Sorry for the late post, guys. E3 stole some of my attention.
So, stop me if you’ve read this one before.
Hero enters the villain’s lair/stronghold/fortress/secret base/cave/space station. Hero immediately faces down a group of mooks.
Hero effortlessly defeats said mooks. Only to face down a trap. Hero also effortlessly defeats said trap—possibly before the trap can even spring. Hero continues forward, facing traps, mooks, plot twists, and minibosses, defeating each one in turn, without difficulty, before reaching the villain and the final confrontation. Hero emerges supreme and returns home victorious.
Now, I ask you … if you were reading that story, about how far into that “climactic” series of events would you get before coming to the conclusion that no matter what, the hero is going to emerge victorious every time? Granted, this was a pretty threadbare example, because I didn’t go into a lot of detail, but how many stories like that have we all read? A story where the hero goes into situation after situation, and by about halfway (or a quarter) into the book, we can already see exactly what’s going to happen because the hero always wins?
Now, I’m going to preface things with a caveat here: We know that the hero is going to win. Usually. 95% of the time, it’s a safe bet that the hero will emerge victorious in some fashion or another. But on the journey there? A hero who simply crushes all in their path doesn’t really make for an entertaining read because the reader always knows what is going to happen. If your hero fights mook after mook, takes down trap after trap, and comes out on top every time, well, even if your action is written in an incredibly well-done manner, you’re still going to start running into readers who just start skipping over things. Why?
Because they’ve gotten bored. Because the book becomes going to a sports match where the players and the audience already know who is going to win. It get predictable. The action loses its tension. A great fight simply becomes not so great because the reader already knows who is going to win: the hero.
Again, we accept that most of the time we assume this about the ending, but why would it matter during the story? The answer? Narrative tension.
Which is why today we’re going to talk about two things: the try/fail cycle, and the evolving story.