Tuesday, February 24, 2015

You Must Fail Three Times

While at a convention some years ago, I happened to sit in on a panel hosted by Algis Budrys.  The name of that panel is, alas, lost to time, but its purpose was for him to relate some tricks of the trade.

He explained that he wanted to tell us a story. By his own admission, it wasn't a very good story, but he hoped that it would get across the point that he was trying to make.  It was a story about a girl whose name I cannot remember, so I'm going to call her Hannah.  The story went a little like this:

Hannah is a teenaged girl who has been playing the violin since she was five years old.  Her dream is to get into Julliard.  After a great deal of practice, perseverance, and patience, she has managed to arrange an audition in New York City.  She travels into the city by train on the day of her interview, ready to wow the admissions staff with her skills.  When she arrives, it is raining heavily.

Upon her arrival in the city, things start to go wrong. 

Confusion at the taxi stand outside the train station results in a situation in which a busy New York City business person winds up driving off in Hannah's taxi with Hannah's violin.  In a panic, Hannah runs off after the taxi, only to get badly splashed by another car.

She is soaking wet and has lost the cab, but Hannah is a pretty smart kid.  She goes back to the taxi stand and gets the contact information for the company that owns the departed cab.  Calling them, she manages to get a message to the driver to wait for her at the station.  Hannah takes a second cab over there.

Hannah recovers her violin, but now doesn't have enough money to take a taxi down to her interview.  She gets directions and hoofs it down there.  She's wet, tired, and hungry, but she keeps right on trucking like a champ.  At last, she arrives at the interview site.

Forty-five minutes late.

The people on the admissions committee are not pleased and they don't seem to be particularly moved by Hannah's excuses.  Hannah pleads with them, telling them that she will do anything to play for them.  Life has conspired against her, but she is here and she is desperate to showcase her skills.  At last, the committee relents a little, but Hannah's total play time is drastically reduced.

Hannah is relieved and more than a little nervous.  She takes out her violin and, while preparing to play, thinks of all of the hardships she has endured in getting here.  She realizes, for the first time, how badly she wants this and somehow, someway, that unlocks something deep inside of her.  Hannah plays for the admissions committee and they, enraptured, allow her to go well over her time limit.

At the end of the piece, the head of the committee says to her (and this is pretty much a direct quote from Budrys):  "My dear, before today, you were a musician.  Now you are an artist."

Budrys went on to explain that the story, while somewhat contrived, works for this reason:  Hannah fails three times.

  1. She loses her things in the taxi (getting splashed is the frosting on this awful cake)
  2. She gets her things back, but in doing so, she can no longer take the "easy way" to get to her interview.
  3. She travels to the interview on foot and arrives late, eliciting disdain from the committee.

Why does this work?  A few reasons:

  1. It generates empathy for the character:  We have suffered setbacks and defeats in our own life, so we feel badly for Hannah when it happens to her.  She seems like a nice kid, and the things that are going wrong aren't really her fault.
  2. It makes the story interesting:  If the story didn't have failure, it would be completely flat.  Hannah getting to her audition without issue and then getting into Julliard is not very exciting and not at all memorable.  As readers, we would read that and think, "that's it?  Bleah."  The fact that I remember this story so many years after hearing it one time is a testament to how well failure works.
  3. It makes us happy when Hannah succeeds:  The end of the story (getting into Julliard) is the obvious payoff, but there are plenty of lesser payoffs throughout as Hannah defeats each challenge.  We can root for her as Hannah gets her violin back, or cheer for her as she trudges through an unfamiliar city.  It builds up her likeability as a character and makes her memorable to the reader.
  4. It strengthens Hannah's character: When we see her rise to and pass each challenge, she grows, becoming more capable and more interesting.  This develops her narrative arc.

So why three times?  According to Budrys, it's the sweet spot in the formula.  Less than three failures makes it seem like the hero gets off easy.  More than three pushes the story over the edge into melodrama.  If Hannah keeps hitting failure after failure, the tragedy of the story stops having an impact and may, eventually, transform into comic farce.

"Oh man," says the imaginary reader, "I wonder what terrible thing is going to happen to her now.  Will she be struck by lightning, perchance?  Pass the popcorn!"

This panel of Budrys' was a transformative moment for me.  It was one of the first times that I really internalized that there was a formula to writing; that stories had an underlying structure that needed to be followed in order to make them work.  I could have all of the characters and events that I wanted, but it was just stuff happening without failure.  A story happens when you allow your characters to fail, in big ways and in small, and then overcome those failures.  That's when the magic happens.

To close out this piece, I would like to make mention of a final memory from that long-ago panel.  Budrys' wife sat in the row across from me during his talk, staring indulgently at him the entire time.  Afterward, I heard her tell someone that he had told that story many, many times, and that she always liked hearing it.  It was kind of beautiful.

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