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Monday, April 22, 2024

Writing a "Hollow Victory"

What is a "Hollow Victory"?

In writing, a "hollow victory" happens when the character gets what she wants, but ultimately isn't thrilled about it. It's as if the character feels "hollow"--empty, unfulfilled, unhappy.

Simplistically speaking, it works like this:

The protagonist has a goal.

She runs into antagonists, which creates escalating conflict.

At the peak of the conflict, she succeeds (at least seemingly).

And so everything should be amazing . . . right?

Only something seems to be missing . . . so the victory didn't land how the character imagined.

This all breaks down more, and we can get more detailed. Let's talk about this in relation to structure.

When does a "Hollow Victory" Happen in Structure?

Not every story has a hollow victory, but if there is one, it most frequently happens at the third "peak," what is Act II, Part II's major turning point. Right here:

In the Save the Cat! approach to writing, this peak is called the "All is Lost" beat, because usually the writer has the act end on a major defeat (and it feels as if everything is lost.) But as Blake Snyder points out in his Save the Cat! book, you can swap out this defeat for a hollow victory.

In other popular approaches, this peak goes by different names. In The Hero's Journey, this is "The Ordeal" beat, which also places a major defeat here. And in 7 Point Story Structure, this is called "Plot Point 2."

Many writers prefer to label each quarter's major turning point as a victory or defeat for the protagonist. For example, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! encourages you to place a victory (of some sort) at the midpoint (the second peak), and a defeat at the third peak. But he acknowledges you can reverse these. You can have a defeat at the midpoint and a victory (of some sort) at the third peak.

There are a lot of ways you can play with this, but the point I'm making is, if you like viewing these peaks as victories or defeats, any one of them can be either, which means any one of them can technically be a hollow victory.

So while it's most common for a hollow victory to show up at Act II, Part II's peak, it can technically show up at the second peak (the midpoint) or even the fourth peak (the climax of the whole story). If it shows up at the fourth peak, you are likely writing a negative character arc, one where the protagonist succeeds in getting what he wants, but loses his soul (or at least happiness) in the process. (This could all get more complicated though, so I will leave that there for now.)

It's also technically possible for it to show up at the first peak, but this is most uncommon. Usually Act I's peak is about the protagonist choosing to engage in the main plot, and a lot of times that isn't easily labeled a victory or defeat. With that said, you can totally put a hollow victory here, if you know what you are doing.

Okay! I hope that wasn't too technical for you. If so, feel free to skip on to the next heading. Otherwise . . .

On a smaller level, you can also have a smaller hollow victory.

As a reminder, a hollow victory happens when the protagonist succeeds, but consequently doesn't feel right about it.

Since scenes should also often follow basic structure, you can also have a scene peak with a hollow victory--it's just that this will usually be smaller and less impactful than if it were to happen at the act level.

If it's helpful to your process, you can label any of these peaks at any level as a victory or defeat.

I personally don't do this, because I don't feel like every peak in every story fits easily into these categories (some seem to be neither and some seem to be both), but if that is helpful to you, go for it!

Additionally, I should probably mention not every victory needs to feel "hollow." You can have a true victory that the protagonist is thrilled about.

So . . . let's go over this "hollow" aspect.

What Makes it Hollow?

In order to make a victory feel hollow, the writer usually chooses one of two paths: internal or external.

I'll cover the internal first, because this is what's most familiar to people.

The Internal

In this version, the writer turns to the internal plotline, which is (almost) always related to the character arc. Which means, it's (almost) always related to the theme.

Most protagonists have what's called a "positive change arc"--this entails the protagonist learning a lesson that changes her worldview (simplistically speaking). If this makes her a better person, then the lesson is likely the story's thematic statement. It's what the character needed to learn to complete her internal journey, her arc.

In an internal hollow victory, most commonly the protagonist gets what she wants externally, but hasn't yet learned (or rather fully embraced) the lesson (read: the theme). So for example . . . 

In Zootopia, Judy wants to rid the world of prejudice by proving a bunny can be a cop, and she's going to do this by solving a missing person case (goal). At Act II, Part II's major turn, she (seemingly) solves the case. She has proven to the world that a bunny can be a great cop, and she gets showered with recognition. This is a big external victory.

But almost immediately after, the victory turns hollow when her own biases get pointed out, and the case's resolution actually leads to more prejudice in society. Judy hasn't yet learned what she needs to, which is that in order to rid the world of prejudice, you must first rid it of yourself (the theme).

This leads to a big lull as Judy realizes that, despite the recognition, she's actually not a great cop, and her victory has made the world a worse place. She got what she wanted, but she feels hollow and sad inside, until she can address her internal flaw and complete her arc.

A similar thing happens in Marley and Me, when John finally gets the job he's wanted all along, only to find it disappointing and colorless. Career life isn't all he thought it would be. He hasn't yet learned what he needs to--that domestic life is a blessing, not a curse.

That's an internal hollow victory.

It's possible (though of course not required) to do this with other arcs. In negative arcs, the character has a similar experience, but chooses not to address his internal flaw or embrace positive growth. He'll live with the hollowness, rationalize his way out of it, or grow callous toward it. (There is a variation, though, where he may address it and get a last-minute redemption in the denouement.)

In a positive steadfast arc, the protagonist may have lost his way through the middle, which then led to an experience like Judy's, and now he needs to find his way back to the theme. It's also possible to create a similar effect by having the character doubt that the costs paid were worth the victory (which is like what happens with Katniss at the end of Mockingjay). Or by having the protagonist be hard on himself over a moment of weakness or temptation that came up during the conflict and seems to overshadow the victory.

There are a few other ways to bring a sense of hollowness into a victory, but those are the most common. And depending on how the victory is handled, it might be more like it's a "bittersweet" victory, rather than a truly "hollow" one, which we could argue are different things.

An external hollow victory is simpler to explain.

The External

In this version, the writer turns to the external plotline. The protagonist claimed a victory, but something just doesn't sit right with him. There seems to be a loose end nagging at him that doesn't make sense. It's like completing a puzzle only to realize a piece is missing. The protagonist may (try to) rationalize it away or become obsessed with figuring out why this success doesn't feel right. He might feel like it was "too easy." Or everything worked out too perfectly. It feels too good to be true.

For example, in Knives Out, Detective Blanc has seemingly solved the mystery behind Harlan's death. Marta has even confessed to it. But he still has some questions that don't have answers. There are still some loose ends. He speaks to this when describing the case as a donut with a smaller donut inside it--there is a smaller hole within the donut hole.

An external hollow victory will likely not feel as dismal as the internal, but depending on the story and the character, it can still feel all-consuming.

Other Plotlines

Because there are other types of plotlines, there are technically other ways to create a hollow victory. Those two are just the most common, and usually the other plotlines will play into them.

Another plotline that is frequently a major one, is a relationship plotline. A hollow victory may happen there, when the character finally gets the love interest she wants, but finds the relationship unfulfilling. Or, when the character finally successfully creates distance from someone, only to find she misses him.

Story plotlines normally intertwine, so you could also have a situation where the protagonist gets the external goal, but ruins his family relationships in the process. Depending on how that is handled, that may create a hollow victory.

At the most basic level, though, you are essentially creating a victory that doesn't sit well with the character.

Note that this is different from a victory that requires sacrifices. A victory may still feel fulfilling and "worth it," even if steep sacrifices were made to obtain it.

When the Hollowness Sets in

Because the character seemed to have a great moment of success, frequently the "hollowness" isn't immediate. 

It can be immediate (like if the character is consciously aware she sold her soul at the same time she gained the world).

Or it can take several scenes to set in.

Sometimes there is a segment about how great life seems to be . . . until the character can't look himself in the mirror or stop thinking about that missing puzzle piece.

It's usually best to not have the initial joy take up that much word count, because this often means the audience is being asked to wait for the next sign of conflict. This often means there isn't a lot of tension. (Though there are some ways around this, like if you have multiple viewpoint characters and/or several plotlines.)

In any case, I want to close by acknowledging again that not every victory needs to be a hollow one. You can have a peak of success that your character feels great about. If that happens before the climax, then usually that means the character now needs a new goal, a new plan (or a new part of the plan), and/or an antagonistic force to come threaten what the character has gained.

This article is just focused on the hollow victory, specifically.

Related Articles

Save the Cat! Explained: The Middle

The Hero's Journey Explained: The Middle

"All is Lost" vs. "Dark Night of the Soul"


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