How the Art of Screenwriting Can Make You a Better Web Writer

image of hollywood boulevard sign

One of the most useful lessons I’ve learned about writing engaging content came from studying screenwriting.

It’s that every single piece of dialogue or screen direction had to be working hard to hook viewers in and keep them gripped.

Audiences don’t like fluff or irrelevance.

Write like that and you won’t keep their attention.

And while there’s no absolute science to it, the screenwriters I trained under drummed into me a single golden rule to help me write powerfully engaging content …

Every single piece of dialogue or screen direction needs to be doing one, or both of the following:

  • Revealing character
  • Moving the story forward

It was a simple method of evaluating what was written.

For example you could ask yourself if the character’s monologue on which milk to buy from the store was really necessary for the viewer to know? Or, was it just padding to bump up the page count?

Unsurprisingly, you can use the very same rules to assess your own copywriting.

Just as a great script needs to be constantly pushing your story on or revealing character to engage the audience, your sales copy needs to be:

Moving your audience further to the goal of taking action (moving the story on)

And …

Convincing your audience that you, your product or your business (or all 3) are the right choice for them to solve their problem (revealing character)

So next time you write, make sure you’re …

Giving them characters they love

You probably already know that people buy from those that they know, like , and trust.

Now this might mean revealing your character on a personal level if you’re a teacher or a coach.

Or, it might mean giving people enough proof that your company is a legitimate enterprise and not a boiler room operation.

Either way, when you’re writing, you should be deliberately including content that allows your audience to believe in you or your business as they would believe in the hero of a gripping movie.

Take a look at your copy and ask yourself:

And remember, it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that.

It might mean talking about your family life, or using testimonials and talking about your past experience.

All of it works towards building a picture of you or your business as a character with depth that people will know, like, and trust.

Then don’t forget to …

Make your copy a real page turner

Making your readers warm to you makes them more receptive to offers.

But you can’t just stand there all day long and give out free hugs, if you really want to help your customers, you know that they need to do something.

They have to be compelled to take action.

The first action they take is deciding that your content is worth reading with your attention-grabbing headline, and then you’re off on a journey together.

So when you’re re-reading your copy, ask yourself:

  • Do you kick your story off with an opening that gets the attention of your audience and pulls them in?
  • Are you clear and to the point about what adventure (offer) you want them to join you on?
  • Do you appeal to their emotions and prove beyond doubt that life would be worse if they decide to stay at home and sit this one out?
  • Do you take your customer by the hand and show them the excitement and wonder of what awaits them as soon as they take action?
  • Do they know exactly what they need to do to as their first step?
  • Are you using suspense, bullet points and sub-heads to push your reader along to the next line of copy, and the next?
  • Do you soothe their fears about the road ahead and encourage them that the challenges they previously thought were holding them back can now be overcome?
  • Do you persuade your customer to accept the adventure NOW, before they miss out?

These rules are a simple but very effective tool in helping you write in a way that helps you cut the crap out of your copy.

If you’ve got paragraphs or phrases that neither endear people to you nor encourage them to move to the next stage, it’s got to go.

This is Hollywood after all, what’s your dream?

About the Author: Amy Harrison is a copywriter for entrepreneurs. In addition to writing for her clients, she also coaches business owners to smash up their sales copy obstacles and get their offers out there. She is the also the author of How To Get Your Sales Page DONE!

P.S. Screenwriters wish they had it this easy …

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Reader Comments (48)

  1. says

    “Every single piece of dialogue or screen direction needs to be doing one, or both of the following: Revealing character… Moving the story forward.”

    SO true. These bullet points should be posted above every writer’s laptop.

    Great tips & thanks for linking to all of these great resources. It made me realize I’d missed a few of them.


    • says

      Thanks Jennifer! And am thrilled you enjoyed the resources, I found some golden ones I missed when I was looking for articles to link to! :-)

  2. says

    “…padding to bump up the page count.”

    I think a lot of web content could be considered padding. I’ve met more than few people who think there is some “magic number” of words on a web page that will make it rank well in the search engines. It isn’t true! Google doesn’t care how many or few words your site has, as long as the information is great.

    • says

      Exactly Nick, and more importantly, there’s no magic number that works with readers. They have the most sensitive built in “fluff-ometer” to detect padding.

      Or as one of our tutors used to call it the:

      “shit. click” factor. (Which used to refer to changing the channel but works just as well with the clicking of a mouse)

  3. says

    Interesting article, Amy. I don’t have any experience in screenwriting but I can definitely see its possible application to copywriting. Keeping your writing short, on point, and entertaining is always a good goal to strive for.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. says

    Nice article Amy. I studied screenwriting before I learned copywriting, and there are a lot of parallels. I now recommend everyone read at least one book on screenwriting, usually Robert Mckee’s Story.

    • says

      To be honest Brian, it’s just a relief that I can finally justfiy those years of studying as “not a total self-indulgent waste of time mum and dad…honest…”

      In fact, it’s probably been more useful to me as career-wise than if I’d decided to go into TV :-)

      • says

        Hey Amy (and Brian)

        Studying screenwriting is definitely a help in just about all aspects of web writing. Personally I found Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey to be wayyyyyy beyond McKee’s Story.

        There are some crucial differences – Vogler’s interpretation of The Hero’s Journey is not only far easier to implement that McKee’s ‘Story,’ but almost by definition it has a working psychological model of the Human Experience built into the story structure. You can get an awful lot of mileage out of that psychological model…whereas Story leaves me a bit cold.

        I find it a bit too analytical. I’ve never attended one of McKee’s seminars – but would love to. I’ve heard they are highly interesting experiences – and it’s possible that in person he delivers a more compelling version of his story model.

        Would love to hear if either of you two have attended his Story seminar?


        PS – nice work Amy, catch up with you in Anubis!

        • says

          Paul, I love The Writer’s Journey as well. Actually, I’ve read every decent book on screenwriting, so I should really recommend that people do the same.

          • says

            Ha ha – that’s a good answer. What would be on your list?

            Mine would include:

            The War of Art
            Save The Cat
            Adventures In The Screen Trade
            Cinematic Storytelling
            Stealing Fire From The Gods

            And an incredible almost unknown treasure trove of flat out great writing about movies and story telling is Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s website.
            You have to jump through some stupid hoops to get access – but the 50 or so columns (mostly written by Rossio) are a gold mine of great ideas and great writing.

            @Amy – sorry for the gratuitous post hijack!


        • says

          Hey Paul, I haven’t attended his Story seminar. Story was vital reading for us when we were training though. It was one of our many bibles along with The Hero’s Journey (and many more!).

          And hijack away! Really pleased you enjoyed it! 😉

    • says

      I would recommend anyone interested in become a better writer read Robert Mckee’s Story. The principles and approach to telling and crafting a story are totally applicable to copywriting, communications and marketing in general.

      Plus, Mckee’s a very unique and engaging character, and Story is one of the most entertaining “instructional” books you’ll ever read.

  5. Georgina El Morshdy says

    Great article Amy. It reminded me of the value of using analogies in copy. There’s real value in comparing an idea to something we already understand. And let’s face it we can all tell the difference between a movie that stays in the mind long after a visit to the cinema and a forgettable disappointment.

    • says

      Thanks Georgina!

      Analogies are so useful. Sometimes a different hook or point of view can freshen up tried and tested rules that we’re familiar with and make them stick a little more!

  6. says

    Brilliant. That’s such a good concept. I’m going back through my past blog posts to see when/where I wasn’t ‘moving my story forward’ or ‘revealing the character’ … making suggestions for myself on how I can improve in the future. Thank you so for bringing this concept to light.

    And Brian – I agree. This article convinced me. I just added ‘story’ to my reading queue.

    • says

      Awesome Andrew, thanks. It’s that brutal editing process that really sharpens things up (I’m so glad no one gets to read the padding I include in my first drafts!)

  7. says

    Awesome idea! I can see your point of bringing the readers to what you want to offer for them. Thanks for this nice concept. I’ll gonna apply this in my future article =D

  8. says

    Moving the story or post along and keeping the reader interested is of utmost importance. A lot of posts seem to drift away from the orginal premise.
    Great advice thanks!

  9. says

    Really good article. I would add that it is important that writers remember they are not actors. If you are able to find your own unique voice and let that show through in your writing, you will better engage your readers!

  10. says

    What a great comparison. Writing is such an art form. It’s like a movie or painting that you can visually see the colors and action and be drawn in to. You need to display those colors and those actions with stimulating words. Painting a mental movie inside the reader’s head as they flow through your copy. An art form that is very hard to master.

    Good work!

    • says

      Hey Tom, always lovely to see your smiling avatar.

      And as the Beach Boys put it best, “I get arou…”

      Actually scrap that. It doesn’t sound too good for a lady 😉

  11. says

    Love this topic. I think there are lots of lessons copywriters can learn from screenwriters. One of my favorites from McKee is the “suspense” sentence: “In ill-written dialogue useless words, especially prepositional phrases, float to the ends of sentences. Consequently, meaning sits somewhere in the middle…Excellent film dialogue tends to shape itself into the periodic sentence: ‘If you didn’t want me to do it, why’d you give me that…’ Look? Gun? Kiss? The periodic sentence is the ‘suspense sentence.’ Its meaning is delayed until the very last word, forcing both the actor and audience to listen to the end of the line.”

    So often I see the main idea of a sentence buried somewhere in the middle, sandwiched between prepositional phrases and other less essential information. My other favorite McKeeism is “Image is our first choice, dialogue the regretful second choice.” Not great news for writers, but good to keep in mind that words are just one part of the story.

    • says

      Hey Rob, it’s probably no surprise that you see the same suspense techniques used in copywriting to push peopel onto the next line, paragraph, subheading etc. :-)

  12. says

    Well done Amy. I’m not sure where I heard it but, “There are no throw-away lines” keeps ringing in my ears whenever I read good writing.

  13. says

    Excellent work, Amy.

    I was cringing because I’ve been guilty of not following some of this advice!

    Sometimes you just want to slam out a post, but it does pay to stop and really pay attention to how you’re crafting your words. I think the cutting the crap out of your story part is possibly the most difficult -especially if you’re along-winded blow-hard such as myself :)

    This is the kind of post that should be bookmarked and referred to before you start typing. All the best -peace!

  14. says

    Another important teaching from screenwriting: People reading the copy need to have an easy job visualizing the words or else no one will buy it.

  15. says

    Hi Amy,

    Excellent analogy here.

    Craft a compelling story which moves a reader into action. Become skilled at motivating people with your words.

    Get readers to click on your link, based on your headline. Grab attention with your first few sentences. Keep it by moving readers along gently. How you use your words determines if your readers stick around, and take action through the entire post.

    I like the note of building trust. Reveal yourself – to an extend. Never hesitate to share some inspirational story from your life. We know, like and trust people who share their human nature, their mistakes, their setbacks. My most popular posts are almost always my “I screwed up” posts. The key is to turn around and show people who you triumphed, and proceed to direct them to a clear and definite call to action.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Amy.


  16. says

    Awesome piece!

    Basically it’s all about respecting readers’ time. Getting to the point without meandering for the sake of literature.

    For fuhrer reading and expanding on the topic: On Writing by Stephen King.

  17. says

    Great tips…’s really great tips for the newbie to take their blog to the next level because CONTENT IS KING.

    • says

      I would say QUALITY CONTENT IS KING. Being a writer is not a joke because you have to consider a lot of things good thing there are articles such as this to give us pointers on how to improve our craft.

  18. says

    What a great article, it’s one of those simple practices that seems a bit far-fetched to implement, but actually really works. Creating the perfect script for a video production, crafting the perfect prospectus for a University or simply just making a perfect ad slogan all take careful planning and the elements touched on here have to be taken into account in all of them. I’ll be certainly taking a few extra literacy courses to hone my knowledge on this particular area, but I have to say this really is a premise with gold written all over it. Is anyone else on the same page? AH Skeleton Productions.

  19. says

    I’ve read countless blogs posts and articles that speak about this, and I can honestly say, you could’t have said it any better.

  20. says

    I’m not into the screenwriting business but I love to write and this post will help me on my way to become a good writer. I’m an aspiring writer and I write short stories to begin with. Thanks.

  21. says

    Love this post and love how you creatively compare the two topics! I think it’s great advice and something that we could all pull from. I especially like the part on “giving them characters they love.”

  22. says

    This is such a fun idea, Amy. I’ve been known to read my headlines aloud in a movie announcer voice when I’m getting a little tired of a project (I’m not sure it improves my writing, but it does make me laugh), but I hadn’t considered making my movie-watching habit a practical writing tool. Reigning in the focus so that the writing moves things forward or illuminates character will definitely help me keep my writing tighter and more compelling–thanks!

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