You, the Movie

Have you ever wondered where the knack for finding stories and hooks — the main ingredients of any great copywriter’s bag of tricks — comes from?

Here is my insight (after a couple of decades on the advertising front lines): It comes from observing life as an ongoing movie. With characters, story angles, plot twists, and endings that arrive like punch lines.

This is how the legendary copywriters I’ve known go through their day… seeing nearly everything in terms of a movie script. It’s an unconscious habit, and wickedly effective at keeping your writing chops chugging on all cylinders.

Even the most mundane errand can be retold as a raucous tale full of shocking revelation when you put this talent to work. Nothing interesting or weird or funny gets by a top scribe.

So, when faced with clients needing killer ads… it’s easy to find, and flesh out, the stories hidden in products, campaigns, and markets. Because it’s all a movie.

Think about your own life.

No, seriously. Think about it.

Most people have trouble “seeing” themselves in the world at all. Without a mirror, they’re not even sure they exist. Their daily experiences are like watching a “monkey cam” – the filmed result of attaching a camera to the back of a chimp and letting him wander off.

It’s not a smooth, thought-out, coherent narrative. Instead, it’s jerky, chaotic, and (unless there are “happy accidents”) mostly boring.

There. I’ve said it.

Most people lead boring lives.

For any savvy copywriter, that’s a tremendous advantage. All you have to do… is be the one thing your bored-to-death prospect reads today that gets his blood moving. And you’re well on your way to closing the sale.

Again, think about your life.

Consider how it has progressed in actual chapters, or acts… just like a long-running serial flick.

Maybe your story is as straightforward as childhood, adulthood, starting a biz, getting married.

Or maybe it’s more nuanced, in peculiar ways that make sense to you… but may sound exotic to outsiders. I know one guy, for example, who catalogs his past using whichever car was in his life at the time: The ancient ’55 Buick Special (junior year in high school), the only slightly abused ’67 Mustang (freshman year of college), the brand-spanking-new Toyota (first full-time job), the Pontiac mini-van (first kid), etc.

This guy will fry your ear with great stories, too. All starring him and his wheels.

The more precise and anchored you can be, the better your stories will become.

And the better your OWN parcel of stories is, the easier you can spot – and use – stories from the world around you when you’re writing to influence and persuade.

I was lucky to grow up in a family of storytellers. And since I was the youngest by eight years, I learned quickly to be pithy and interesting… or risk losing the attention of my audience. (Few adults have much patience for meandering stories with no point, even from their own kids.)

The trick is to focus on short, crisp, rollicking tales that get to the payoff quickly. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, like a good joke, with a premise, a set-up, and a punch line.

In fact, I suggest you start crafting your tales – both the personal and professional – in three brisk sentences.

They can be serious or funny or rueful or just hmmm -inducing snippets of action.

But they must be complete stories.

So start editing, with an audience in mind. For example: “Suzy and I, at 17, started out convinced no one had ever felt a love so wild and crazy before. However, that dizzy high of shared hormonal bliss… was cruelly followed by heartache and misery when her attention shifted away from me. And I ended up as a sad, sad boy, convinced no one had ever felt such pain before.”

Set-up, plot synopsis, and tidy ending with a hook (the “completed circle” of the phrase convinced no one had ever felt...). You can go into more specifics (should your audience crave it), but you’ve laid out the story very efficiently here.

If the point you were trying to make… say, in a sales piece… was that you’ve been around the block emotionally, you scored. Any further detail would muddy up the yarn.

Here’s another one: “I interviewed for my first real job right out of college. Cinched up my tie, answered every jackass question seriously, shook hands like a candidate. Got the gig, hated every second of my life for six months, never quite caught my breath, got fired, and happily collected unemployment checks for the next three months.”

Or, here’s a tidbit from my own biography: “We were vandals as kids, mostly ineffective and innocent, but occasionally stunning models of anarchy. Asked an engineer, once, how many railroad ties his cow-catcher could handle… and the next day, put all those plus one on the tracks. Derailed the train… and our genuine horror of success was deepened by the realization we’d better watch our butts if we were gonna engage with the adult world like that.”

Three sentences. Yeah, long ones. But three coherent, grammatically correct sentences. A complete story, with entry point, action, and a quasi-moral ending.

Consider how looooooooooooong I could have dragged out that tale, and been absolutely justified in doing so. Because, hey, events took place over a couple of days, and there are details of our gang and the neighborhood and the derailment that are fascinating.

Just freaking fascinating.

But longer stories should be told only if you’re invited to tell them. As in, writing your thousand-page biography and selling it. Anyone buys, it’s a tacit agreement to put up with every long-winded saga you’ve got up your sleeve.

Okay… now it’s your turn.

Leave a three-sentence story from your life in the new “comments” section on ETR’s website here.

Don’t be shy. We’re all trying new stuff this year. (Or should be, because the business landscape is changing so dramatically and rapidly. The best marketers I know are trashing old limitations, stretching new boundaries, waking up and engaging the world on fresh terms.)

I promise to read every submission. I’ll even toss a few comments into the pile myself, when warranted.

And I can guarantee you this innocent little exercise will sharpen your chops as a storyteller. Some of you are already damn good, I’m sure… while others can use a lot of work. But we ALL need to remember how critical stories are for communication. (As in, communicating your sales message in a way that grabs attention, persuades, and closes.)

C’mon. Three lines. That forces you to be concise, to consider every single word carefully, and to crunch often-rambling experiences into tidy little narratives with a point.

Just like a top writer does it.

I’m not looking for funny. Not looking for tears. Not looking for anything profound.

Just a story.

For some writers, this will be a true test, because you aren’t used to pushing yourself. However, the best already do.

Good luck.

[Ed. Note: John Carlton is an expert copywriter, a pioneer in online marketing, and a teacher of killer sales copy. Get the details here on how to get your hands on the kick-ass secrets of the world’s smartest, happiest, and wealthiest marketers. And be sure to read his insights, tactics, and advice on copywriting and marketing at his blog.]
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  • The closest I ever came to owning a horse was the 1964 blue Ford tractor at my Grandaddy’s place and a 10-speed bicycle I got my freshman year of high school. With one I rambled through woods, pastures and country gravel pits; with the other I soared to every-day places with the first gasps of freedom and responsibility. None of the 17 automobiles I have since owned has ever brought the same sense of adventure, intrigue or ownership of a piece of the world.

  • Shane Croft

    Being born into a middle class family of Baptist in the Deep South, I could think of nothing exciting to do but to start my own private rebellion. This life plan of personal mutiny has carried me from youth detention to military college scholar to full time surfer to private banker to affluent entrepreneur to financially insolvent. Instead of a midlife crisis, I am currently planning the next great rebellion.

  • Hey Guys.

    I’m a little surprised more folks didn’t jump at this opportunity to get hip to storytelling… last week, I used a similar exercise while speaking to a seminar of over 600 attendees (mostly Web entrepreneurs), and nearly every single one of them wanted to share their 3-sentence tale.

    No worries, though. Maybe it’s the newness of the comments section. We’ll try more interactive stuff again in other columns.

    For now… let’s examine the submitted stories:

    Both Andy and Shane “get” the idea of set-up, plot and punchline. I’m very impressed.

    Andy sent us in the wrong direction, however, by mentioning a horse in the opening line. There’s an old Hitchcock rule for telling stories: If a gun is introduced in Act One, it must be fired by Act Three. In other words, any element or plot-point mentioned in a tightly wound story needs to earn its place. The horse disappears immediately, and the resolution of the tale is actually about the wonder of exploration (the way I read it).

    There is some ambiguity, also, about the ultimate point that Andy’s making. Personally, I know exactly what he’s talking about — I harbor similar feelings of bliss over my early explorations of the world. If this tale were in a sales piece, Andy would want to more clearly identify the “feeling” he wanted his reader to be left with… and that feeling should be connected to the larger sales message he’s using to persuade a prospect into becoming a customer.

    Paying attention to the “resulting feeling” you want to instill is important. And it will help anchor your tale, and keep it focused.

    Great job, Andy.

    Shane: You nailed it, dude. Excellent set-up, with the apparent incongruous juxtaposition of strict Southern religion and rebellion. Clever plotting of a believable “life plan”, which supports the rebel thesis, too.

    And VERY nice punch line, bringing in mid-life crisis. You can see how such a quick little tale could support his credibility in a sales message aimed at Boomers (who constantly pine for the heady days of their youth, when so much still seemed possible).

    These stories are both great examples. I suspect Shane has some serious writing experience under his belt. And I know that Andy has a thousand more stories burbling in his head, anxious to burst out.

    For those of you still mulling your own stories, I’ll check back again soon. In case you overcome your shyness.

    This really is the critical foundation of great writing, both for fiction and for business.

    Stay frosty.


  • Lars Nielsen

    The biggest war I experienced was inside me, between the scholar who wanted to know everything and the creative creature who would burst forth, without warning, like the embedded parasite from a horror movie. Even now, decades later, they coexist uneasily, the scholar trying to make money with his left brain conformity, and the hidden one who leaps out in verse, wacky plays, and intense fiction, always trying to hustle. My great fear is that one will kill the other, and I will lose the war as a result.

  • Paula

    I love to dance, but several years ago I realized that I was getting too old to go dancing at the clubs, so my friend and I decided to take salsa lessons at local dance studio. He backed out at the last minute, but I went ahead to the lesson and became hooked immediately. Five years and eight dance styles later, I’m still dancing my way around the dance floor.

  • Liam

    The first time I discovered true freedom was the day most people feel it being taken away: reporting for jury duty. While spending the morning in uncomfortable chairs filling out nonsense paperwork, my attention was suddenly caught by an inspiring article on direct marketing. So I hopped out of the confining court room, ditched going back to my miserable job, and freely spent the afternoon digging up every marketing book, manual, and magazine I could find at the public library.

  • Tom

    When I got out of college I was such a cocky and naïve copywriter that I brushed off John Carlton as just another hotheaded internet marketer. However my jaw tumbled to floor when a more experienced colleague handed me the One Legged Golfer space ad. In the time it took me to finish my morning coffee, I went from being a pig-headed snob to a devout student of marketing experts…and I stopped judging copy based on opinion.

  • Mica

    My life was perfectly in sync right up until the very minute I first met my brother-in-law Robert. He was a boorish man who dominated conversations with uncouth tales from his family-owned plumbing business. After putting up with his incessant and insensitive stories of toilet escapades for three hours, I knew that Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners would never be the same.

  • Conner

    With about two miles left the Green Mountain Marathon, I was fatigued enough to completely misjudge the distance remaining in the race. So, thinking that I only had one mile to go, I tore off at full speed – feeing headstrong – down the trail toward the finish…only to painfully realize, with burning legs and seared lungs, that I had twice that distance remaining. That was the last time I entered a footrace without properly studying the course map beforehand.

  • Ryan Fray

    Walking in the door of my first college party, I expected not one ounce less of the romance, adventure, and wild fun I used to see in all of those old ‘80’s frat house movies. But after having my shoes puked on, my sweater covered with spilled beer, and being disapointed when the most exciting event was only the science geek passing out in the hallway, my dreams of idyllic college fun decayed into a souring sense of reality. It was from that point on for the next four years that everything at college seemed to be an ounce…or two…less special than I hoped it would be.

  • Ken

    I grew up in several “developing” countries and saw close up the effects of several forms of, shall we politely say, less than free enterprise forms of government. After years of enduring insider-controlled media slanting all our news it was with great excitement and anticipation that we immigrated to the America of “Father Knows Best” and “The I Love Lucy Show”. After we finally arrived in the U.S.A. and turned on the news programs, our eyes popped wide and we wondered if we had finally jumped out of the frying pan only to land in the fire!

  • With the testosterone surging at 15, I became enamoured with a vivacous 30-something Spanish beauty, Ana Maria, and her magical hour-glass figure that made old men, in a pre-viagra world, yearn for youth.

    After unknowingly staring in the lusty dreams of many a young man’s nights and an abusive marrige, a homesick Ana Maria died young of cancer and a broken heart.

    I lost my appetite for Spanish classes then until moving to Spain, staring in a tour company and a search for the heady emotions of testosterone-charged teen and another vivacous and magical Ana Maria.

  • “How’s your love life?” I asked sitting in his living room after a full day of questions and some answers regarding his business. He rolled his eyes and sighed.
    I replied, “You’ve sitting with your back to the door into your Relationship Area and to your front door.” “So? he replied.
    I instructed him to, in the next week, reposition his chair, his bed and his desk at home. A month later he called, “I’ve been really busy. I met a woman, a great person on the flight two weeks after you were here and ordered me to rearrange my furniture.”
    What this means for you: the Chinese art of placement, feng shui can powerfully move you towards your dreams, and reveal areas of misalignment…

  • Alan

    She was beautiful but cocky, so I walked away. Later, sitting across the fire from her, she threw a pine cone at my leg. We ended up in the woods making love.

  • I was born in the same Massachusetts river town as Jack Kerouac, and left it to go on the road as a stand up comic. The worst comedy “audience” I ever faced were 9 cold-staring vets drinking warm beer at a VFW hall in St. Petersburg, FL. So, like Jack Kerouac, I was born in Lowell and have died in St. Pete.

  • mallory

    Though the enchanted dreams and desires in my day-dreamy mind rattled and flayed like a globetrotting tap-dancer, my leaden feet refused to keep pace.

    But, eventually, the doctor-perscribed catalytic Adderall pills alas! swooped me up from my couch potato laze, and like the flick of a sharp-shooting boomerang, whipped me into an endless jittery frenzy.

    In an un hindered left-right-left flight towards success(courtesy of the Adderall express) i made it out of the Oklahoma plains and all the way to New York City, NYU, and the land of luminescent opportunity; but the embers once blazing in my mind were squelched by the intrusion of an artificial brain freeze.

  • T

    Last November I entered the unknown with reckless abandon. I left my house; ended a life long relationship with family; moved to an entirely new locale; further pursued a love interest I knew was problematic and started living with her – all withiout ever setting up a job, or making certain that I had any fincial security. Today, I stand more certain of self, and more certain of where I want to go – and how to get there – than I have ever been in my 25 years of life.