sheer amount of tragedy in the news and real life we have become less tolerant of it in fiction. That was exactly what I hated about Terminator 3 (a movie, I know, but still relevant I hope). T2 had ended with hope, and T3 dashed it. It completely killed my interest in the series, even though I understand that the last part (6?) is supposed to wrap things up properly with a happy ending.

    • #20 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 3:45 pm

      Sally, Dom, good theory. Personally I think we have way more news than we need. I’ve worked on news myself and know that stories advance only in millimetres each time they are reported, which means a new justification has to be found for giving an update that isn’t really an update. The usual ruse is to lead with a quote of doom and gloom which is essentially telling people that everyone is still worried about the story and it needs to be given space but nothing has happened.
      As for Terminator… it was probably never meant to go further than #1. But the question of happy endings is separate from the idea of triumphs along the way. A whole separate question…

      • #21 by Sally on February 21, 2011 - 8:53 pm

        Roz, that is interestng about your experience of news reporting. And considering that we’re so sick of tragic news, it’s surprising that there are so few successful ‘good’ news channels (which are all confined to internet and paper form anyway).

        I too suspect T1 wasn’t supposed to carry on, though I’m glad Cameron made T2. It’s my favourite movie of all time.

        Anyway, sorry to sidetrack!🙂 Your main post has certainly got me thinking about the triumphs in my own WIP. Thanks for giving me some food for thought.🙂

        • #22 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 9:04 pm

          Interesting sidetrack! Actually I was subbing, so I had to come up with yet another headline for a story already wrung dry.

  12. #23 by Bruce H. Johnson on February 21, 2011 - 3:57 pm

    Depending on how we wish our character to “develop”, we can have them predominately win or predominately lose. We can have one character winning and another losing at the same time.

    The definition of “losing” I’d work with is the character doing the same action that failed before and expecting a different result. Not talking chance so much here — after all, don’t we writers keep on submitting query letters after rejection?.

    If a character continually fails even with different tactics, we’d better show some hefty reason for it such as a really big character flaw or a hiddent antagonist.

    Also, we need to show what is a win or loss. As @Dave above said, the character came away with some clues. Thomas Edison didn’t fail so much as he discovered a lot of ways that didn’t work.

    Yes, we’re asking our readers to suspend some disbelief, but the third time the heroine wanders up into the dark attic with just a candle and a flimsy nighty, well…

    • #24 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 8:18 pm

      Certainly, Bruce, we might aim for a deliberate effect by having the character fail all the time. As with every writing principle, breaking it can be just as effective as sticking to it.

      Nice point about Edison! ‘Fail’ results might still be results… But querying is a different ballgame😉

  13. #25 by Terry Odell on February 21, 2011 - 4:19 pm

    As with pacing, there have to be changes or the reader will get either bored or, in the case of one book I read, exhausted. It’s also good when you make things seem like they’re going right, but it turns into yet another conflict.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • #26 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 8:19 pm

      Change, change, change – absolutely, Terry! That’s what a story needs. You might even be able to keep that sense of change by heaping on the failures, if other things change instead.

  14. #27 by Jonathan Moore on February 21, 2011 - 5:05 pm

    Hi Roz – thanks for this.
    The problem I was having was that I conceived of my story as a series of obstacles that were successfully negotiated, and it got very repetitive and A to B. The idea of successive failures came as a dictat from the Marshall Plan for novel writing , which sounded like no one would ever get anywhere. I quite like the Star Wars analogy, in which each obstacle is overcome but leads to a greater jeopardy. I will have a story-think about my WIP and see what bits will benefit from giving the heroes a break and where they need to suffer.

    • #28 by rozmorris on February 21, 2011 - 8:24 pm

      Hi Jon! I liked your Star Wars analogy – in fact I’ll post it here as it shows the principle in action in an overall plot, and successes leading to bigger danger… (Quick explanation – this was also in Jon’s email to me, but would have made the post too long)

      Luke is stuck on Tatooine and has to get Han to get him away; he suceeds but ends up being chased by imperial soldiers/ships; they evade the chase, but end up getting trapped by the Death Star; they evade capture but put themselves into greater danger to rescue Leia(they don’t need to do this but their moral codes force their actions – does this count as a failure?); they break her out of gaol but end up in a firefight; they escape they firefight but end up in the garbage crusher; they escape the crusher and get back to the ship but Ben Kenobi is killed; they escape the deathstar but they’re being tracked – bringing the very disaster Leia has been trying to avoid in reach of the empire, giving away the location of the rebels. Eventually they triumph, but only after this worst of all failures.

  15. #29 by tahliaN on February 22, 2011 - 11:14 pm

    I absolutely agree. I get bored with books that are one disaster or life threatening situation after another, and I hate books that are so flat tack that there’s no rest and no pleasant bits in it. A break for the mc is usually a way to get to know them better and that always enriches the story.

    • #30 by rozmorris on February 23, 2011 - 12:01 am

      Variety is key isn’t it, Tahlia! And that’s a good point about using the breaks to fill in with something that fleshes out the story and characters.

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