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I've been given an advice by a writer. The advice is to only tell the reader a character's plan if it's going to fail

I was told this is an incredibly useful advice. The rationale is that if your character is going to fail, then knowing the plan ahead of time and watching it fall apart is driving the tension. However, if a plan is going to succeed, it's more fun and tension-building for the reader to figure it out alongside the characters.

Now, the question is whether it makes sense to tell the reader the character's plan if it's going to fail, and in what circumstance it would make sense to do so. I believe there are many viewpoints, and I am trying to see if there might be circumstances where it may make sense? I am thinking that if everyone does that then people may know the plan is going to not fail in advance and make the story bad since essentially they will know the end of the story or subplot well in advance.

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The problem with telling the plan if it succeeds as planned is that it's redundant. Consider how seldom a story, however many points of view it has, has two characters describe the same scene. Planning in advance and then carrying out the plan has the same effect.

The problem with not telling the plan if it fails is that the readers won't know that something is wrong. That they didn't plan to hide from the guards and that this will seriously cost them time they can't afford. Or if the knife breaks, you don't know that it's crucial for later and that they have no replacement.

The problem arises when the plan works in part and doesn't work in part. If the failure is late, the working plan may lead the readers down a garden path and make the sting of failure all the sharper. If it's early and they recover, I would try to improvise a way by which only the early part is told.

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  • It's also an option to withhold contingencies in a plan. So the plan as told may seem to go off the rails, but then the strategist pulls a rabbit out of the hat and makes it succeed after all.
    – towr
    Aug 4 at 6:53
  • If adequately foreshadowed
    – Mary
    Aug 4 at 12:17
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+1 to Mary. I'd say the only time it makes sense to tell the character's plan in advance when it is going to work is if the plan seems outlandish and doomed to failure.

So the reader thinks they are about to see a train wreck, but are surprised because this crazy plan actually worked.

I don't recall the details, but I think in the first episode of the series "Heroes", a guy is filming this girl climbing a water tower. We don't know anything about them. She gets about 10 stories up, and he's telling her to jump. She's scared, it's going to hurt, and we're thinking "it would kill her".

But she jumps. She doesn't fly, she falls, hits the ground hard and she's broken everything. It's shocking. But the guy keeps filming, and the girl's body starts putting itself back together, she gets up completely healed. And complains about how much it hurt.

Her superpower is healing, no matter what happens. She can be shot point blank in the head, and she'll magically heal.

But we were certain, before we understood the heroes all had different superpowers, that when she really did jump off the water tower, she was going to die. That the plan would fail.

(If I got the details wrong, Heroes fans, the gist is the same).

The same for your own stories: If you can think of a plausible way to make an outlandish plan by a character seem to the reader destined for failure, but because of the sheer skill of your character actually succeed, then that is still good storytelling.

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