Content marketing is storytelling, so it’s not bizarre to think that fiction writers might actually have some advice for us. Can we borrow narrative devices and writing tips from fiction? I certainly believe we can.
These seven skills, devices, and tactics come straight from the art of fiction, but they’re remarkable tools for any writer that hopes to draw attention and engagement:
1. The art of suspense
Marketers are data driven. They hate mysteries and unsolved problems. But content marketing is all about telling a story, and stories are all about mysteries and unresolved problems. In particular, suspense is what keeps a reader engaged from beginning to end. Tempting as it may be to answer all questions up front, it’s not always the best answer.
This can, understandably, conflict with more obvious content marketing practices like, say, solving problems for your readers. You have to strike a balance. But it’s equally important to understand that you don’t achieve suspense just by leaving questions unanswered. You need to fill the gap between question and answer with something useful.
Think along the lines of a CSI episode. The question is posed, you pick up all the information you need to answer it, and then you answer it. This is why mysteries lend themselves so well to suspense, despite most of them lacking action or peril.
This is the inverse of most blog post structures. The majority of them pose the question, answer it, and then explain the answer. This isn’t exactly wrong, and it certainly makes the content more skimmable, but the tradeoff is a lack of suspense. Suspense = engagement, so this is a tradeoff you need to think about carefully when you craft your content.
2. If it sounds like ‘writing,’ rewrite it
This one comes from Elmore Leonard, and it’s how he summarizes all of his writing tips. Many of the more specific suggestions he makes are too specific to fiction, but here are a few that aren’t:
- Avoid adverbs. I don’t take this one as a hard and fast rule, but in general they are just clutter. Heavy adverb use usually signifies a perceived need to boost word count or difficulty choosing the right verb in the first place.
- Easy on the exclamation points. Leonard suggests no more than three per 100,000 words. I actually wouldn’t stray too far from that—meaning you probably shouldn’t use more than one in 30 blog posts. This might sound extreme, but I think exclamations are a copout, and they come off as corny. Of course, some people might say the same about my complete adoration of italics.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things unless you’re exceptional at it. Focus your writing on actions. Stories are about people (or personified organizations or even things) that are doing.
Taking the practical view, just give your content a verbal read. If it sounds awkward, stuffy, formal, or weird when you say it out loud, it probably needs rewriting. At the same time, Leonard does suggest avoiding regional dialects. My take on this is: Speak informally, but clearly. I like contractions and turns of phrase, but I try to use ones my audience is aware of. Also, know the difference between a turn of phrase and a cliché.
3. Show, don’t tell
When “House” plays on television, you don’t need a narrator to tell you that Dr. House is kind of a jerk. You see it through his actions. They show you. This is rarely an issue in television programs, but examples of the “tell” problem are all over commercials, especially the local ones, and the infomercials.
Consumers don’t want you to tell them that your product is amazing, they want you to show them. They want specifics, examples, and, of course, stories.
Yes, telling your audience something directly is much more OK in nonfiction, especially if you’re writing a how-to, but it gets better with a healthy dose of showing. You can take this literally, with images (and a fiction author would cringe at this), but you should also take this as narrative advice. Write about actions to prove your point, instead of just telling them with description.
4. Embrace conflict
If there is one primary thing that makes a story work, it’s conflict. The story ends almost as soon as the conflict does. That’s why every good moment in a romantic comedy is followed by a fight, and why every mystery has at least one fake-out.
When you draw attention to conflict in your writing, it becomes more engaging.
When it’s content marketing, you also have to consider the conflicts of your reader. As soon as your reader thinks the conflict is over, they’ll stop reading. There’s always something left unsettled, so you’ll want to subtly remind your readers of that in order to keep their attention.
Be careful not to get too imaginative with your conflicts. This is advice from fiction writers, not advice for writing fiction. When you place the need for a story before the need for accuracy, you lose your integrity. Ex-journalists like Jonah Lehrer know this all too well.
5. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
This comes from the legendary Kurt Vonnegut (who, it’s worth noting, also said “To heck with suspense,” arguing that readers should know so much about the story that they should be able to finish it themselves).
What counts as a “character” in content marketing? Obviously, any person you happen to write about is a character. It’s also worth thinking of your reader and your brand as “characters” to some extent. Characters can also be organizations, or even things.
In short, if you spend a lot of time talking about something, you should probably find a way to start thinking of it like a character, and a character who always wants something. This might sound bizarre, but it’s how humans are wired. We won’t listen to you talk to us about a vacuum cleaner for more than a minute unless you start talking to us about what that vacuum “wants,” and the obstacles it needs to overcome to fill that want.
6. “Write what you love…
…not what you think you’re supposed to write.” This comes from Chris Moriarty, who goes on to say:
“There’s nothing worse than a writer who secretly loves shoot-em-up space opera trying to write Serious Literature to impress the critics… except, possibly, a writer who really loves Serious Literature trying to write trashy space opera to make money.”
As a content marketer, we may not have the enormous wiggle room a fiction writer has, but there is room for something that interests you in every single niche, as we discussed at Copyblogger.
If you wouldn’t want to read it, there’s a good chance nobody else would, either. Your attempt at pleasing people who aren’t like you is going to fail, because you don’t really know what they like.
If you’re higher up the content marketing management chain, the implications of this should be equally clear: If you want something specific, you hire somebody who loves writing it.
7. Take from other writers
According to William Faulkner, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with borrowing from other authors:
“I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him…”
Chris Moriarty said as much when she realized that the solution to the plot issues in her science fiction book could be found in one of her favorite spy novels. This can be done consciously, but often what it really takes is just reading a lot of blog posts, only the ones you actually enjoy reading, and subconsciously absorbing the skills.
Just so we’re clear, Faulkner was talking about narrative devices, not blocks of text. He wasn’t encouraging plagiarism.
Then again, William Faulkner also said this: “Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice.”
Oddly enough, that’s advice worth following.