Build in a Fear of Failure!
I am a closet SciFi junkie, and my current love affair is Falling Skies. I’ve been with them from the beginning and to be honest, I love the show not for the Sci-Fi, but for the characters. In short, I love the hero, and his three sons, and want them to survive.
I care about these Sympathetic Characters.
Which is why I found myself at the edge of my seat during last week’s episode. The hero, Tom Mason (played by Noah Wylie) and his oldest son, Ben, are trapped in a prison camp and need to escape. They’ve devised a wild plan to break through the electrical walls that holds everyone prisoner.
I realized the episode was fantastic when I found myself on my feet at the end of it.
Here’s the play of events – the hero has to distract the bad guys (skitters, or very large alien bugs) and get them to a building they’ve rigged to blow. In the meantime, Ben has to gather up all the prisoners and get them into the tunnels near their escape route. Finally, a third group, incidentally, a motley crew of soldiers who hate each other, has to climb over the wall with this homemade electric-repelling suit to get to the power supply and take down the electric wall.
If you are a fan and haven’t seen the episode, stop reading here.
The plan begins perfectly – Tom kills a guard, which brings out a horde of bugs, who chase him (he’s on a motorcycle) through the city, away from the escapees.
Meanwhile, the guy with the electric suit in the motley crew is getting ready to put on the suit when – because of Tom’s escape – becomes injured as a part of collateral damage.
With time ticking down, they have to turn to the most agile, least trusted member – a guy named Pope – to put the suit on and get over the fence.
Meanwhile, Ben is trying to get everyone into the tunnels…but an elderly couple is taking up the rear, slowing everyone down.
Tom escapes into the building as planned, and the bugs run after him. The plan is for him to jump into the river as the building is blown up – but to do so, he’ll have to get over the electric fence. He expects it to be down. It’s not, and here come the bugs.
Meanwhile, Pope is struggling to get over the fence. He only has 90 seconds before his suit blows up and he’s killed. He gets to the top of the fence…and drops his explosives. Will he go back for them, or go over the fence and escape on his own (something he’s mentioned he’d like to do)?
A bug notices the elderly couple trying to escape.
Tom, to buy time, starts to shoot the bugs with his fire gun, hoping the fence goes down soon.
Let’s go back to our Scene Tension equation for a moment. Remember, it’s a Sympathetic Character (Tom) who wants something (to escape) why (to be reunited with his family) who has a goal (distract the bugs and take down the fence) and something to lose (if they don’t escape, they’ll all be killed) who faces obstacles (unfortunate circumstances and interpersonal problems) and has a realistic fear of failure.
It’s the playing out of the realistic fear of failure that keeps a scene from sagging. Will they escape? It feels, at first, as if they might – all is going well. Then, piece by piece the plan begins to crumble.
Now, here’s the EASY TRICK. To keep the tension moving along, the scene has to play out in a series of Yes/Nos, Yes/Nos. (or, conversely, No/Yes!)
If they are going to succeed, then the author will continue to hint that they won’t succeed. There’s no way he’ll succeed…or maybe yes. But no…or, yes? See…no! But…Yes!! (aka, No/Yes!)
If they will fail, then the author should hint that they will succeed – and let the failure take us by surprise. Of course he’ll succeed, until, oh no, maybe they won’t, and then yes, everything is fine, until it’s not, and then, see, triumph…except, oh no, we didn’t see that coming – FAIL. (Yes/No!)
Look at your scene before you write it and ask…Is this a Yes/No scene or a No/Yes scene?
Let’s keep going.
Pope has dropped the backpack full of explosives. He shocks everyone by climbing down the fence, picking it up, and climbing back up. SUCCESS!! However, at the top, just as he’s about to escape, his suit breaks apart and launches him over the fence…and he falls, unconscious. Or…dead? FAILURE!
Ben gets everyone in the tunnels…SUCCESS! Until, a bug sees them and starts to follow, alerting the other bugs – FAILURE!
Tom has lured the bugs into the building – SUCCESS. But they’ve figured out Tom’s plan – and are starting to run from the building – FAILURE!
Pope isn’t dead and he gets the explosives and blows up the power supply – SUCCESS! But, when the smoke clears, he sees there are still a few strands hanging, and the fence is still up. FAILURE!
Ben goes to fight the bugs – and sets up explosives to block the bugs from attacking. They go off and kill the bugs – SUCCESS! But the elderly man (who was a friend) is killed in the process. FAILURE.
Tom decides to blow the building anyway – SUCCESS! But the fence is still down – and he’s going to die. FAILURE!
Pope gets angry and takes an ax and starts to hack at the power cord. It works, the cord is snapped and suddenly the fence goes down! SUCCESS!
Ben and the prisoners escape – SUCCESS!
Tom blows the building and jumps into the river *JUST* as the fence goes down. SUCCESS!
The bugs are dead and the prisoners are free, morale and trust are restored and now Tom and Ben are on their way to reunite with their family. Stay tuned for next week’s episode!
Here’s how to put the Fear of Failure into your scene by using this simple Yes & No trick:
Step 1: Look at the END of your scene. Will they achieve their goal, or fail? Figure out your rhythm – Is it a Yes/No scene, or a No/Yes? (Fail or Succeed?)
Step 2: Start your scene with the opposite position. If they will fail, make them believe they will succeed. (YES!) If they succeed, have them look at the odds and think…we’re gonna die (or something to the equivalent). (NO!)
Step 3: Drop in the right hints that they *could* fail or *could* succeed. In this episode, (which is a NO/YES) as Tom suggest the plan, he tells of a story in history where such an outlandish plan worked. (You can do the same/opposite if they are going to fail – have them think they’ll succeed, and then have someone mention an example of failure). Although it feels like they will fail, they could succeed, if all goes as planned.
Step 4: If they will fail, then have them start with a moment of success, followed by failures, keeping on in this rhythm until the end…where they look like they have succeeded…and then you level the final failure.
Likewise, if they will succeed, have them start with a moment of failure, and follow with a small success… keeping on in this rhythm until the end…where they look like they have failed…and then give them a final success.
Yes/No? No/Yes? Follow this easy trick and you’ll know how to build Fear of Failure into your now-not-saggy scene!
Go! Write Something Brilliant!
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