Spoilers for Star Wars 4, 5, & 6 and the latest Superman movie if you haven’t seen them.
The big key for creating a satisfying ending is determining your plot’s victory conditions. The victory condition is usually stated, sometimes right out and sometimes obliquely, when you’re introducing goals. The victory condition is the yardstick by which you measure the goals of the protagonistic force and the antagonistic force. When the goal is accomplished or is barred from being accomplished within the confines of the story then your victory condition has been met.
I love using movies because everyone can reference them in a couple of hours instead of days with a book but the principles remain the same. In particular I like using the original Star Wars trilogy because I know everyone has seen it, and it’s one of those movies that lends itself well to talking about plotting. In all three movies the protagonistic force’s goal is the same. Luke states it flat out pretty much right up front. “I want to learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father.” The victory condition with that goal is obviously: has he achieved that?
The antagonistic force’s goal is more complex. Luke is a non-entity in the first film. It doesn’t care about him. He’s simply fighting on the side of the protagonists from the antagonist’s point of view. The Antagonist’s goal is also pretty firmly stated: the destruction of the rebellion against the Empire. The victory condition for them is when the rebel base is destroyed. By destroying the Death Star, even though the rest of the imperial star fleet is intact and knows the location of the rebels, the rebels have time to evacuate and fear of the battle station that will keep everyone in line has been eliminated. The victory condition becomes impossible to achieve. Luke destroys the Death Star with his Force skills, and is told the Force, the essence of being a Jedi, will be with him always. His victory condition is met. Which gives it the happy comedic ending that feels so triumphant.
In the second movie, Luke is important, so the Empire’s goal is to turn Luke into a Sith or kill him. When Luke escapes Bespin and the hyperdrive works, so they’re lost in relativistic travel, that victory condition becomes impossible. But the twist of Empire Strikes Back is that Luke can’t have his victory condition either. With his father shown to be a Sith, it is impossible to be both a Jedi and like his father before him. Neither victory condition can be met. Even more so than going off to save Han, this is what gives the second movie the feeling of there is more to come, it’s ended as a stalemate. Neither side has won. Which makes it feel unhappy but doesn’t make it a tragedy. There’s more to come.
In the third movie everyone’s cards are on the table and the victory conditions carry over. With the conversion of Darth Vader to Luke’s side, the Empire has lost both Sith instead of gained a third. So their victory condition is not only impossible to achieve within this story, it’s impossible to achieve ever. The tragic ending is completely voided. But beyond that, Luke reconciles the two parts of his victory condition. He becomes a Jedi in the likeness of the best parts of his father before him, taking the good and rejecting the bad. He does it well enough to convert his father back to the side of light. Making him the image to be worth imitating. “I am a Jedi like my father before me.” The comedic ending is now unavoidable, no matter what happens, even if Luke had exploded in the Death Star, he would have succeeded. It would have been unhappy but it would have still felt right, like a noble sacrifice.
But here is where I want to diverge from Star Wars as is. Luke would have still won even had he died. Many stories can work this way. It again, depends on your victory condition. You can’t have a satisfying noble sacrifice if the protagonistic force’s victory condition is to live happily ever after. But suppose the victory condition is the propagation of an idea. If the victory condition is the spread of rebel ideas, then even if every rebel dies but it inspires new rebels to spring up on every world, the victory condition has been met. It works because that victory condition is extrinsic to the main character. It isn’t carried by Luke. It’s carried by the world at large.
You can divide plots into intrinsic (victory condition is carried by the protagonist) and extrinsic. Unfortunately the two are always meeting and that’s where a lot of problems with plots occur. If you set up your story with an extrinsic victory condition and then show the main character achieve their goals at the expense of the world at large your story will always feel just a touch hollow.
How often have you seen a less than satisfying action movie where the goal is to go save a space and the heroes rush in and kill the antagonist but the space they saved is left in ruins… and the story just kind of brushes over that. Just ignore the man behind the curtain please. The problem is, saving a space is an extrinsic goal, and killing the antagonist is an intrinsic triumph.
The opposite can also happen. An intrinsic goal can get conflated with an extrinsic one and you show the hero saving the world but failing to obtain what they set out to do.
In some ways, the last Superman movie did both. In the course of trying to save the world, Superman did truly massive damage to it. He beat Zod but with there clearly being millions dead, saving the world felt a bit hollow. But the real victory condition of the movie was set out as the world being ready for Kal-El, ready for his power as a force for good. Which it showed by having him have a massive fight to the death with another of his kind. At the end of the movie, people are still suspicious of him. It’s unclear whether he really does fit or not. So the victory condition hasn’t been answered. What’s been answered instead is that the world can’t be rid of him. To some degree this relies on audience interpretation, as all stories do. If you see Superman’s defeat of Zod as him saving the world and you’re cheering for his triumph then the victory condition has been met. And if you just see it as a vicious murderous fight… then it’s hard to see it as a victory.
And that’s the last key of using victory conditions to get to a satisfying ending. In the end the audience judges it. If you’ve convinced the audience that the victory condition has been met or cannot be met, they’ll be satisfied. If you haven’t convinced them, then it will never satisfy them no matter what you do. You’ll never be able to convince everybody but knowing your audience and what will be a convincing victory (or its convinceing impossibility) to them will help. You’re the first gatekeeper of that decision but you can only judge it by knowing your victory conditions and deciding if you’ve met them.
Occasionally we’re asked how to better optimize a website for search as a way to drive more traffic. Yes, your site should be search optimized, but in terms of traffic, this is just one tool in your toolkit to get exposure online–it’s not a magic bullet. If your site is well-structured and you’re creating quality content that satisfies user intent, rest assured Google is smart: they’ll make sure your content is found by the right user.
What people are usually really asking us, though, is how to game the system by employing tactics that will help them rank higher in search. Which is just not a very good idea, Google no like. They’re always looking for ways to penalize those who attempt to appear more relevant than they really are.
Yes, there are SEO best practices that will help you suggest to Google how to display your URLS when they come up in search, and even help you think strategically about your content and online marketing activities which may lead to more traffic. But some of the tactics that are commonly asked about (such as stuffing keywords into titles or using meta descriptions on each page) aren’t going to rocket your site to popularity.
Not only that, these tactics are becoming obsolete as Google gets smarter — updating their algorithm 500-600 times per year to stay ahead of the “gamers”.
Google gives webmasters guidelines to follow and the rest is speculation. We can tell you that clients who get fantastic SEO results are creating quality content on a regular basis over a long period of time on specific topics that are valuable to their readers.
Taking a step back: Ask yourself why (or whether) SEO is important
When an author asks me about search engine optimization (SEO) for their website, I always ask several questions:
- Who is your audience and what do they want to know or do? (And does your content satisfy their needs?)
- Is this (using search) how people will look for you? (Does it matter if you’re easily found if nobody’s looking?)
- What content (keywords) other than your name or book titles do you wish to be found for in search? (Are you positioning yourself as a thought leader on a specific topic?)
These are important questions to ponder, because they will help you create a winning content and SEO strategy. But are you worried about SEO when you should really be more concerned with writing good content your readers will be excited to share and talk about?
If you’re a novelist, for example, and you are writing stories on your blog for the sole purpose of entertaining your readers (“And by the way, buy my books!“) it can be particularly tricky to get quality hits from search engines–we know that readers aren’t necessarily looking for this type of content by querying Google. But they may have heard about your latest release and look for you or your book titles, but chances are, unless you’ve got major problems with your website, you will rank high for these terms organically.
What Google teaches us about online marketing
There are no SEO “magic tricks.” But Google does teach us an important lesson about online marketing: have something great to say and then go out and tell people about it. Build your social network and your email list and let your fans know about the great content you’ve written. Focus on creating value for them and create it consistently so they will want to share with their friends and followers. Not only will you benefit from increased traffic, but you’ll benefit from more search traffic as well, because we know Google likes websites that are relevant and linked back to from external sources. Full circle.
Marketing expert Jeff Bullas sums it up:
Those extra website visitors are the results of real humans sharing your post and enjoying it, which the search engines watch for and reward.
If people don’t like your content enough to link to it, share it, or comment on it, it’s not going to have the same impact on your business as truly great content will. If you want the benefits of having great content, you must put in the time and effort to produce it.
Then just keep at it, because “driving traffic” takes effort, patience, and time.
In this three-part series we have been discussing how to steal time from your own crazy-busy life so that you can finally bring that thing you want to write into being. The discussion so far has been moderately informative and entirely at the expense of Liam Neeson, who really does not deserve the abuse and I fully expect some nasty letters from the Screen Actors Guild and AARP and maybe even Beekeepers of America. If you haven’t read Parts 1 and 2 of this series, then this is not going to make a lot of sense, but here is a recap anyway. Step One: Start Something. Step Two: Do Something Every Day. Enlightening, right? Seriously, go back and catch up. I’ll wait.
Step Three: Keep a Writer’s To-Do List in Your Head. Like so many things in life, success begins with knowing what you want to accomplish. Even with lots of thinking and imagining and sandwich-eating it is not so easy to sit down and spin it all into a novel, or whatever it is you want to write. Inevitably, there are snags. Problems. Questions. Where, exactly, is old Liam anyway, and why is he lying down? Why are the bees so angry? In fact, the more details you nail down, the more problems and questions will crop up. How is the quick brown fox able to snag lazy old Liam’s kilt in mid-air? What is the fox’s name anyway? This is the literary equivalent of whack-a-mole. But there is no getting around it: you have to answer all of the questions and solve all of the problems. Why? Because you’re the writer. If you don’t answer the questions and solve the problems, no one else will.
It will help tremendously if you carry around a mental to-do list. This is your list of questions that must be answered and problems that must be solved. Actually, it is best to have a written to do list, but the focus here is on the mental part. As you go about your busy life, watching your kids chase a soccer ball and buying groceries and directing traffic around your broken car, you should make an effort to think about the problems and questions on your Writer’s To-Do List. Cycle through the items on the list that you can remember until you find one you want to work on. Then work on it. You will be amazed at how productive you can be when you keep coming back to that same nagging question. What should I name the fox? You will be working on the answer in the background even with the rest of your life rushing past you in the foreground. This is important work that must be done at some point; so why not while you are redirecting traffic or eating a sandwich or walking your dog?
When I am working on a book, I try to go to sleep at night with a single problem or question that I want to cross off my question/problem to-do list. For those five, ten, fifteen minutes before drift off to sleep, the only thing in my head is finding an answer or solution. Is this time I could ever realistically spend crafting sentences on my laptop? Of course not. I’m in bed. The lights are off. My eyes are closed. But it counts as writing time and I am making forward progress on my book that would otherwise be impinging on that elusive two to three-hour block of time that I want to devote to actually putting particular words in a particular order.
A collateral benefit of the Writer’s To-Do List is that it keeps that thing you want to write a fresh and active presence in your day-to-day life. You are no longer waiting around hoping to find enough time to sit down and write your Magnum Opus. You are engaged in a constant scavenger hunt for answers and solutions, pulling information and inspiration from the life around you to push your writing project forward to a place of greater and greater clarity. All of that requires that you have a to-do list that you carry around in your head; a list that you can work on within the tiny nooks and crannies of time that are otherwise unusable for writing. And then, out of the blue, as you hand some wealthy auto mechanic a credit card, the answers and solutions will hit you like a ton of bricks: Old Liam is lying out in a field on his Scotland estate. He’s lying down because his knees are weak from age and punishing action sequels. The fox is able to snatch his kilt in mid-leap because he is dragging a small grappling hook affixed to the end of his tail. And the fox’s name is… is… something cuddly, like ‘Twentieth Century.’
More questions. More problems. So it goes. But you just made a bunch of writing time.
Step Four: Words on the Page. None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that there is some way to finish that thing you want to write without actually spending a whole lot of time sitting still someplace and actually writing or typing specific words in a specific order. There is no getting around the actual writing part of writing. This is going to take a lot of time. The time will not be free. You will need to steal it from other things – fun things, important things – and reprioritize your life. All of which is possible. Not everybody in your life is going to be happy about it and it may not be very comfortable. But it really is possible.
Now, stealing that kind of time will require serious motivation on your part. You’re going to need all the help you can get. Steps 1-3 all have the incidental benefit of boosting your motivation to do the hard work of making writing time. Remember, the more of that thing you want to write that you have managed to pull into the real world – by shaping it, giving it detail, and working with it every day – the more motivated you will be to continue and ultimately finish that process. We are far more likely to change our behavior for a reward that actually exists than a reward that is purely imagined. Our hunger drive is stimulated more by the smell of food actually on the table than the abstract thought of food. Even within the realm of ideas, the thought of a slice of bubbling, freshly baked blueberry pie that is just beginning to soften the outer slope of a scoop of vanilla ice cream is far more motivating than the thought of “some kind of food.” If you are going to rearrange your life for the sake of writing time, then you need to be chasing something real. “Some kind of food” is not going to do it. The more time you spend conceptualizing that thing you want to write, pinning details to it, ironing out problems and inconsistencies, naming it, giving it color and history and populating it with memorable characters, the more you are hardening that amorphous mush of ideas in your head into an actual thing.
So steal an hour or two from some other part of your life and add them to the pile of hours, minutes and seconds you have already stolen and invested. For this step, it will not do to steal from lunch or the drive to soccer. This requires major-league theft. Steal a couple of hours from cable television. Or from a good night’s sleep. Tell your kids you hid fifty bucks “somewhere in the neighborhood.” By hook or by crook, make some time to sit down and really put some words on the page. Throw as much time at it as you can. Progress will be slow, even agonizingly so, but it is going to feel good. It’s going to feel like progress. It’s going to feel real. The more time you steal, the more time you are going to want to steal. The problem of “finding time” is never harder than before you have started. This is a problem that gets easier and easier to solve because, first, you will realize that it really is possible to make time for writing and, second, because you will have less and less emotional choice in the matter. You will need to worry less about having time to write and more about staying married and employed.
Furthermore, once you have stolen that precious, expensive block of time, you will need to use it as efficiently as possible. Pick a time and a place that you can make your own. Deep breath. Let it flow. The point it this: you do not want to spend any of this precious time wondering about what it is you want to say and how you want to say it. Steps 1-3 mean that you already have a base to work from; that every single day you have been figuring out what you want to say and how you want to say it; and that you have been ironing out all the problems and answering all of the questions that might otherwise get in the way of the actual writing process.
When you finally have that rare two-hour block of time to sit down to write, you should be taking full advantage of a lot of momentum. All of those micro-sessions – all of those stolen minutes and seconds – in which you have been doing things that count as writing, will have resulted in what is known as “creative pressurization.” This is a completely made up term that will get you strange and alarmed looks from others, so best not to use it. But “creative pressurization” is a completely real phenomenon. If you have been using the time between your actual writing sessions effectively, that thing you want to write will always be outgrowing the confines of your head. All of those details, answers and solutions will want to be outside in the real world. You will be highly motivated to relieve the pressure. Conveniently for our purposes, the only way to relieve the pressure is to release it, letter-by-letter, word-by-word. Get it out. Write it down. Make the time. An hour. Two hours. Three. It gets easier. Because you no longer have much choice.
Success, ultimately, will mean fully realizing your creative vision; making what was once an amorphous blob of cognitive impulse foolishly looking for a gift of free time, into an actual memoir or exposé or novel or screenplay, forged into something real, one stolen minute after the next.
If you are really successful, then maybe your screenplay gets picked up, or your novel gets published and you make a small fortune on the movie rights. One day you will open the newspaper and there it is, above the fold on the front page of the entertainment section, proof that that thing you wanted to write really was meant to be alive in the world:
Liam Neeson, the rapidly aging action star, as you’ve never seen him before! Twentieth Century fox brings you a Bee-Movie adventure classic! A powerful performance worthy of an actor out-standing in his field! Raw, tender, undignified! It’s kilt-free fun for the whole family! Starring Harrison Ford as Liam Neeson.
Sorry. Now go write something already. I’m late for court.
Owen Thomas lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska as a writer of fiction and, because he must pay his bills, as an employment lawyer. His novel “The Lion Trees” is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Owen is also the author of a collection of short stories and novellas entitled “Signs of Passing: Letters from Winchester County” winner of the 2014 Pacific Book Awards for short fiction. Owen’s story “Everything Stops” is being published in September by Fiction Attic Press as part of an anthology of short fiction called “Modern Shorts” and is available on Amazon. Owen maintains an active fiction and photography blog at www.owenthomasfiction.com. Owen has come to understand that there is a strange disquiet in referring to oneself in the third person. Owen is seriously afraid he will not be able to stop.
In the previous installment of this post, I introduced the first step in finding the time in a busy life to bring that thing you want to write out of your head and into the real world. If you have been paying attention, you know that there is no such thing “finding time.” There is only “stealing time” from other parts of your life, including important and enjoyable activities like Netflix bingeing and becoming a better person by liking people and things on Facebook that you think a person like you really should like, even if you don’t actually like them. If you recall, the first step in making time for your book or screenplay, or whatever, is to get a good running start by putting something – anything, an outline, character names, anything –down on paper or into a computer. Steal an hour, or two hours, and give those unformed, amorphous thoughts a place to live outside your head. Give them a real address. Once you have done that, you can move on.
Step Two: Do Something Every Day. Yes, every day. But notice I have not said you need to “write” every day. Do Something. You must do something every day that counts as writing, even if it is not actually writing.
If you can actually spend significant periods of time writing every single day, then you are wasting that time reading this article. You and Stephen King and your other time-bending friends need to leave the rest of us alone to figure out how we can string enough minutes together to actually produce something longer than a Post-It note. Writing takes time. Lots of time. And that is the problem: there is no time. So what is an aspiring writer to do when there is no time to sit down and write even once a week, let alone every day? This second step requires you to change how you think about writing and about time.
I used to think of “writing time” as two or three-hour blocks of time in which I could disappear into my imagination and work undisturbed. The problem was always that there were more unicorns in my life, by a factor of ten, than there were three-hour blocks of time. Consequently, that thing I wanted to write waited and waited. And waited. I had a good start (see Step One) but without any attention, the story grew cold and threatened to fall out of this world and back into the seething caldron of unformed ideas.
Out of desperation, I eventually began writing in my car between meetings or sitting in a parking lot outside of some fast food joint, frustrated that I only had forty minutes, or twenty minutes, or ten minutes to spend crafting my novel. I like to tell people that I wrote my first novel, Lying Under Comets: A Love Story of Passion, Murder, Snacks and Graffiti, fifteen minutes at a time. It’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. The limitations of time I experienced with that book forged a new and fundamental understanding about writing: There is a whole lot more to writing than coming up with words and arranging them on the page.
I know this will sound heretical, but the wordsmithing part of writing might just be the least of it. Writing is really about thinking or, if you are a fiction writer, imagining. The words are obviously important. Duh. But the words are only there in the first place to effectively translate thoughts and ideas that already exist in your head. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, old Liam Neeson. Before you can write that sentence, you have to imagine it. If you are trying to write something without first having thought it through, without fully imagining it in all of its detail (see that sleek fox, the kilt, the terrified old man expression), then you are in serious trouble as a writer.
A lot of advance work has to be done before you can start slapping words together. Much of what I ended up doing parked out in front of Subway was not writing-writing, but thinking-writing. I was taking care of the essential preconditions to writing. Thinking. Imagining. Creating. These things may not involve actual writing, but they are critical enough to the writing process to count as writing. And while it may be tough to get much wordsmithing done in 10 or 20 minutes, you can cover a universe of mental, imaginative groundwork in that time.
Let’s be clear: I am not suggesting that you sit in your parked car and idly think about… stuff. I am not talking about daydreaming. I am suggesting a very deliberate, focused concentration on the details of that that thing you want to write. What are you going to write – what details are you going to render – the next time you can steal enough time to actually type it out? Names. Places. Basic chronology. Mood. Themes. Once the details start to come to life in your head, you will be amazed at how compelling that feeling is. It’s the feeling of something new in your life. I can only imagine that it’s a little like feeling the unborn baby kick for the first time.
When amorphous thoughts begin coalescing into sharper and sharper detail, the effect is both compelling and synergistic. I found myself looking for anywhere in my workweek that I could steal twenty to forty minutes just to ladle back into the caldron of ideas and work on refining larger concepts into concrete details. The quick brown fox, chased by angry bees, is collecting kilts for his den. Lazy old Liam, suddenly defrocked, stands up shouting and waving his arms. Cue the bees. Liam shows aging action hero agility here. Reaches for gun and starts shooting at angry bees. Run, Liam run. See Liam flail. The point is that forty minutes in a Subway parking lot provided an ocean of quality time with which to create and sort through the details of that thing I wanted to write. Was that forty minutes just lying around? No. Was it free? No. I had to make it. I had to steal it from lunchtime.
I was also eating, of course, which is strangely relevant. I cannot eat and type at the same time. I have to choose. When you only have forty minutes between meetings, then one of those things – eating or typing – is not getting done. You can guess which one usually comes up short. But, and here is the point, I can definitely eat and think at the same time. I’ve done it my whole life and I don’t think I’m special in this regard. I put those 20, 30, 40-minute intervals to spectacularly good writing use. I developed character arcs and refined plot lines. I solved problems. I imagined endings. And all with my mouth full. I made time to write, or at least I made time to do something that counts as writing. Before starting the car had heading back to work, I tried to take about five minutes to scribble out a few notes about what I had resolved, pulling the ideas out of my head and into this world. I took those notes everywhere I went. I took a second here and a minute there to add to them. It was like feeding a baby. A growing baby. A colicky baby.
All to what benefit? There were actually three consistent benefits to these micro-sessions. First, when I finally had time to write for an hour or two on a weekend, I knew exactly what I was doing. Fox. Kilt. Bees. Pre-arthritic naked action star. Gun. Undignified flailing and running. I was free to spend my writing time actually arranging words on the page. I had enough plot, character and thematic details accumulated from my 20-minute sandwich-chewing-think-sessions that I was not wasting any of my precious writing time trying to orient myself in an ocean of ill-defined possibility. My little micro-sessions had made me much more efficient.
Second, and maybe even more importantly, those 10, 20, 40-minute sessions meant that I was interacting with that thing I wanted to write every single day. Every day of the week I was doing something focused and deliberate that counted as writing. Thinking about characters. Tuning the plot. Shaping themes. Sketching an outline. Solving problems. Making notes. Reading a draft. Editing. Casting the movie adaptation of the novel (starring Harrison Ford as Liam Neeson). Ten minutes a day counted as over an hour of writing time a week. Forty minutes a day put me at almost five hours of quality time per week. If someone had told me that if I wanted to write a novel I would need to find five unused hours in my life every single week, I would have given up before I had started.
Ironically, and this is the third benefit, the more time I spent on that thing I wanted to write, the more time I wanted to spend. Five hours a week made me want ten. A creative synergy took over: the more minutes I fed it, the bigger it grew. The bigger it grew the more I wanted to feed it. Before I knew it, that thing I wanted to write had an independent existence in the real world and was yowling for attention. It was impossible to ignore. It wanted more of my time and it would not accept the excuse that my life was just too full. Beginnings naturally seek endings. My biggest ally in my mission to make more time for writing was… that thing I was writing. I don’t have any children; but suddenly, I kind of did have a child. I couldn’t let it starve. One way or the other, I made the time.
In the final installment of this blog series I will lay out Steps 3 and 4 on the path to stealing time from an already busy life for the sake of that thing you want to write. In the meantime, between now and then, try to do something every day that counts as writing. Seriously, anything. As long as it’ something. I promise that when next we meet that constellation of loosely connected ideas in your head is going to feel discernably different than it does today. It’s going to feel a little more… what’s the word… “real.” It’s going to feel like progress.