Storytelling: How to Write Anything
We are quick to swoon over the great storytellers of the past: Shakespeare, Cather, Twain, Poe. But what if we accepted that yesteryear’s fiction translates directly to today’s content writing?
I want to take you down memory lane, back to your high school English class (we can skip
over the awkward prom and those terrible pants you thought were so cool). You learned that a story can be broken down into a few basic components: An opening, a series of challenges the hero must overcome, a climax that nearly kills him, and finally a resolution to all his problems. When you follow those components in order, you end up with a tale that changes the literary landscape. Or at least a passing grade.
But those components aren’t just for fiction writing. The story model can actually be a successful template to use when writing any emotionally compelling content. While your content must be inherently valuable, I’ll show you how to present it in a way that will better engage your audience.
Whatever you do, write a story.
We’ve always been told that first impressions are important, but when writing for the web, the importance is tenfold. Consider: When was the last time you stopped reading an article partway through? Your readers are practically trained to bounce away the moment they consider the content a waste of their time.
The solution is to engage readers from the start. Romance them with a “hook,” a clever opening to grab their attention and draw them in. Use the first few sentences to convince your readers that you have something valuable to impart. Your words do not need to be flashy, but they should inspire some curiosity. Shout the unpopular opinion. Ask the difficult question. Draw them in with paragraph one, and they just might stick around for two and three.
Next, establish your authority. We can assume that your readers are interested in your topic, but how do you establish yourself as someone worth listening to without sounding egotistical?
Developing authority does not mean writing like a know-it-all, nor does it mean trying to sound like a Wikipedia article. Be human. Be relatable. But be the relatable human who knows what he’s talking about and has the research to back up his claims.
Now that you’ve set the stage, make a promise. What will the reader gain by the end of the article? Again, subtlety is usually the best way to go.
Half of your battle is offering quality content, but the other half is trying to convince your reader to hang around until the end. It’s sad, but true.
The idea is to present your audience with tension. Tension is uncomfortable, and your audience will want a resolution. In other words, tension drives interest. If Harry Potter never had a rough day at Hogwarts, J.K. Rowling probably wouldn’t have much of a story.
Build up some tension, then walk your readers through the solution. Rinse and repeat. This pattern of tension and release effectively engages the reader, and by making each point of tension more powerful than the last, you will keep your reader wondering at what’s coming next.
This is it! This is the really big thing, the peak of your story. This is when Juliet awakens in the tomb, when the prince comes to Cinderella’s house, when Frodo stands in Mount Doom. Your reader, the hero of this story, has struggled through each point of tension so far, and now it’s time to get out the big guns.
Put the biggest hurdle out in the open and let your reader marvel over how difficult it might be to overcome it. Through imagery, you can put your reader in the situation you’re describing. Shorter sentences give him a sense of urgency.
Finally, when your reader is about to fall out of her seat, resolve the problem. Fulfill the promise that you offered early in your story. Bring your readers to that rosy “ah-hah!” moment and just let them bask there for a minute.
No story is truly fulfilling without a view of a changed future. If A Christmas Carol ended with Scrooge staring at his grave, it would be a very dissatisfying – and tragic – story indeed.
In content writing, the resolution is up to the reader. But you can kind of nudge him along.
While it would seem that the aforementioned ah-hah moment would satisfy the reader, it (magically) does the opposite. He has gone through the roller coaster and is expecting to move onto the next tension point. This creates a quiet desire for action, which is why placing your call to action right at the end is the most impactful. If you’re a non-profit, this is when you share “How you can help.” If you’re selling something, throw in a button for “Buy it now.” “More information.” “Other articles you might like.” “Share this on Facebook.”
Your reader wants to reach completion. She wants to move. End your article with a suggestion of how she should act, and chances are she will.
But wait, there’s more!
The story format doesn’t work with only articles. It’s effective in a pitch. In a mission statement. Even shaved down into a Facebook post (or bonus: Adele’s music). When you write content that draws in the reader, brings him through the thick and thin, builds up the tension, and then brings him through the biggest battle, he will feel compelled to action.
Now get out there and write something!
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