Failure and Tension

What do Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and Wild Magic (and also, for the most part, Alanna) by Tamora Pierce have in common? (Besides the approximate age of their protagonists, of course.)

Well first, I read both in the last couple of weeks. And second (and this may be viewed as borderline blasphemy by some, but) when I read both of these, I found them to be eih. But, incidentally, eih for the same reason. I thought the pacing was pretty good in both. I wasn’t really grabbed by the main character but I didn’t dislike them either. The settings and background story were pretty well developed.

But in both, the characters never failed; or at least, not enough to really matter to the story. The failure was mostly in the background. Instead of the failure being a pivotal plot point, it was more along the lines of a single sentence or two mentioning the failure and subsequent practice, prior to the next plot point. Which the character attacks, perhaps has a setback, but ultimately succeeds with.

We like to see our protagonist succeed of course, but success without failure is boring; there’s no tension. When the character is faced with a challenge, we’re not concerned about whether or not they’ll make it through, because we know from the outset that they will. There’s no flipping pages to find out what happens next, because we know what happens next: the character succeeds.

Prior to writing myself, I probably would have read both of these books and enjoyed them alright but not have been caught up, would have felt something was missing. I’ve found it a lot easier to put a finger on what it is about certain books that doesn’t work for me since I’ve started writing (and reading about writing) myself. It’s interesting for me now, having identified this in these two books, to look at my own story and see what I’ve done with my character/plot. (Answer: She fails. A fair bit. I like to think she also succeeds a fair bit, too, though.)

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2 responses to “Failure and Tension

  1. I’ve never read either of these, but I could imagine this issue would make a story less compelling. As they always say, throw rocks at your characters!

    Isn’t it interesting how writing fiction makes you read it differently?

    • Yay, my first comment! :) I’ve actually kinda grown content in just writing to myself here, so I was surprised when this arrived in my inbox.

      We’re having an interesting conversation about it over at the Bransforums: http://forums.nathanbransford.com/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=4311

      It is really interesting about the change in reading perspective from a non-writer to writer. I think it unfortunately means I enjoy fewer books than I might have before I started writing, though, because it’s harder not to recognize the flaws.

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