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What copywriting and novel writing have in common

How to make sure your readers stick with the story

[Image courtesy of Thanakrit Gu at Flickr Creative Commons]

They say that everybody has a novel inside them. Which often prompts the well-worn retort that in most cases, that’s precisely where it should stay. 

On a bright but very breezy recent summer day in a friend’s garden, I trotted out that reliable old line and expected the usual response – a wry smile (they’ve heard it before) or gales of laughter (they haven’t). 

But in this case, I was disappointed.

For my friend put down his elderberry tisane and his face clouded over. Was I suggesting that some people’s stories didn’t deserve to be told? That they were unworthy?

To be honest, he carried on, now gathering speed on the road towards indignation, he found it very dismissive. And superior. And verging on…

But I stopped him in mid-flight and reminded him that it was an old joke, and not mine. And that there was no malicious intent.

And in any case, the novel stays inside not because anybody’s forcing it to stay there, but because people just don’t pull their finger out and get it down on paper. 

The write stuff

“It sounds to me like it’s personal with you,” I said, probing to see what was what was behind the sudden flare-up. “You’re not a frustrated novelist by any chance?”

Now my friend is a microbiologist, so I didn’t think it was likely. But no sooner were the words out of my mouth than he was on his feet and scurrying inside.

Moments later, he emerged waving a book with the cracked spine and dog ears typical of repeated readings. 

Write a Novel and Get it Published, commanded the title of this Teach Yourself book by Nigel Watts. The author has done just that on many occasions and this how-to book is distillation of his experience, together with practical advice about the world of publishing. 

Now I know my limits, and writing a novel is simply beyond me.

Although I (probably) have the skill, I just don’t have the desire, determination or attention span to pull it off. But that didn’t stop me thumbing through my friend’s copy of the book to see what what I could glean. 

Framing your story

One thing in particular caught my attention: the eight-point story arc. It’s the basic framework that you can hang your writing on, and it’s one that you’ll recognise from all the best stories you’ve read.

But what got me interested was that it’s not that different to the framework of the best copywriting – which always tells a story. 

Without ruining the plot, the stages are [with marketing translation in square brackets]: 

  • Stasis, where you set the scene, usually involving a looming crisis – like Hansel and Gretel about to be abandoned by their parents in the wood. [Client is stuck in a problem situation.]
  • Trigger, which launches us into the story. Think wicked stepmother, or handsome prince in search of a bride. [Competition is hotting up, with new players disrupting the established order.]
  • Quest, as the hero/heroine sets out on a journey to solve the trigger question. [How do we adapt and survive in this new world?]
  • Surprise, which takes up the middle part of the story. Usually involves unexpected, though plausible, twists and turns. [Unexpected opportunities or challenges. Causes jeopardy, so the outcome is uncertain.]
  • Critical choice, where the main character has to choose between two paths. [Which product or service? Action or inaction? Stick to present course or alter?]
  • Climax, where the tension is ratcheted up and it could go either way. Everything is still hanging in the balance at this stage. [Still not sure which direction to take. The stakes are raised and it’s getting to crunch time.]
  • Reversal, which could be a positive reversal, where a character’s luck turns and things start looking up. [Here comes the solution to the client’s problem…]
  • Resolution, where a definite outcome is achieved, and the story is at a new stasis – sometimes happy, sometimes not. [Though in the copywriting/marketing case, stories always have a happy ending.]

Stories work because they follow certain conventions. Pick apart any popular novel, and you’ll see this same structure over and over again. 

Simplified for copywriting, it looks like this: 

  • Overview: set the scene, and make a promise.
  • Problem: get specific about the challenges that need to be faced. Don’t overplay this, or it’ll come across too negative. 
  • Solution: the body of the story, where you focus on the positives. Lead with benefits, and follow up with features.
  • Conclusion: wrap up the story, with a recap of the highlights. Include a call to action. 

OK, it doesn’t match the story arc points exactly, because it can’t.

Cinderella has to put on that glass slipper earlier, and we need to play down the misery and humiliation caused by those wicked sisters. Because marketing copy is less about the problem, and more about the solution.  

But it’s always about telling a good story. Much as I hope my elderberry‑drinking scientist friend will be doing in the not-too-distant future.

With a little help from Nige.