In this issue:

  • Semi-sweet endings
  • Preparing for a launch
  • Beginners guide to loyalty programs
  • aHrefs content lead tears me a new one

Let’s go.

Top of mind:

What do the Disney movie “Onward” and the 1999 classic “Fight Club” have in common?


A lot more than you think.


But before we get into that, I have a question…


What did you want when you opened an email titled “write better endings”?

  • Advice on ways to better insert CTAs at the end of blog posts?
  • Rules or frameworks on how to close a piece?
  • Ways to summarize or synthesize content without feeling contrived?

I’m not a betting man, but if I had to guess, you weren’t expecting to go as deep as we have into the concepts we’ve been talking about.


Don’t know about you but I’ve grown tired of “easy-to-use” templates and hacks. Some are certainly effective, but from where I sit, they can strip the writing of its humanity.


No no, if I may be so bold, I think the marketing space needs is the vocabulary non-marketing storytellers have been developing over centuries; the language that’s been used to create worlds, shape perspectives, and become a part of people’s identities.


If you wanted easy, you’re not going to get it from me. But if you’re ready to continue honing your craft and put in the work, buckle up…


This is how you create a semi-sweet ending.

An image of the endings matrix
Image Credit: Studio Binder

A quick refresher on Wants and Needs

At the heart of every story are two driving forces: what characters think they want and what they truly need.


While they might chase external goals, often fueled by misconceptions or “The Lie,” there’s also “The Truth” that will lead them to genuine fulfillment.

  • Wants: These are the tangible objectives characters chase, often driven by their beliefs or “The Lie.”
  • Needs: Beneath the surface, these are the deeper truths or “The Truth” that characters must confront for genuine growth.

In a story with a bittersweet ending, characters reject “The Truth,” and embrace “The Lie,” to get what they want, but not what they need.


In the semi-sweet ending, characters will embrace “The Truth,” and realize “The Lie,” wasn’t what they needed at all.


Two examples of this are:

In Onward, Ian Lightfoot wishes he could have gotten to know his deceased father.


He believes that doing father/son things like playing catch and taking a walk together will make him feel complete.

In reality, he needs to embrace that his relationship with his brother Barley is what he’s needed all along.
​​

Ian Lightfoot from Onward looks at the list of things he wants to do with this dad

In Fight Club, The Narrator’s initial want is to use materialism as a form of identity, to the point where he explicitly states, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”


Losing this want forces him to chase many others, each with alarming levels of destructiveness.


What he really needs is an identity of his own and to find purpose and meaning beyond his mundane job and possessions.

The Narrator from Fight Club walks through his perfectly furnished home


The prospect wanting things they don’t need is the oldest story ever told in B2B storytelling.


Here’s an example at the macro level:


A CEO wants to use legacy software because they believe they need a broader feature set, but after a discovery session, it’s revealed those features might not be necessary, and what they really need is something more streamlined.


However, just because it is common, doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to deconstruct.


Let’s go a level deeper.

The hallmarks of a semi-sweet story


The semi-sweet story uses all of the same ingredients as the sweet and bittersweet stories, but those ingredients are used in different proportions; some are quite obvious once you know what you’re looking for.


1. The Want is explicitly stated:


In the Onward example above, Ian Lightfoot literally has a list of the things he wants to do with his dad.


In Fight Club, one of The Narrator’s many wants is to reject the social norms of materialism. Tyler Durdin even says “The stuff you own ends up owning you.”


In every Disney musical, the character sings their “I want” song.


Ariel wants to be where the people are, Belle wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, Simba wants to be a mighty king, etc.

2. The Need is readily apparent:

As an audience member, what the character truly needs is obvious to us early in the story.


Simba needs to take responsibility, Belle needs a meaningful connection, Ian needs to accept his brother, and The Narrator…


…well The Narrator needs a lot of things, chief among them a nap.


3. The Want is pursued.

This is the majority of the story where the character chases their want and we see how they overcome obstacles as the stakes increase.


In Fight Club, The Narrator starts with by creating Fight Club, which evolves into pulling mean pranks, which evolves into a full-on domestic terrorism, all in the name of rejecting society.


4. Wisdom from secondary characters:


Many stories have the, “you know what you need” moment where a mentor, friend or foe explicitly states what the protagonist needs.


In Fight Club, The Narrator’s doctor says early in the movie, “You need healthy, natural sleep. Chew valerian root and get more exercise.”


Another example: Morpheus says, “You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.”


In The Lion King, Rafiki hits Simba and tells him he can either run from his past or learn from it.


In others, the moment is more subtle.

In Onward, Ian rehearses conversations with a recording of his father, and at one point, the recording cuts him off.


Barley intervenes to offer support, but Ian dismisses him.


5. The Epiphany:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” – Robert McKee

This is the moment that separates the bitter-sweet story from the semi-sweet story.


There is a small trigger at the end of the second act that forces the protagonist to realize the pursuit of their want (The Lie) has blinded them from what they need (The Truth).


A common trope is to show the epiphany through a series of flashbacks that recontextualize the previous events of the story.

In Onward, Ian looks at his list and realizes, he and Barley have done everything he wanted.

Ian from Onward realizes his brother is what he needed all along.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durdin reveals he and The Narrator are the same person, and The Narrator sees key moments of the film through Tyler’s eyes.

Tyler Durdin reveals he and The Narrator are the same person

6. The sacrifice:

The character takes decisive action to give up their want to correct course and satisfy their need.

In Onward, Ian sacrifices what could be a few minutes with a dad he never knew, to let Barley have a moment of closure with his father whom he had real memories of.

Barley from the movie Onward hugs his father before his dad goes back to being a ghost.

In Fight Club, after The Narrator realizes Tyler Durdin’s actions are a manifestation of his suppressed wants, his “sacrifice” is to undo Project Mayhem’s plan to blow up multiple financial buildings.

The Narrator in Fight Club runs down the street holding several folders.

7. Internal fulfillment:

After the realization has happened and the action has been taken, the character completes their arc, becoming a fully realized version of themselves.

How do we approach this in a B2B blog post?

Like we did in the last email, we answer the following questions to get inside your reader’s head:

  1. What is The Ghost?
  2. What is The Lie?
  3. What is The Truth?
  4. What do they want?
  5. Do they get it?
  6. What do they need?
  7. Do they get it?


Where a traditional brief states the topics you’ll cover (the plot), these questions form the reader’s character arc and map their emotional journey from beginning to end.


From there we plot out the core beats of their story.


Here’s a quick example of how we might approach a topic like “Email subject line hacks for small businesses.”


1. The Want is explicitly stated

Open with an anecdote that will resonate with a small business owner. “What if there were a method that, with the push of a button, could skyrocket sales every time it was used?”


2. The Need is readily apparent (but not to the reader)

Ask the reader to think about how their favorite company approaches email, and validate ROI with stats, then dive into a negative case study about companies that tried and failed because they missed fundamental principles.


3. The Want is pursued

This is where we deliver the subject line hacks, however, always being sure to sew seeds of doubt about their long-term effectiveness.


4. Wisdom from a secondary character

Here we include an expert quote that subverts what the reader wanted and explicitly states what they truly need.


5. The Epiphany

Present a case study about a small business similar to the reader’s.


Talk about how they tried “quick-fix” solutions and the long-term impact it had on their brand.


Ask them to reflect again on how their favorite brand approaches email, and challenge the notion that it’s because they’re using “hacks.” You could even share a personal example for yourself to further illustrate the point.


6. The Sacrifice

Challenge your reader to reject the idea that “hacks” are really the right way to go, and to move to a more strategic approach.


7. Internal fulfillment

Leave the reader on a hopeful note they are capable of doing more than resorting to subject line hacks and they are capable of achieving long-term results with a more thoughtful approach. Tease their future, and encourage them to do more.


Of course, since our reader is a real person, they very well could ignore everything but the hacks, but if executed well, the majority will be appreciative you’ve helped them see beyond their short-sighted want and they should pursue what they really need.

We want this, because it gives them a reason to dig deeper into the website and return later on.


In many ways, the closing paragraphs can mirror the opening ones to highlight and highlight their journey from beginning to end.

Wrapping up

Look, if there’s anything I hope you’ve taken away from this series so far, it’s that endings don’t start at the end.


They don’t have to be a summary of what came before and they don’t have to contain an explicit call to action.

Over the course of this series, and more broadly over the life of this newsletter, I hope to show you the language of real storytelling – not what marketers have made it – so you can hone your craft and focus on technique.


Inside you is the ability to build worlds and guide the reader through whatever journey you want to take them on.


I want you to trust your ability to lead the reader to the conclusion you want them to so we can stop forcing “Start a free trial” buttons at the end and thinking that’s what makes the difference.


The ability to move people is literally in your fingertips.


So let’s get to tapping.

Thank you to our sponsor aHrefs

Find the issues that prevent your site from ranking. aHrefs webmaster tools scans up to 5,000 pages website for 100 technical SEO issues that may prevent your site from ranking, absolutely free.

What’s on our radar?

🚀 5 ways to prepare your team for a launch

⚡️ The three Cs of content strategy
🧾 7 Marketing report templates

🎙️ A pretty good podcasting host playbook

The most important tool in my stack (affiliate link)

Studio Insider Spotlight:

The beginner's guide to building a loyalty program

I don’t stay very connected to my ecommerce days, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this guide by Loyalty Lion.

Loyalty Lion was one of my favorite loyalty apps in the Shopify ecosystem, and this guide demonstrates just how important and powerful a good loyalty program can be.

Let’s get social

Erica Schneider and I will be doing an Edit-a-thon for Studio Insiders ONLY. More details to come.

This one is for Studio Insiders only!

Would you mind leaving a comment to help visiblity?

Previously on The Cutting Room

Studio Insider Exclusive: Wants vs Needs explained

video preview

This is a raw, live conversation about Wants vs Needs where I explain further and answer audience questions along the way.

From “The Vault”

Joshua Hardwick is the head of content at aHrefs, and the article he edited was one I wrote quite a while back.

I was pretty proud of it, but he ripped me a new one.

Click here to see the article
Click here to watch him walk through his edits

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Tommy Walker | The Content Studio

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