What Bestselling Fiction Can Teach You About Writing Better Landing Pages

image of spy with gun

Imagine you’re having a discussion with a talkative, hyperactive teenager.

The conversation goes something like this …

We went to the mall, and like, there was this fire in the mall. And we went from there to the movies, but we didn’t have any money and anyway the popcorn machine was broken, and so we didn’t really want to go to the movies without popcorn. But right after that we went to have some pizza and there was this creepy guy outside the store. But listen to this — because that’s not the best part. The best part is that Sylvie dumped Josh, and like, they ran into each other in the street …

Annoying right? Then why do we so often write our web copy just like that teenager talks?

Is there a better way to write a landing page?

When we write copy for our website, we sound a lot like that teenager

We tend to move all over the place with our copy.

First, we’ll try to stuff five different concepts into the headline.

Then we’ll try and fill in too many sub-heads that we want to drive home.

And then our first paragraph attempts to cover all the possible points.

And — like that teenager above — we have the entire story in our heads, but nothing quite gets across to the client.

We’re trying to cover way too many points, way too quickly.

And, as you’ve worked out for yourself, this bouncing and jumping around is exhausting for your reader.

How this mistake unfolds in an actual piece of copy

Let’s take a look at our “teenage talk” problem using a real-life example:

Headline:

Are You Fed Up With Unprofessional Contractors?

Body text:

  • Contractors that don’t call you back or even show up?
  • Are you done with contractors that lack the ability to communicate in a timely manner?
  • How about contractors that run away from problems that crop up during and after a project?
  • Are you completely over dealing with the hacks of the world?
  • Have you had enough of sitting at home, babysitting the people you’re paying?

So what’s wrong with that sequence?

It gets off to a good start. The headline gets my attention without too much of a fuss, particularly if I’m having this problem right now.

But then I start reading and I get between three and five main plots and no sub-plots at all.

How do we know they’re main plots? Because we can list them out and see for ourselves. They all want to take center stage.

  • Main plot 1: Contractors don’t call you back or even show up
  • Main plot 2: They lack the ability to communicate in a timely manner
  • Main plot 3: They run away from problems that crop up during and after a project
  • Main plot 4: The so-called professional is nothing but a hack
  • Main plot 5: You are tired of having to babysit these people

Just like that teenager’s story, it’s possible for us to jump from one to the other, without so much as pausing for a single breath.

So now that we know we’re creating bounce, how do we get rid of it? And how do we still use all the persuasive points we want to cover on our landing page?

How to say exactly what you’re trying to say

Just like an exciting movie or a bestselling novel, your article needs a single main plot. One primary storyline that the reader or viewer is most interested in.

You can also have sub-plots — additional points that make the story more complex and interesting, and continue to hook that reader.

So how do you know which point is your main plot? It’s the client’s most pressing problem.

That’s obvious, isn’t it? You want to get the client’s attention by driving home the biggest, scariest, buggiest problem.

Here’s how we go about it:

Headline:

Write your headline. It should only cover one big, buggy, nasty problem

Body text:

  • Body text 1: Drive home the problems involved with that one point
  • Body text 2: Drive home the consequences of that one point
  • Body text 3: Drive home the solution to that one problem

Move to the next point.

So how does the teenager’s story look in this format?

Headline:

We went to the mall and there was a fire.

  • Body text 1: What happened next at the mall?
  • Body text 2: Then what were the consequences?
  • Body text 3: How did we escape the fire?

With the teenager, she’d complete one story, and move to the next.

And the next …

But you may have made your point with a single story.

So what do you do with the rest of the stuff that you so badly want to get across? You bring it up later.

Let’s see how. But first let’s get back to squaring this in our original example.

Headline:

Are You Fed Up With Unprofessional Contractors …

  • Body text: … That don’t call you back or even show up?
  • Body text 1: Talk in detail about the problems created when the contractor doesn’t call back or show up.
  • Body text 2: What are the consequences? Describe the emotions that the client feels — again, in detail.
  • Body text 3: What’s the best way to avoid this wretched scenario?

And then you present your service:

  • Body text 4: Presenting XYZ contracting company.
  • Body text 5: Drive home the point of how you handle calling your customers back. Describe in detail how you do it — when you show up and how you follow up.

Notice we haven’t gone to Point 2 yet. And yes, I know, you’re itching to drive home that point.

But first, do you notice something?

The customer doesn’t care about your itch. They’re locked in to what you’re saying.

You’re the first person they’ve met who isn’t like that teenager, jumping from story to story.

The customer’s biggest problem is ‘unprofessional contractors that don’t call back or show up’ and you’re talking about exactly that. The customer wants to know more about that story in detail, before they’re ready to move to the next story.

So after you present your company and how it brings that one solution to their problem, you can move on to the next “subplot,” the secondary stories in your copywriting plot.

Roll out the remaining subplots in slightly less detail, in a feature/benefit format that looks like this:

Feature 1: Benefit 1. Describe the benefits of Feature 1 in strong, vivid terms.

Feature 2: Benefit 1. Now write more copy vividly describing the benefits of Feature 2.

And so on with Features 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 — adding benefits, of course, to every one of those features.

You can have as many as 8-10 paragraphs rich with details of the problem and the solutions you bring to the customer.

Having locked into the main problem and seeing how you bring that solution, the customer will happily trundle through the rest of the points, and become more convinced by the word about your ability to solve their problem.

In short, you must have a main plot, then drive it home

Later, pull in the sub-plots, but without the same level of intensity as the main.

Just remember to pick the point your customer cares most about as your main plot. ‘Sylvie dumping Josh’ has more drama than ‘no popcorn at the cinema.’

From there, you’re simply re-telling your story on the landing page.

One plot at a time ;)

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a great free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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Comments

  1. This was a great post!

    • I concur. I like the step-by-step sequence of this writing strategy. The only thing that I would add is that you also need to take into consideration the personality type of the person you’re trying to reach. There are four personality types, and this strategy works well on three of them.

      • That’s very true. It seems like there are always clients who can’t make up their mind. They are going to be so ADD that you can’t hold their attention with a single thought. Anyone who is organized is going to appreciate that you kept to a single point and didn’t drift off like that teenager would of.

  2. wow, I luv the systematics here.

    Like a real tactician, making sure every line delivers its target.

    I feel guilty – I have NEVER ever used such a tactical approach in writing copy, but I will now thanx to you !

  3. Great advice! I can’t tell you how many landing pages I’ve had to focus down for my clients. I understand you want to throw the biggest net possible to attract a wide audience, but you don’t need to answer every question at once!

  4. Great analogy Sean. I get it. Sometimes I just so happy to have words to write that I think I have to use them all up at once. I’ll let them out slowly from now on. Thanks for teaching us this technique.

  5. That seems to push the actual company/solution pretty far down the page. How would you prioritize explicitly conveying such information above the fold?

    No matter how compelling your headline and problem, a significant portion of your visits won’t take the time to invest in a scroll down.

    • Great copy compels people to scroll, just like they’ll turn the page of a great book.

    • If you want them to scroll down, focus on them and their problem (which is what Sean’s putting above the fold here).

      If you want them to click elsewhere, focus on yourself and your solution before you’ve covered their problem.

    • The purpose of any conversation (and sales copy or article writing is conversation) is to get you into the conversation. A reader will read, if you pull them in. Having everything above the fold isn’t completely necessary at all.

      Having everything above the fold is like having breakfast, lunch and dinner together at the same sitting. Sounds nice in theory, but there has to be pacing. And copy has to unfold. :)

      • I’m not advocating everything (breakfast, lunch and dinner, as you put it) above the fold. But your central point should be able to be digested without scrolling down, in my opinion.

        While it’s nice to believe readers will thoroughly engage with your message, any content heat map or similar metric indicates otherwise. Yes, some will. But, by and large, and message below the fold will receive attention from far fewer readers.

        And as to Brian’s point, consumers buy books with the intention of reading every word. Web users don’t tend to browse with this intent.

  6. We can learn a lot from fiction. One of the most valuable experiences I’ve had as a writer was taking sketch writing courses at Second City. They teach a very tight structure. Every single line in the sketch must support the premise. So even if you have a wonderful gag that’s funny, if it doesn’t support the main point, it has to go. I compare it to a tree. Your writing should follow a straight line from the base of the trunk to the tip. Any time spent out on branches or (God help us) twigs is a distraction and dead end.

    And when I’m writing for a group’s approval, I put the objective of the copy up top and point back to it any time someone suggests exploring a tangent.

    • That’s correct. Every comedian, every good script writer and every writer needs to understand how to connect and disconnect from the original premise. And needs to know why they’re connecting or disconnecting. If you distract, there must be a way to pull back—but strictly on purpose and not randomly.

      Article writing has more leeway in terms of disconnections. Copywriting has a lot less space to go off on any tangent.

  7. Thanks for the great post! =)

    Best,
    Jennifer

  8. I trust a lot of your readers will also find this book useful

    Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting [Book]

    Robert McKee’s

    • That’s a great resource for anyone creating stories. It can definitely be translated to copywriting at times, although it can take some creative wrangling to see how.

    • Robert’s book is good, but as Sonia said it’s really tough to pull those elements into copywriting. You can use some stuff, but a lot of it would seem out of place. This is because of the media. The copy you see above is fine for a sales page but is totally useless for a TV ad. Or a yellow pages ad.

      When the media changes, almost 95% of the stuff in the advertising changes. The only thing that does remain the same is the core problem/solution/consequences.

  9. I will definitely make use of these techniques. Thank you Sean.

  10. One of the toughest things about writing copy for me is sticking to one defined storyline, especially when I’m selling a product that has tons of different advantages. So I definitely appreciate this article and its examples on how to sort through all my thoughts and come up with a cohesive flow.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah: Copywriting is often taken as one big salesletter. But in fact every part of the salesletter has ONE written all over it. On Psychotactics.com we analyse every testimonial, every objection. Every thing needs to be driving home one point as far as possible.

      Now you don’t have to stay with ONE point. You just have to complete one point. So you go into detail into one point, then move to the second. Complete that in detail, move to the third. And so on. The trick is to keep my attention on that point while I’m still reading.

      That’s what creates the cohesive flow.

  11. Hey Sean, great to see you on Copyblogger.com! It’s surprising how scattered a simple sales letter or even blog posts can get because we want to tell the whole story. I have to keep bringing myself back to focus on the main plot, and make that plot as interesting as possible. That’s the beauty of a blog or email newsletter: you can continue to communicate additional points over time.

    • It’s a common mistake. Most writers lack discipline. And they don’t even realise it. It then spills into speeches and videos and audio. You can literally pick the good speaker from the crappy ones. The reason?: Lack of structure and bouncing from one fact to another.

  12. I will definitely benefit and learn a lot from this post which contains such vital information that certainly speaks to many bloggers. Thanks for the post.

  13. This is more then awesome post in my opinion. If we are able to write our landing page like this i am sure my sites traffic will increase many fold. Thanks dear for this great write-up. – rakesh kumar

  14. Great, compelling writing should always be subjected to an editing process, which, in and of itself, makes the format inherently different from a teenager’s off-the-cuff speech. Here you’ve laid out a great structure by which to set your landing page content, but an editing process afterward is crucial.

    • There’s editing for style (making the words sound good, fixing grammatical errors, etc.) and then there’s editing for structure.

      Structure matters more, which is why sometimes you see a novel that’s “poorly written” (full of cliches, awkward sentence structure, and stiff dialogue) that sells a kazillion copies — it’s because the structure is so good that you overlook the clunky part.

  15. Donna Patterson :

    So glad I read this. It offers the structure many of us are eager to learn. Thanks a million.

  16. I posted this on Brian’s Google+ post, but it bears repeating. If you look at some of the posts both on Google+ and here, the conversation goes all over the place. So while the topic is about plots and sub-plots, the conversation veers madly into KISS (keep it simple, stupid), about scanning a sales page, about editing etc. All possibly relevant, but not specific to the topic at hand.

    This is precisely what happens on a sales page. We think we’re getting a message across, but we’re jumping back and forth incessantly from one topic to another. And of course, you pay the price for it.

  17. Hey Sean

    I love the way you drill down on the fundamentals of copywriting: problem to consequences to solution. It’s so simple but devastating in practise.

    It reminds me of the top football coaches who won’t even look at their team’s gamesmanship, strategy or flair without relentless drills on kicking, catching and passing for months and months on end.

    I’m going to put a sticky-note on my computer to make sure I use this genius ‘PCS’ each and every time.

    Genius! Thank you :)

    • It’s so simple but devastating in practise.

      Yup, you got that right, Fin. Things that look extremely simple aren’t always as simple as they seem. But if you keep at it, they reveal their secrets over time. :)

    • It reminds me of the top football coaches who won’t even look at their team’s gamesmanship, strategy or flair without relentless drills on kicking, catching and passing for months and months on end.

      That’s why they’re top coaches. It’s like Karate Kid—Wax on, Wax off!

  18. Great post Sean!
    Very complete and thorough, as always.
    Keep it up,
    AJ

  19. Excellent tips, I think I may have been guilty of this myself in the post, but I’ll definitely think twice before doing this again.

  20. This advice is right (write?) on, as you already know.

    When I saw the headline tho, I was expecting a post about how to write a dramatic opening that would hook your reader. You know, something along the lines of starting the action already in play.

    Funny thing is, your post actually Does address the reader’s attention. Just in a way I wasn’t expecting. :-)

  21. This is a great read. I fall into this trap so many times. I start writing everything I can think of…

  22. Very good post! This tips can be used in any writings. I have to change my style of writing!

  23. Great post, when we try to write one thing at a time mind also concentrate only on one thing, which results in good structured post.

  24. What fun to meet up here, Sean. As always, you make a masterful argument.
    ” . . . how do you know which point is your main plot: It’s the client’s most pressing problem.”
    Focusing on the client’s pressing problem makes it about them, so they stay interested.
    I think fictional highlights in copywriting introduces a sense of the dramatic; it’s very useful to help maintain interest – and there’s nothing more dramatic than a teen – or the opening to your article :)

  25. Great post. Not at all what I thought it was going to be about … based on the headline. But excellent advice.

    Sometimes it takes a bit of client education. Some clients want to stuff ten messages into a webpage, a print ad, an email – or, even worse, a 30-second TVC!

    Fiction also serves as a great model for dissecting the masterful word play that goes into creating tone of voice, generating emotion, transporting readers into a moment, etc. I’ve used fiction excerpts to train copywriters myself because I believe there’s a lot it can teach us as copywriters.

  26. Good points! I think even (or especially) if a reader actually has A.D.D., it would be more effective to focus on one thought.

  27. I just made about 12 tweaks to my homepage using your advice in this post and it looks and reads soooo much better. I am excited about the changes and I know they’ll make a difference. There’s no doubt in my mind. Thanks for hitting it out of the park with this insight.

  28. In each of the following, the word “that” should be “who” –

    Contractors that don’t call you back or even show up?
    Are you done with contractors that lack the ability to communicate in a timely manner?
    How about contractors that run away from problems that crop up during and after a project?