Truism #1: If people see it coming, the transformational moment — the moment when a character moves past his primary fears, block, wound, or limitation — will fail to create maximum emotion in the reader because it’ll get dampened or squashed by the audience’s psychological defenses.
Truism #2: If the transformational moment isn’t properly set up, and instead the writer just launches into high drama on the page, the scene won’t be believable and it will fall emotionally flat for the reader.
Here’s an example of this second truism from the movie, Zombieland:
***Warning — Movie Spoilers Ahead*****
There’s emotion on the screen, duly portrayed by Woody Harrelson, but it never really touches the audience. The flashback, in fact, feels a bit off. Who feeds their dog pancakes or lifts them up and bathes them like that? But then again, Woody’s character is a bit “off,” so the viewer (or this viewer at least) let’s the disconnects slide.
And that’s the genius of this scene. Because as the movie goes on and the audience gets tied up in the more exciting aspects of zombie bashing, they forget all about that disconnect until the writer springs this scene on them:
After watching that scene, it dawned on me that the audience wasn’t meant to feel emotion in the first scene: it was just the set-up for this second scene in a way that would keep the audience from “bracing” against the emotion. Hence the “narrative misdirection” of the puppy flashback.
That undetected set-up makes all the difference because we, the audience, were taken in along with the Greg Eisenberg’s character, “Columbus.” So we felt Columbus’s insight and empathy as our own. It transfered right from the screen to our chests.
Better yet, while the audience was caught up in the emotion of that scene, the writer set us up for this bit of dialogue:
Brilliant, huh? We see the nihilistic loner confront his loss and then overcome his isolation. And it feels real. In fact, the emotion and drama works quite well for an otherwise silly comedy.
Copywriting Techniques to Take Away From All This
First of all, the copywriting equivalents of these techniques probably require a “don’t try this at home, kids” style warning, because they are in direct contradiction to standard: “hit ‘em as hard as you can with a WIIFM Appeal and UVP statement right off the bat”-style copywriting advice. Advice which I normally endorse as sound practice, by the way.
But these techniques and examples DO work when done right and are worth studying and thinking about. So with that caveat, here’s what I have seen used:
1) Sometimes the indirect approach works better. As I wrote earlier, most copywriters want to go in with guns a’ blazin’, spewing high-voltage WIIFM and UVP statements along with emotional problem-agitation-focused copy. But sometimes a slower start works to your advantage by allowing you to set-up your dramatic moments and power statements.
So long as your copy is interesting and is subtle in its set-ups, this indirect approach can massively outpull regular “reason-why” style copy. For example, here’s how the famous Wall Street Journal copy starts:
“On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men.
Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike.
Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.”
With the tale eventually leading up to this power statement:
“The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.
And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: To give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.”
Can you imagine the fall off in response if the copywriter had skipped the set-up and just launched into the power statement? Can you imagine the U.S. School of Music correspondence course deciding a straight offer would work better than the immortal opening of “They laughed when I sat down at the piano but when I started to play!-”
And then there’s this bit of direct mail masterpiece that continues to work so well a recent copy just arrived in my inbox today:
You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.
The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.
A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.
For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.
But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!
Dear ETR Reader,
I’d like to send you a FREE copy of a unique–and invaluable–report. It’s called How to Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day. And it tells you about the best places in the world for retirement living.
Again, imagine how much less effective the straight offer of “Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day” would have been. No set-up, no emotional punch.
And while I’ll be the first to admit that readers are more suspicious of set-ups and more time sensitive than ever before, the continued use of this e-mail proves it still pulls. Trust me, if the direct mail superstars of Early to Rise had tested something better, they’d be using it.
2) Reference your prospect’s “photo in a wallet” symbolism to leverage otherwise unavailable emotions. Woody Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, wasn’t planning on helping rescue the two girls. He needed to be convinced. But rather than launch into a rational argument, or a straightforward WIIFM-style appeal, the “Columbus” character clothed his appeal in the talismanic image of Tallahassee’s only keepsake from his lost son. And it worked.
I guarantee you that your prospect’s likely have a “wallet picture” type of mental image, some symbol, keepsake, or event that powerfully embodies and evokes their emotional stakes. If you wish to give your copy greater emotional impact, find out what that talisman-like symbol is, and create mental images that take advantage of that symbolism. Examples of this abound, but perhaps the most famous is Michelin’s tagline:
Before this Michelin ad, no one really cared about small quality differences between tire brands. The “wallet picture” imagery Michelin employed changed all that.
So while these techniques probably aren’t for beginning copywriters, they are worth thinking about. They’re worth practicing. And — if and when you nail it — they’re worth using.