Dragon Slaying 101: How to Use
Heroic Language to Battle Boring Copy

image of chinese dragon

Ever found your eyes glazing over when you read through your own copy or blog posts?

I hate to break it to you, but a lot of the products, services, or niches that we write about just aren’t that thrilling. Although the finer points of search engine optimization might keep you glued to your screen, most of your clients or blog readers aren’t feeling the excitement.

So what can you do?

You bring in a register which deals with excitement: the heroic. We’ve all read advertisements encouraging us to “win the battle” with our email, or our paperwork, or our tendency to procrastinate. They grab our interest by making a frankly unexciting activity sound like a heroic quest.

The use of heroic language in decidedly non-heroic contexts isn’t anything new. Poets have been doing it for centuries, though generally in a satirical context (if you’re interested, Alexander Pope is a great example of the mock-heroic with The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad).

You can definitely still use heroic language for comic effect. (It’s possible to do this unintentionally, too, by going over the top in your copy.) But the heroic is a powerful way to tap into our need for drama, for excitement, for a story, a quest . . . and a hero your reader can identify with.

So how do you do it?

Heroic Words Work

Certain words can turn dry topics – like writing, personal finance, small business and marketing – into something that makes you feel a frisson of excitement. You can almost hear the rallying notes of a battle horn, and see the sun glinting from swords. A few favorite heroic words are:

“Battle”

(Writers seem especially fond of this one: I think we just like to make our struggles sound more exciting than they really are…)

“Dragon”

  • “You can think of each project like being sent on a big quest to slay a dragon. Your client is the king of the realm. The project is the dragon threatening his kingdom. You go out and slay that dragon, and the client will give you a nifty monetary reward. You fail, and so does his kingdom, and he is justifiably pissed” from The Dragons of Writing and How to Fight Them on Men with Pens

“Enemy” / “Nemesis”

“Fight”

“Quest”

“Treasure”

“War”

Metaphor, Hyperbole, and Overkill

Heroic language can become a running metaphor when you theme the entire post around it – see Taylor’s The Dragons of Writing and How to Fight Them series on Men With Pens. Like using pop culture references, this gives you a hook to hang your post (or series) on, and potentially a structure.

Heroic language can also be used as hyperbole, to set a powerful tone. Some writers can pull this off well, but for others, it’s too aggressive. Dave Navarro uses it to great effect in How To Kick That Habit’s Ass (When It’s Been Beating Yours) on Rock Your Day – just look at these excerpts:

“You get knocked down, punched out, kicked to the curb, beaten to a pulp … hell, pardon my French, but you get your frigging ass kicked emotionally and psychologically, big time.”

“It All Starts With Declaring One Word: War.”

“Finally, build your battle plan…”

But for some bloggers, that’s too much, and would be jarring for readers. (Can you imagine gentle, pink-haired Sonia Simone writing like that?) If in doubt, go sparingly. Try using heroic language for a punchy introduction and conclusion to your post, and ease up in the middle.

Take Up Your Sword Pen

Heroic language combines exaggeration with metaphor – both powerful tools for grabbing attention. If you have sales copy which seems a little bland, why not add a touch of the heroic?

  • “Solve Email Problems” becomes “Battle Your Email Overload”
  • “Stop Procrastinating” becomes “Defeat Procrastination”
  • “Advice to Help You Do Better” becomes “Advice to Help You Win”
  • “Ditch Your Bad Habits” becomes “Conquer Your Bad Habits”

If you’ve got a blog on a topic that’s not inherently gripping (productivity, personal finance, writing, small business marketing, habit-breaking), introduce some of the heroic words. Make it a quest, not a project. Look for treasure, not results.

Let your readers, prospects, and customers be the heroes while you help them solve their problems.

About the Author: Conqueror of the keyboard, battler with the blank screen, Ali is a hired wordsmith for several blogs, as well as writing for her own Aliventures.

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Comments

  1. “Mighty” article I should say. The zeal of a dragon will definitely conquer the readers mind once he skims through this copy ;)

    Definitely when you use words which are least expected with some common sense ofcourse, you keep the reader glued that this article has something strange and different from the others. Once he is hooked you get enough time to tame her.

  2. Oh is that what it is called. Dragon Slaying. I just try to put some fun into it. I don’t want my writing to bore me. I need to laugh or be “WOW” I like that before I post it….Having a niche that is often boring or sometimes depressing (Weight Loss and Health) I have found I need to put a few spins on it. Setting up a new way of thinking is challenging and rewarding at the same time.

  3. @Ali
    You had me at “frisson” ;)

    Good write Slayer!

  4. Great tangible advice to subdue the geeky ‘doctor speak’ that chronically infiltrates, oops, invades, my blog posts.

  5. Language and the proper use definitely can be advantageous to your writing. I’ve heard that “how to” and “list” blog posts are generally the most popular.

    I guess we are all in a “quest” of sorts. Thanks for sharing some great tips

  6. Hi Ali,

    Awesome post – metaphor, hyperbole and overkill are right up my alley.

    Forgive me, I must depart. For I am on a quest to vanquish foes and tear the limits of my day asunder.

  7. It does sound cool. I’ve never used this kind-a language before. But I think I need to conquer the word of the heroic. Recruiting some new soldiers by that heroic language!

    Thanks

  8. Monster of a post. Now, I’m off to do battle with bland writing…

  9. Am I the only one to find this a bit redundant? I would think the reader just skip to the more important parts of the copy rather then “feeling like a hero”.

  10. love the article. Maybe I can use it to write a book and be the next Tom Clancy. Love the comments also. A bright start to my snow,cold,winter day

  11. Thanks, all!

    @Jude – I feel your pain, I’m a health/weight-loss blogger on for a couple of sites. The weight-loss “battle” often enlivens my posts…

    @cynthia Nothing wrong with a bit of geek!

    @Paul I’ll demand half the royalties if you do. ;-) Nah, it’s hardly a new idea. Take it and run with it … good luck!

    @Sean Go kick that day into next week! (Mm… not sure that one quite works…)

    @Shane Hehe! I love “frisson” — it just sounds exactly right, doesn’t it?

  12. I love all the puns in the comments… “Monster of a post”. Very cute. Aherm, so the point of the post wasn’t to be cute. :)

    Love the focus on the heroic language, it truly suits my geeky/nerdy style!

  13. Hee, I’m going to start calling Ali “Slayer” now. It sounds so Whedony-cool.

  14. Hey Ali! This is some great advice. Lately I’ve been working on my storytelling ability, and you’re right, it’s all in the little metaphorical words you choose to say. Thanks for nailing down a few of the words that every copywriter should use.

    By the way, I saw your guest post on Blogussion a few weeks ago and I’ve referenced it a few times. I’ll be posting my first review/giveaway tomorrow.

    Thanks again for all your help!

  15. I like these suggestions to punch up the interest in posts. I’ve also tried inserting a mini-story or fable – sometimes using story telling to make the point renders the point more interesting :)

  16. That reminds me of the old Miles Kimball/OshKosh catalogs in which children’s clothes were sold using a backdrop of medieval knights and ladies (and poetry). Create the fantasy, that’s what selling is all about.

  17. This post “won my heart” :) There’s a terrific marketing cartoon that does a similar thing in words and pics:

    http://bankruptcybill.us/2009/12/17/bapcpa-man-17-bapcpa-man-vs-mortgantua-5-mortgage-cramdown-fail/

  18. I would say that not only are heroic words critical in copy, but they should also be taken to the next step of story telling.

    It is one thing to place the product/idea/service in the customer’s shoes and lifestyle, but you really need to seal the proverbial deal with a sexy story to imprint your product in the customer’s mind.

    I really like the Gary Halbert technique of A Star, A Story, A Solution- A method just ripe for the use of heroic words.

  19. @Natalie – I love blogging cos being a geek is *normal* here.

    @Sonia – Ooh, ooh, is that a secret Copyblogger thing? You write here three times and you get a cool new name? (And, if so, what happens if I stand in front of a mirror and say “Brian Clark, Brian Clark, Brian Clark?”)

    @Nick – Cheers, glad you enjoyed that guest post! I get around the interweb a fair bit…

    @Tyler and @Susan – Thanks for the visual examples, it’s great to know this technique works in other mediums than just writing!

  20. @Ali – I will cross the castle drawbridge carrying today’s head in my hand.

  21. This is just pure awesomeness Ali! Loved your approach to this topic in a way that brings me back to when I was a kid or should I say, “your honorable endeavor to defeat the words of bore was expertly completed.”

  22. @Ali, you don’t want to try the Brian Clark Brian Clark Brian Clark thing. Something really strange happens to your hair.

    However, I am now totally inspired to come up with nicknames for all the CB writers. It beats writing that post for tomorrow, right?

  23. Love this post – it’s such a unique way to approach titles especially, let alone the copy. The sample titles already made me want click through!

    I feel like this will give some of my travel posts a bit more spice :-)

  24. Thanks so much for the tips! I write about action/adventure writing, and although exciting for me, I think a lot of people may find it relatively bland. Of course, as an action/adventure writer, I already knew this. However, I had assumed that it didn’t have a place on my blog. Thanks for showing me how effective it can be, I’ll certainly be sure to incorporate it!

  25. Fantastic post. It hit me straight between the eyes like a silver bullet.
    I battle the blog monster every morning trying to figure out how to pen a post that will cut to the heart like a two edged sword. Causing my reader to shout in victory. YES! thats just what I wanted.

    Join with me hand in had as we command our words to march into Cyberspace conquering the monotony that drains the very strength from every one.

    I might use this in a few posts.

  26. Thank you Ali so much for reminding me that it’s OK to use my (RPG-)gaming geek experience (or at least that’s what quests, dragons and treasures reminded me of) and unleash it to my writing. Now if I only find a way to squeeze dwarf in there somewhere…

    I already did one “quest” post on my blog, but I gotta cook some treasure and battle in as well, mayhem will do as well, no?

  27. ‘A tale isn’t worth telling if there isn’t a dragon to slay.’ I tell myself that on those run-amuck days.

    I never thought of using that in a post. Great idea as I sometimes battle stale writing. I’ve used current events and stuff going on in my own life, now I’ll try a few fairy tales on for size. Thanks.

  28. @Antti – Yeah, I have a bit of a RPG background too, so I’m not surprised if that came through from the post. Though my characters were invariably thieves. (Hm, “The Thieves’ Guild’s Guide to Blogging” — could be a whole new post. ;-))

  29. Great motivation for a sluggish day. I’ve got lots of copy to write today and needed a swift kick in the rear to get going.

    Off to defeat the foe of falling behind. Thanks!

  30. I have to admit to loving good (GOOD!) use of appropriate adjectives having been a writer before I become a marketer :) Now of course I do not slay my dragons preferring to make friends with them, however loving the magic of metaphor and the art of analogy I tend to reach heights of ephemeral narration as I challenge the bard within while still keeping my feet firmly on terra firma. Now that I have that out of my system I love telling stories and have had to curb my enthusiasm to write online – lol

  31. I love the angle you took here Ali – great thoughts and you are spot on – there is SO MUCH power in well crafted “heroic” words in bringing your readers in and (more importantly) keeping their attention. Great post sir.

  32. This really got my head to spinning! Many wordsmiths like Brian, Sonia, Matt and Ali can come up with these Heroic words. I think many of us struggle to come up with zippy or punchy phrases, without sounding like two different people wrote the article. The beginning and end were written by “supercalifragilisticexpealidosius” copy writers and the middle was written by Mundane Me. The trick is to keep the style flowing throughout the article and not reverting back to Mundane Me in the middle. Easy to contemplate…hard to practice. Ooops. This is where Sonia jumps in with “practice as though your life depended on it”, because it does.

    Well, gotta go… Mundane Me is going to practice getting through an article with style intact.

  33. Speaking of dragon slaying… the Dragon Slayer is back. Did anyone else hear?

  34. This post was “strikingly” insightful. Especially towards the end where it talks about the need to make less exciting sounding subjects, more exciting through the use of these heroic words. Definitely gonna have fun with this one.

    The thoughts above including those relating to hyperbole are going to be most useful. Soon, my copy will “Punch” harder than Ryu and Ken!
    Fab Post.

  35. Loving these powerful tips, Ali. Introductory word choice puts a totally different spin on introducing one’s writing. Thank you!

  36. I find heroic copy – and most copy for that matter – to be very masculine. Women buy trillions of dollars worth of goods and services every year. It’s time for feminine copy.

    I would love to see a post about feminine counterparts for “battle,” “dragon” and “punch”.

    (Off to find them)

  37. The question I wrestle (!) with is this: how do I write authentically – for whatever values of authentic – to specific audiences.

    Example: My online presence is only one facet of my personality. I’m way out there past Johnny, Dave and Naomi in some respects. All that time in construction and Marine Corps. But there’s a time and a place for it. And I don’t think that time and place is here.

    Does toning it down make me less “authentic.” Or just less offensive?

  38. Wow, that’s a great word how to impression our feel in writing. I was think to create post with your heroic words, that’s will be nice.

  39. @Steve – Yeah, it’s all about practice. And about learning from the best (I trawl Copyblogger for inspiration constantly, especially Brian’s headlines!)

    @Lexi – Interesting point! I’m not sure I wholly agree: as a geek girl, I’d LOVE to see some ads aimed at women which used heroic language rather than flowery stuff. I realise, though, that the problem with this particular register is that women tend to be either evil witches or damsels in distress. Good luck finding those counterparts — and I’d love to see the post if you write it!

    @Dave – I don’t think that being authentic necessarily means putting everything on display. It’s like different tones of voice or ways of speaking; I talk to the kids at church one way and to my fiance another way, but I’m not being inauthentic — I’m just adapting my style to my audience.

    (Though, for kicks, you might want to try writing something which does use a very strong voice. You don’t need to ever post it or show it to anyone … but it could be a good stylistic experiment.)

  40. This post is a fine example of the very reason I subscribe. Thank you for sharing your insight!

  41. Love this article. It’s certainly a fresh approach (for me) to writing headlines. Especially relevant to ‘How To’ type posts I think.

  42. @Ali: There are notable exceptions such as Laura Croft, Dorothy, Princess Fiona, the Valkyries, and, my personal favorite, Emma Peel.

  43. Ali — Thanks so much for including the link to “Why Every Freelancer Should Slow Down and Brainstorm” with your other examples.

    This is a fresh approach to writing blog posts. Everyone who is serious about blogging should take a look.

  44. Hehehe, now there you go, mixing my two favorite things – fantasy and copy. Three cheers, Ali!

  45. Superb post. My biggest challenge is always trying to come up with a decent headline and this post certainly helps think out of the box.
    Thanks for sharing this

  46. @Chris – Good points, thanks!

    @James – What, you, fantasy? I’d never have guessed. ;-) Glad you enjoyed the post!

  47. To @Lexi’s perspective – when I read this post, the mental image of any of a million detergent TV ads immediately came to mind (laundry, dishwasher, whatever). Many of them use the-war-on-dirt terminology, and they’re most probably targeted at female consumers. Do you think these are the brainchildren of misguided ad-men using masculine copy to appeal to women? Or maybe women relate heroic narratives as much as guys.

  48. Writing about insurance is often like a mêlée with the mind-numbing but wielding a saber of combat-friendly verbiage and a shield of strategic hyberbole never fails to slay the reader boredom beast.

    Well said Ali!

  49. You did a great job here of highlighting a truth that’s important not just to bloggers but to everybody who traffics in language — that is, to all of us. I taught high school for several years and now teach English at a college, and can tell you that the very idea of paying attention to the connotative content of language poses a challenge to which few students seems capable of rising. But those who do are the ones who end up commanding the most power with their language.

    Thanks for an excellent post. You’re “onto something,” as they say, and I think it goes far beyond the question of writing copy for business purposes to encompass matters of life and culture at large. We’re all swamped in business text today, and elevating the level of that language by enhancing its emotional dimension and textural quality might therefore contribute not only to better business results but to an elevation of our cultural tone in general. Now how cool would *that* be?

  50. Great stuff, and at a principle-level, I agree with you. Using language that changes people’s emotional state is bound to have more impact than using the bald, cold, frill-less language of the mundane.

    The note of caution I would sound though is that it’s important to be careful of where the world is on the curve of using a particular type of language. In the 1980’s, management speak was translated into words of war, yet, like the outfits we wore back then, they are mocked and ridiculed today.

    Honest variety in language; taking time to sketch out attractive pictures for people with your words; the creation of an emotional connection to how they feel; giving a range of flavours in your approach; these essences are the important bit – rather than following a set model of language which, however attractive it may be at the moment, will go “out of date”.

    Lovely to read something about the critical importance of language though!

  51. Thanks, Simon. Good point about being careful on particular trends… corporate and management speak can be especially cringeworthy!