He leaned forward and fixed me with a stare. “You don’t have a choice.”
We were sitting in a small conference room, facing each across a table. Like duelists, we’d been fencing around each for some time now, parrying sly remarks and witty comments as we took our measure of each other.
It seemed my opponent had decided he’d had enough of waiting.
Very well. Two can play this game.
“’I don’t have a choice?’” I repeated his words scornfully. “On the contrary—this is my choice, and mine alone.”
“Really? And what of everyone else who will be affected, young man? Do they have a choice?” Smart, that young man remark. Make me look like the child.
I opened my mouth to snap something back, but he raised a hand to stop me. When he spoke again, his voice was weary—an act, but a good one. “Enough. We’ve been talking about this for too long now.” His voice softened. “Come on. It’s the right thing to do—you know it is.”
I fidgeted nervously, looked down at the empty water bottle clenched in my hands.
Of course it was the right thing to do. We both knew it—everyone did. Recycling the bottle was the responsible thing.
But there was no denying the urge—the incessant, overwhelming urge—to get up, walk over to the trash can, and throw my water bottle in.
Good Drama and Bad Drama
Wow. Just . . . wow.
On the surface, that introduction is perfect. It’s got intrigue, it’s got excitement, it’s got a moral dilemma being debated. But I cannot think of any writer worth his or her salt that would ever write something like that as the opening to an article about recycling. Unless an alien overlord is hovering over the plant and threatening to destroy it if this particular bottle does not get recycled, there is no reason that recycling—important as it may be—deserves such a dramatic introduction.
Take, on the flip side, Jon Morrow’s post On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting for Your Ideas (if you haven’t read it, do so. It’s a must read). The intro shows a young mother receiving the news that her son lacks the strength to live past the age of two. Now, I don’t know if he’s describing the scene exactly as it took place, and I don’t care. Even if he got every word of the dialogue wrong, it wouldn’t change a thing. This a story about a mother finding out that her newborn son is going to die. There’s no way that story can be anything but dramatic.
In other words, Jon Morrow told a story that was inherently dramatic. I, on the other hand, took a boring conversation and did whatever I could to instill a sense of urgency and excitement into it. But it doesn’t work like that. As much as the ability to tell a good story is an essential part of copywriting—John Caples’ famous They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano article is a prime example of that—trying to fake a story when there isn’t one doesn’t work.
(I’m reminded of a time I had a conversation with some friends about shaving. Someone sitting nearby overheard us and remarked, “I used to shave but now I don’t.” It remains one of the most thrilling tales I have ever heard.)
So, how do you know if your intro is too dramatic? What if just asking yourself if the story is inherently interesting doesn’t help?
I’ve found that there are certain tell-tale signs. Take my recycling story. As you examine it, you’ll realize that it’s very vague. I’m talking to an unnamed “he,” never offering any insight who that person is. My location is equally unclear—“a small conference room” could mean anything. Perhaps the biggest sign is the ease with which the conflict is solved. I don’t want to recycle, he insists that I should, and I realize that deep down, I know I should, too. Problem solved. If only real problems were dealt with this easily.
If that doesn’t help, try this. The dramatic element to any story is the problem your character faces (AKA: conflict). In the case of my recycling intro, my character’s problem was that he had an urge not to recycle. I find it helps to ask myself two questions. Firstly, is that problem believable? In this instance, the answer is: not even remotely. I’ve never heard of anyone having an urge to not recycle. If your answer is also no, then you should change your intro.
If your answer is yes, then try the next question. Is this a legitimate problem? Is it easily solvable, or is it something that will have you beseeching Saint Google for all forms of help? If it’s the former, then the dramatic approach might not be warranted.
Of course, simply imposing a, “Thou Shalt Not Write Overly Dramatic Intros” rule isn’t very helpful without taking into account that there’s a reason we do it. Sometimes we’re writing about something that is, frankly, really boring. An exciting introduction seems the only way to instill some life into your insomnia-curing work.
I’ve been there. One of the blog posts I wrote for work was about an incredibly technical topic, titled: The 5 Ways to Conquer Extreme Contrast on Sunny Days. (I can already feel my eyes drooping just talking about it.) For this post, I found that the answer was to just talk about the problem in a fun, conversational way. I started off:
“Stop me if this sounds familiar.
Instead of talking about the emotions the scenario would elicit, I simply described the scenario itself, allowing the reader to elicit his or her own emotions as they read it. After all, I’m talking to photographers—if they’re reading the article, it’s because they can relate to the problem in a real way.
But that’s just one tactic, and not one that will work every time. When I feel the need for a dramatic intro for a topic that doesn’t warrant it, I like to replace that drama with a different tool.
As an example—don’t worry, my last one—here’s an entry I wrote for our company newsletter, with the brand names taken out for confidentiality reasons.
"And so [brand name] said, “There shall be an upgrade!”
By deliberately making a boring topic dramatic—and then immediately acknowledging that it doesn’t deserve to be—I actually achieved the exact same goal without making myself look silly.
A great example of this is Justworks’ Bossface ad. Of course, they’re actually writing about something that could warrant a dramatic approach, but they clearly felt that a humorous approach would allow them to connect more with their target audience.
I’m inclined to agree.
So that’s the end of this particular musing. What tactics do you use for writing intros? How would you start that pesky article about recycling? Let me know in the comments.
Eli Landes is one of those weird writers who just can't get enough. A marketing writer by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time, he spends his spare time working on his novel, writing short fiction, or daydreaming (I mean, researching). His main genre is Jewish fiction, but he's been known to dabble in the weird, the absurd, and the truly dark.