Pulled away. Distracted by Twitter, e-mail, Facebook. Every reader has it happen several times a day. Will your readers be any different?
Not unless you hook them.
And the secret to hooking your readers comes from the storytellers of the world.
A storyteller can’t rely on the copywriter’s standby WIIFM, because, well, the only thing that’s in it for the audience is the storyteller’s ability to engage their interest.
That’s why they’ve made an art of hooking the reader, and why screenwriting guru Robert McKee has crystallized that art into one key lesson.
Steven Pressfield relies on this key lesson, which has helped him sell well over a million copies of his novels and non-fiction worldwide. He’s also had his novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, made into a major motion picture. His non-fiction The War of Art has become a handbook not only for writers but for entrepreneurs, artists, and “creatives” of all types — just the sort of crossroads beloved by Copyblogger readers.
So what was this one key lesson, the secret Steven learned?
The inciting incident
Steven Pressfield learned about the magic of “inciting incidents” from screenwriting legend Robert McKee. Here’s how Steven put it in an interview he recently granted me:
McKee has given me (and thousands of others) so many valuable lessons, it’d be hard to pick one out, but here it is:
The ‘inciting incident.’ I had never heard this term or focused on this concept before taking his Story Structure class. I did it in my writing, but only on instinct; I had no idea what I was doing. Having that idea crystallized helped me tremendously.
I now ALWAYS ask myself, even in short blog posts, What is the inciting incident? What event or moment gets this story rolling? It’s been a huge help.
And here’s a bit more about inciting incidents as described by Robert McKee in his book, Story (emphasis mine):
Bring in the Central Plot’s Inciting Incident as soon as possible . . . but not until the moment is ripe.
If we writers have a common fault in design and placement of the Inciting Incident, it’s that we habitually delay the Central Plot while we pack our opening sequences with exposition. We consistently underestimate knowledge and life experience of the audience, laying out our character and world with tedious details the filmgoer has already filled in with common sense.
The “rule of the first third”
Most first drafts suck precisely because we “habitually delay the central plot with exposition.”
In other words, we spend too much time on dull background, rather than jumping into an exciting opening.
Print out your post’s first draft, divide it in thirds, then chop off that first third. You’ll cut away all that unnecessary exposition and end up with both a stronger beginning and a tighter post.
Even better, starting in the middle of things leaves story questions to be filled in later, while also leaving details to the imagination of your readers. Both of which engage readers and keep them reading to find out how all the pieces fit.
Beginning with the end in mind
You want to hook readers into reading your entire post — not just the first few paragraphs. Here’s how:
- Uncover the crux of your message. In other words, the big idea that you’re trying to convey, and why it matters to your audience.
- Think about how to embody that big idea with a compelling mental image. What would clothe that “big idea” with imagination and emotion? What details are essential to making that image vivid? You’ll wrap up your post by painting this image in your readers’s mind, leaving them with a powerful impression of your idea.
- Determine whose perspective you’re using to convey this mental image. Is this a personal revelation, a story about your readers, or a case study about some third party? What angle will make that mental image the most powerful?
- Ask yourself what kicks off this person’s journey toward that final mental image? Note that the inciting incident that kicks off a good story is usually some kind of trouble. Inciting incidents and headlines alike benefit from trouble, because trouble hooks readers into wanting to know the rest of the story.
- Experiment with how much you can leave out. What can you leave to your readers’ imaginations? What can you strip out of the beginning to enhance the mystery or suspense? Pare the post down to its essence.
Follow these steps and you’ll not only know where to end, but you’ll know how to start and what to leave out.
Examples of inciting incidents from Steven Pressfield’s blog
To cement this technique in your mind, I’ve pulled some examples of inciting incidents taken from Steven’s blog titles and opening lines. They certainly hooked me; did they do the same for you?
- The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned: My first job was in advertising. I worked as a copywriter for an agency called Benton & Bowles in New York City. An artist or entrepreneur’s first job inevitably bends the twig. It shapes who you’ll become. If your freshman outing is in journalism, your brain gets tattooed (in a good way) with who-what-where-when-why, fact-check-everything, never-bury-the-lead. If you start out as a photographer’s assistant, you learn other stuff. If you plunge into business on your own, the education is about self-discipline, self-motivation, self-validation. Advertising teaches its own lessons . . .
- Sex Scenes: I once did a rewrite on a porn flick. Before I began, the producer wanted to get together with me, to give me my marching orders and to make sure that I didn’t slow the project down by making avoidable rookie mistakes. We met for breakfast at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. In that meeting, I got two of the best lessons in writing I’ve ever received . . .
- What the Muse Wants: The issue that comes up more than any other among aspiring artists and entrepreneurs is this: “How can we chase our dream when we’ve got kids, a job, demands and deadlines? How do we find the time, the self-discipline and the energy when we’re dealing with all this real stuff in the real world?” The Muse can be a tough taskmistress. But she does have one soft spot, if we know where to look . . .
- Write What You Don’t Know: Probably the most classic kernel of writing advice is “Write What You Know.” On the surface, that seems to make a lot of sense, and I’m sure it has worked for thousands and thousands of writers. It didn’t work for me. . .
- The Writer’s Voice: How do you find your writer’s voice? A lot of humbug has been written on this subject. The myth is that in finding that voice, the writer achieves a kind of personal enlightenment. She discovers “who she really is.” Not in my experience. . .
Notice that each of these examples hooks the reader by violating clichéd writing advice (write what you don’t know) or normal expectations (he learned about good writing from a porn director?). You’ll have to click through to the posts to see how these inciting incidents are wonderfully organic to the “big idea” within each post.
So there it is in three steps. Figure out 1) a stirring (possibly trouble-filled) inciting incident to kick things off, 2) the vivid mental image you want your readers to leave with as they finish your post, and 3) what to leave out.
Add these three things to your writing and you won’t just hook your readers, you’ll keep them reading all the way through.
About the Author: Jeff Sexton was the longtime instructor for Future Now’s Persuasive Online Copywriting course and a faculty member at Wizard Academy, where he co-teaches Writing for the Radio and the Internet. You can find him online at www.jeffsextonwrites.com