I love Chick-fil-A, but no one can deny that it's pricey. However, I found a copycat recipe for their chicken sandwich online, so a few months ago, I decided to try it out. I'd actually attempted it in the past with limited success, but I thought I could make it work this time.
Stories that start like that never end well, do they? 🙄
In the past, most of my attempts at frying stuff have ended with burned-on-the-outside-and-still-not-done-on-the-inside food. My theory was that I hadn't been getting my oil hot enough to cook the inside before the outside got too done. So this time, I started with chicken that I'd previously cooked in my Instant Pot, meaning I'd only have to cook the breading and therefore wouldn't have to have the chicken in the oil for as long. I put the peanut oil in the biggest pot I had (which I now know is called a brazier) and set it on the stove to get warm while I finished breading the chicken.
All was well and good . . . until the oil abruptly went up in flames! Apparently it has a way lower smoke point than I'd thought.
For a second, I had no idea what to do. Then, luckily, I remembered my old middle- and high-school cooking classes. I quickly put on an oven mitt and put the lid on the brazier to smother the fire. Smoke—the kind that not only stinks but also stings your nose and eyes and irritates your throat and lungs—billowed up everywhere. In retrospect, I'm really puzzled about why the fire alarm didn't go off.
The brazier smelled so awful that I grabbed a potholder and put it and the brazier outside. Then I went back inside, opened the doors to my balcony and all the windows in the apartment, and turned on all the fans. I spent most of the evening outside while the smoke and some of the smell cleared out. I had to keep a cup full of baking soda on the stove for the next few days.
Now, what in the world does my (latest) frying disaster have to do with writing?
Well, when a character is trying to solve the overall problem of the story, their first attempt typically doesn't work. (If it did, we'd have a short story instead of a novel.) Because that attempt is usually the character's best idea for how to solve the problem, their next attempt is often a variation on the first one, just like me using cooked chicken instead of raw for my second attempt at the recipe. The more times the character tries and fails to solve the problem, the more desperate they get and the more willing they become to try new approaches. But ultimately, the one solution that works is the one that forces them to grow the most, the one thing that they never would've considered doing at the beginning of their character arc.
Here are two examples from the Book of Mormon, a book of scripture that my church uses as a companion to the Bible. Whether you believe it's true (I do) or not, these stories not only illustrate the point well but also show that it works for both good guys and bad guys:
In 1 Nephi chapters 3 and 4, the Lord commands the prophet Lehi's four young-adult sons to retrieve the brass plates, which contain the scriptures and their family history, from the hostile and powerful Laban.
Attempt 1: The sons cast lots (the ancient version of drawing straws) to decide who should talk to Laban. The oldest son is chosen and attempts to persuade Laban to give up the plates. Laban throws him out and threatens his life.
Attempt 2: The youngest son proposes using their family's riches to buy the plates from Laban. All four sons collect this property and bring it to Laban together. Laban has his soldiers attack the sons and steals their property, and they barely escape with their lives.
Attempt 3: The youngest son decides to rely solely on the Lord's guidance instead of his own ideas, and he heads to Laban's house with no other plan. Through a series of miraculous events, this son obtains the plates.
In Alma chapter 47, war is brewing between the righteous Nephites and the wicked Lamanites. A substantial part of the Lamanite army (led by Lehonti) refuses to participate in any attack and takes refuge on top of a mountain. The Lamanite king sends an apostate Nephite named Amalickiah with the rest of the army to force the recalcitrant soldiers to comply. But Amalickiah has plans of his own.
Attempt 1: From his camp at the base of the mountain, Amalickiah sends a messenger up to Lehonti's camp, asking Lehonti to come down and talk to him. Lehonti refuses.
Attempt 2: Same as attempt 1.
Attempt 3: Same as attempts 1 and 2.
Attempt 4: Realizing he can't get Lehonti to come down, Amalickiah goes up himself to a point just below Lehonti's camp. Then he sends another messenger, asking Lehonti to bring his guards and come just to where Amalickiah is. Lehonti finally agrees.
After arranging to combine their armies and become Lehonti's second-in-command, Amalickiah has Lehonti secretly murdered and takes command of the entire force.
Amalickiah subsequently has the Lamanite king murdered, takes the throne, and starts a war with the Nephites that will ultimately last for over a decade and cost thousands of lives, including his own.
Remember, characters rarely succeed on their first try. Let them struggle through several attempts so you can show their growth along the way to the solution. If you'd like some help figuring out how to make this happen, click here to book a time for you and me to talk about it.
(Thanks to Nicholas Peloso for sharing their work on Unsplash.)