What Romance Novels Can Teach You About Powerful Copywriting

Romance Novel

I don’t think there’s a more scorned form of literature than the romance novel. “Bodice rippers,” “trashy books” or “that Harlequin crap” are some of the more charitable terms I’ve heard. It was probably pure perversity that led me to try to write one. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, and I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did.

The four romance novels I published taught me more about writing than anything else I’ve ever done. And when I began to write marketing materials, and later blogs, I realized that the key to writing romances is also the key to any kind of persuasive writing.

No, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the sex that gets the reader to turn those pages.

It’s the pain.

People who don’t read romances think they’re about some dumb Fabio type who rides a white horse and rescues a woman even dumber than he is.

Try to write a plot like this and you’ll quickly gather a pile of rejection slips. Simplistic boy-rescues-girl stories don’t sell. Good romances show a couple who fight their way through a mountain of painful, difficult conflict before they get the reward of being together. Sure, the couple might be impossibly good-looking, and there might be some castles or cowboys involved. But beyond the trappings, a page-turning romance has at its core a whole lot of pain.

Make ‘em suffer

If you want to write effective copy, you must learn to engage readers emotionally. And if you want to study emotional writing, try reading a few highly successful romance novels. Get over being embarrassed–if you can buy Cosmo or The Enquirer to study headlines, you can buy Laura Kinsale to learn what writing skillfully about pain looks like.

Clear, vivid expression of pain is a great way to build empathy with your reader. We’ve all been miserable. We’ve all been heartbroken. (And we’re all, secretly, a little melodramatic about our own woes.) If you can describe a painful, difficult problem in strong language, you’ll start to create an emotional bond.

Make ‘em really suffer

Good copywriting describes a solution to a problem. Great copywriting makes you feel both the problem and the solution. If the problem isn’t vivid, even a great solution will feel tepid.

The beautiful, tender-hearted governor’s daughter is a lot more appealing if the pirate hero was abandoned at the age of three to be raised by wharf rats. If the problem is bad enough, any solution feels miraculous.

Don’t wimp out. Inexperienced fiction writers often confuse a mushy conflict with being “nuanced” or subtle. Faulkner understood massive conflict, and so did Hemingway and Shakespeare. Audacity is another great trait you can learn from reading romances. Be bold.

If your product just solves an irritant, that’s ok. Anyone who’s survived deerfly season knows the power of irritation. But make it major, painful, unbearable irritation.

Dig deep into the problem you solve. See if you can find a threat to your readers’ core–to their sense of self, to the people they love, to their most important connections.

No marketing technique can help you if your problem is fundamentally no big deal. Find a problem that is a big deal, then solve it.

Show the redemption

Once you’ve made your readers good and miserable, you’re ready to cut them a break with your solution. Be sure you paint it as vividly as you did the pain. You’re creating a strong contrast: loneliness to connection, disease to robust health, despair to joy.

Your readers might not jump into your arms right away. But when you hook them with a vivid description of their problem, you’ve taken the most important first step: creating an emotional bond. Find their pain, explore its deepest roots, paint it vividly, then offer a real solution.

I’ll be the first to cheer as you and your customers ride off into the sunset, happily ever after.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Sonia on twitter @soniasimone

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Comments

  1. I think this is a great way to show one of the biggest mistakes persuasive writers make — forgetting to hook before they reel it in.

    In staying with the theme, here’s a quote I’ve always loved:

    “Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.” – Bruce Lee

  2. Jay, for me, I’m reminded of Neo and Trinity from the Matrix – tis but a romance novel on film, no? (note to others, any mention of the Matrix gets a guaranteed Clark response ;) )

  3. Wow – this article hooked me from the headline! Having been a big romance reader years ago, I had to laugh at your references to pain and melodrama. You’re right, the most descriptively pain-riddled books were always my favourites. I’ll have to figure out how to work some of that pain into my art blog posts.

  4. Great post! Explore the pain with boldness and audacity and then solve the problem. Fabiolous way to paint the pix. Nice job!

  5. Thanks Simone. This seems to apply to movie plots, too. Every scene is about conflict for the main character. That’s what keeps us hooked – how will they overcome the problem? Joe Vitale’s “Hypnotic Writing” describes this method – describe the pain your reader is experiencing, and once they know you understand their problem, offer the solution.

  6. @Bucktowndusty – I don’t know, I thought Trinity could have done much better than “the One.” I can stop bullets too! Maybe I’m just butt hurt.

  7. This is a great post, and it drives home a point I feel that those who try their hands at copywriting seem to forget again and again. The amount of disconnected copywriting that focuses on the features of a product or service and doesn’t even begin to address the problem, let alone the emotional involved in suffering the problem, continually amazes me.

    My best friend’s mother reads romance novels. I never understood why. I used to pick them up when she wasn’t paying attention and read excerpts aloud to whoever was in the room. Among my favorite lines: “he gazed into the twin moons of her buttocks.”

  8. Excellent article thank-you.

  9. Note to self: bodice ripping copy…excellent analogy….:)

    Like perverse is bad or something. This goes in the notebook. Can’t wait to try it.

  10. I love this post! Since I’ve started reading romance novels (even if they are the wierd vampire-lovers ones) I’ve come to understand this same idea. A story where two people meet and fall in love is too easy and too wistful to be any symbalance of real life. It’s the same with marketing. People are too eager to assume there’s a catch to anything that’s happy and shiny and wrapped with a bow. Great post! (Makes me want to try to write a romance novel myself! lol)

  11. To paraphrase someone: “We need to feel their pain.”

  12. Wow, I have to say this is one of the most interesting posts I’ve read on how to engage an audience in a long time.

    If you don’t believe it, ask yourself why a guy like Kevin Trudeau is as successful as he is – he is a master of both the “make them feel the pain” and the “make them feel desperate for the solution” aspects.

    Excellent article!

  13. This is an awesome post. I enjoyed reading about your experiences with romance novels and what you’ve learned from them. The key point I get from this is that the most important thing is to get your readers to feel. We’re all emotional beings. Feelings are the key.

    – Dave

  14. Well done. I think this is the best post you’ve written for Copyblogger so far.

  15. Awesome post! I had never thought about copywriting in correlation to a romance novel but you’re right. I hope as I learn to write better copy that I will remember to use the techniques you have shared.

  16. Sonia,

    Wow. At the risk of being repetitive, I never thought of it this way before! This is absolutely going into my stable of tricks for when I can’t get a post to jump off the page.

    Of course I went and checked on amazon. Yup, there you are, published romance-chick. So I’ll bite… if you wrote four, why stop? Curious…

    Regards,

    Kelly

  17. Thanks for the insights! I learned a long time ago that good marketing writing, like a good novel, is all about storytelling. All great stories turn on overcoming a problem — Just as the sales process is about understanding a prospects “pain” and providing them with a solution.

  18. Fabulous post. Pain sells…or the relief of pain. Empathy too is powerful. I had a killer back ache over the weekend. I could barely move. Had to lean on the bathroom counter just to brush my teeth. Barely got my pajamas on that night….Ouch!

    Suddenly I knew what it must be like for my 82 year old grandfather as he does his old man shuffle. I felt amazing empathy for him during those pain filled hours.

    I would’ve bought anything for relief of that pain. And I suddenly understood why back pain can make a grown man cry. Fortunately for me it was stress related and after a few pain pills and getting to the root of my problem the pain gradually lessened to the point of where I could function.

    I could’ve used a romantic ending…where I meet a tall, handsome (whose also buffed and rich) chiropractor or massage therapist who could work out the kinks in my back anytime it cripples me from stress. :-)

  19. I occasionally like to read romance novels. Sometimes I even do plot analyses to see what made them work.

    Even if they’re trite, they fulfill reader expectations. Hopefully they do it in a creative and slightly different way that makes the reader feel they’re something special.

  20. I think there’s a lot in novels to inspire writers as well as your article does. Thanks for your encouragement. And I’ll pass it on to someone else.

  21. Ooh, Mrs. Temple, you have to tell me who you’re reading. I very rarely read rom any more (mostly I read marketing books, which is a bit sad really), but I have a few friends whose books I do still pick up. If Sue Krinard is still writing, she did great paranormal stuff.

  22. If you don’t want to try romance, try some science fiction.

    Some of my classics:

    Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold (semi-military SF)
    The Ship Who Sang – Anne McCaffrey (SF)
    DragonSong – Anne McCaffrey (fantasy)
    Arrows of the Queen – Mercedes Lackey (Young Adult Fantasy)
    Wild Magic – Tamora Pierce (YA Fantasy)
    Once a Hero – Elizabeth Moon (military SF)
    Balance of Trade – Sharon Lee & Steve Miller (SF)
    Beauty – Robin McKinley (fantasy)
    Bitten – Kelley Armstrong (Horror)
    The Dark Jewels trilogy – Anne Bishop (Horror/fantasy)
    The Westering – Dan Parkinson (Western)
    Midshipmen’s Hope – John Feintuch
    Exchange of Hostages – Susan R. Matthews (really dark SF)
    On Basilisk Station – David Weber (military SF)
    Pride of Chanur – C.J. Cherryh (SF)
    Little Fuzzy – H. Beam Piper (SF)

    And you are right. Pain, distress, despair – dark emotions are used to hook the reader and energize the story line.

  23. Wow. I started reading this article in my Bloglines account but just had to click over to check it out at the blog source. Then, I started to click away but got grabbed again. In my early 20s I read a few romance novels and now that you’ve mentioned it it seems so clear. It was the difficulties, trials, and pain and the triumphing of the couple in spite of all that really kept me turning the pages. In there somewhere, there was usually a connection with some of the pain that made me stick in there to the end of the story. I’ve stopped reading many other types of novels because I became bored or they were too predictable, but I finished every one of those romance novels because I was dying to find out how the lovers would overcome the obstacles in their way. Apply that to a problem someone needs solved and I can see how the copy would become compelling. Thank you for an insightful post!

  24. As a new blogger, I need all the help I can get and your site seems full of it – help, that is! Thank you.

    BTW, “incoming links” is when another blogger puts a link to your blog in one of their posts, right? (I told you I was new!)

  25. Its new thing for me. Its good for me to know and learn about this one.

  26. Incredibly enough, I write romance fiction. And it’s much, much harder to write a really good love story than people think.

    You’re absolutely right, too. What grips readers is the emotional heartripping that goes on. When it’s too sweet, then it sucks. When it’s painful and touches them right where it counts (um, sorry. No pun intended), they eat it up and come back for more.

    Well written, Sonia.

  27. So, what about those of us who find romance fiction – and the space operas too – a turn off?

    There’s also the enjoyment of the writing itself.

    And there is intellectual engagement too.

    I do think it is still about empathy. In fiction this means creating a convincing character. I’m not so sure what it is in a post.

    I don’t think romance writing is bad writing. It just doesn’t appeal to me.

    I’m wondering too about that cardinal rule of ‘show don’t tell’ and whether this applies to posts.

    As you can see, you’ve got me thinking.

  28. I am fortunate that I started a site dedicated to helping people learn more to overcome a very common obstacle: fitness and muscle building. I think your post is very applicable to all pages though. Present a problem that your readers will identify with, describe the problem in good detail, and then present and describe the solution.

  29. Brian – I am learning from you to write “Cosmo” headings. I have to admit – it is working.

    But, now, I have to make people suffer? OK. I’m game and I will try!

    I love your blog. First one I read every day!

  30. Yet another terrific post from Sonia – I’m really digging her blog and learning a great deal.

  31. Sonia,
    I just stumbled over some notes in my Moleskine from an interview I saw with George Lucas about the magic of his movies. Remarkably, lookie here:

    1) Introduce all the elements and people.
    2) Put ‘em in a bad place.
    3) Get ‘em out.

    So you got a gig as a screenwriter next? Everyone sees themselves as the hero in their own story. This post of yours is spot on. For me, it’s one of those head slap moments, where a tweak in perception and vantage point can make something click. Thanks again.

  32. Great post, really grabbed my attention and gave me something to think about.

    Also a great excuse to read more JR Ward books in the name of research for my email blog!

    Thanks!

  33. It’s all in the romance eh?

    Thanks again. The vibrancy, the detail, the pain, and the emotional ride all give us a way to show empathy…to show that we really understand the perspectives, stories, and true concerns of our targeted audience-base.

    Thanks Brian, this was definitely an eye-opener!

  34. You all are making me very happy, thank you.

    Evan, always glad to get you thinking! Although romance is endlessly intriguing for people (thus makes a good hook for a post!), this stuff is really the same for all kinds of storytelling. Movies, novels, plays, TV commercials, well-written sales letters, etc. Stories are very deep in the human psyche. It is my private notion that it is stories, not opposable thumbs or even language, that make us human.

    If you enjoy classic lit, most of it (not all) was popular in its day, and survives in large part because of these eternal structures. Stories about happy people are very very boring. :) There are some terrific books out about story, many of them intended for screenwriters.

    To riff a little more on your comment, 1) I think that *we* are often the strong character in our posts–not to say we’re not being genuine, but we focus on the aspects of ourselves that are relevant to that particular story at that particular time, and 2) I think “show, don’t tell” is crucial.

  35. Hi Sonia,

    I too think we are programed for story quite deeply.

    Reginald Hill wrote a murder mystery called Pictures of Perfection – a subtheme of which is writing about happy things. (The epigraph to it is from Jane Austen: pictures of perfection make me ill.)

    The only really good piece of writing I know to embody happiness is the opening to Wind in the Willows. The best comic writer I know (or any kind of fiction writer really) is P G Wodehouse. At his best he is marvellous – not just the incidents and characters but the writing itself is funny. I’m quite sure I’d never be game to try that in a post!

  36. Wow! Great article. I also scorn romance novels. But the way you put it, there are tons of good advice that could be mined from them. Your tips are in my writer’s notebook now! :D

  37. Very good parallel drawn there between copyrighting and romance novels. As a former romance novel addict, i totally understand the fascination they can exert and all that you said in your post makes a lot of sense.

  38. oh, excellent, outstanding… am off to blog about it.

  39. This is all awesome! It seems like a good lecture from my freelance writing class. I love how you put all these great ideas on writing effectively into one. Be assure that I’m taking these in and learned from it. Thank you so much for putting all these up! Great job. Keep it up.

  40. Hi Sonia-

    I like this approach. It’s also educational because sometimes the client doesn’t know they have the pain until you explain it to them. Then they can’t stand it until they have a solution. Which means business!

  41. My personal favorite euphemism for romance novels: “housewife porn.” Learned that one in a class on writing novels, no less. ;-) (From a fellow student and romance novel devotee, not the teacher.)

    Great post! Time to dig deep in my well of Nora Roberts and start applying it to the copy I’m working on right now…

  42. Well done. I think this is the best post you’ve written for Copyblogger so far.

  43. What a coincidence…

    Just as I refocus my work to hone my writing skills, I find myself inexorably drawn to the mythic romances of Sherrilyn Kenyon, the epic Elderling trilogies of Robin Hobb, not to mention the dark witty drama of Joss Whedon (I remain a long-suffering unofficial Spuffy shipper), the Galactican arcs of Ron Moore, and the terminally addictive heroines of the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

    Let me not be lost to drown in works not my own!

    Let me merely dwell awhile in the pain of the readers who feed me, so that I may aid them to their glorious salvation!

    And all with just a few newsletters and product announcements. ;^)

    contentgrrl

  44. Great post, really grabbed my attention and gave me something to think about.

  45. Well done. I think this is the best post you’ve written for Copyblogger so far.

  46. Enjoyed this post immensely – had to retweet!

  47. Sonia, what a great post!

    I absolutely agree with you – I think some copywriters skimp on “making ‘em really suffer”. I am a hopeless romantic, I like the transion from heartache or pain to happiness. I love happy ever after stories.

    Thank you for this reminder that in copywriting, it’s important to hook the reader in through creating a strong and deep connection on the emotional/pain level, and then suck them in but providing the solution to their problem and anguish.

  48. Wow, this is an interesting point of view that I never realized. Way to go…

  49. Am I the only one dying to know what romance novels Sonia wrote? C’mon spill it. You can count on 50 cents of royalty for your efforts.