Erik’s Rules for Writing Short Books

A few days ago, I had to confront my elitist attitude toward books and whether or not I think a book can be anything less than 50 pages that gets spit out over a weekend.

It’s not.

But I also had to rethink my attitude toward any book that was not traditionally published, shorter than 200 pages, and didn’t take several months to produce.

I realized, thanks to my friend, Jim, that these short books — they’re called “novellas” in the fiction world — can actually serve a very useful purpose in helping someone develop their personal brand.

And that helped me to realize that I just need to get over myself and my attitude and learn to accept the newer definition of what a book is supposed to be.

BUT if you want to write a book, even if it’s a short book, there are a few things you need to do to make your book good, no matter how long it is. Otherwise, you’re just creating junk and you’re watering down what it means to write a book and to be an author.

1. A book does not take a weekend to write.
One does not simply "slap a book together." This is especially true if you're writing short books/You might be able to write the first draft in 48 hours, but it’s nowhere near ready. Don’t even think about publishing it. You’ll hear people brag about how they wrote a book in just a weekend or just a couple of days. Good books don’t take this long, so don’t ever be satisfied with the work you produce in a day or two.

This is supposed to be your major marketing tool, your calling card, your social proof that you’re an expert at what you do. You can’t produce that in just one weekend, and whatever it is you produce in that time won’t be good enough to serve that purpose.

2. Make it longer than 50 pages, please.
Expertise is deep and involved, and it has a lot to say. So your book, no matter the topic, should be more than 50 pages long. In fact, the deeper you dive into your topic, the longer it’s going to be. The broader and more general your topic is, the less there is to say about it. The more focused it is, the deeper you can dive.

For example, I could write a book about Marketing in general, and I would run out of things to say in about 30 pages. But I could write a book that focuses on content marketing for enterprise-level companies and come up with volumes of information — wait, I totally did that, and it was 236 pages long.

Dive into a niche, explore every important fact that you can, and add that to your manuscript. If your book is becoming huge and unwieldy, break it up into manageable sections, and flesh out each one thoroughly. Turn them into separate books and sell them as smaller volumes. Your book doesn’t have to be 300 pages, but it should never be shorter than 75. Otherwise that’s just a pamphlet.

3. Revise, revise, revise.
Honest to God, if you publish your first draft, you deserve any and all ridicule and shame because it’s just going to be bad. Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”And I’ll bet that’s what your first draft is. Listen, I’ve been writing for 30 years, and I still write shitty first drafts. So don’t fool yourself into thinking that yours is fine.

Revise your manuscript, then revise it a second time, and then you’re ready to start thinking about final edits and publication. You’re not there yet, but you’re ready to start thinking about it.

4. Take time between edits.
You need to wait several days between revisions. Reread your manuscript and make sure you’ve covered all the pertinent information and fixed all the errors you can find. That takes time. We all get used to seeing what we’ve created, especially if we try to revise right after we’ve written it, and so we gloss over actual errors. Our mind just fills in what we expect to see, not what’s actually there. But you’ll catch your errors if you can separate yourself from your work for several days.

Your book should get at least two revisions with at least three days between each one. A week would be better, if you can manage it.

5. Get beta readers.
Send out PDF copies to friends and ask them to read it. Ask them to find holes, typos, unanswered questions, and missing information. I know a guy who wrote a short book about college financial planning. After he ordered his first 30 copies from CreateSpace, someone asked whether it included information about 529 Savings Plans.

It did not. So he burned his first 30 copies, made the additions that ended up being another major section of his book, and ordered 30 more copies.

This guy had basically produced his book in a weekend, done some editing, and then uploaded it for printing. No beta readers, no expert input, no major time between revisions, and so he missed a very important part of college financial planning. This is why you need extra eyes on your work. Sure it’s going to add time, but your book will be better for it.

6. Hire a professional editor.
If you’re going to use this as a business card or a brochure, then it had better be great. You can’t have typos, you can’t have mistakes, you can’t have anything that makes it look half-assed and flawed.

There are people who say “perfect is the enemy of good,” but those are people willing to settle for “good enough.” And good enough is terrible. So do everything you can to make your book great.

That means don’t do the editing yourself. No one is good at editing their own work, even copy editors. Hire someone. For a 75 – 100 page book, you can find a decent copyeditor for a couple hundred bucks. Or you can find a great copyeditor for several hundred dollars. Even a recently-graduated creative writing or English major would be delighted to edit your work for $200, and they’ll do a fantastic job of it.

7. Get a professional cover.
CreateSpace has covers available, but you’ll be much better off if you can hire someone to do your cover design for you. If you’re not a graphic designer, this is not the time for you to take a stab at it.

Get someone with some decent design skills to put one together. It doesn’t have to be fancy or be a $5,000 masterpiece.. If you want some ideas, go to the bookstore and study the book covers in your particular field. Note the design trends, font choices, whether they used photos or illustrations and what kind. Get an idea of what you want your book cover to look like, and then ask your designer to create it for you.

8. Do not, do not, DO NOT screw around with font size and margins in order to boost your page count.
This isn’t high school. Those tricks you did when you had to write your papers to meet word and page count — lots of adverbs, squeeze the margins in to 1.5″, line-and-a-half spacing, 14 pt. type — only make your book look like a complete scam and like you’re deliberately trying to be tricky.

Real books are single spaced, 12 pt. type or smaller, and have 1″ margins or less. A few years ago, I met a guy who bragged about turning a 20 page manuscript into a 30 page collection of words — I won’t call it a “book” — and he advocated screwing with the fonts and margins to make the book thicker.

If you have to do that, just delete your work. Delete it and go back to the drawing board or the classroom, because you clearly don’t have what it takes to write a book in the first place. Because that’s not writing, and it doesn’t demonstrate expertise. That’s dishonest garbage. If you have to lie about how long the book is, I won’t trust a single word in it.

I’m learning to change my way of thinking and my elitist attitude about being a book author. But you have to meet me halfway. Anything that’s less than 30 pages, is poorly written, unedited, and is a stinking word turd is not a book.

Slapping a collection of pages between two pieces of card stock doesn’t make it a book anymore than me wearing bread earmuffs makes my head a sandwich.

So do the work, take the time to make it good, produce something of value, and make sure there’s enough in it to actually be proud of. When you look at it five years later, you don’t want to be embarrassed by a comedy of errors and bad writing that you could have easily prevented with just a little more time..

Writing Books for Personal Branding

I have a confession to make.

I’m a snob when it comes to being a book author. To me, a book has gravitas. It’s more than 200 pages, it’s been properly edited and revised numerous times, and it takes several weeks and even months to create. And, if I’m being honest, it exists in a printed form, having been printed by a traditional publisher.

This puts me at odds with a lot of people, because the modern definition and process of creating a book has changed, thanks to new technology.

  • Word processors let us write and revise manuscripts instead of rewriting them. Forty years ago, you typed a manuscript, made edits, and then retyped it.
  • Ebooks has changed book lengths. Now, we can churn out short stories and novellas, and publish them online and sell them for as little as $1.
  • Short-run self-publishing lets us print a few books. Rather than buying 2,000 copies from a vanity publisher, and having 1,990 copies sit in our garage for years, we can print out a few books at a time.

All of this has democratized the book industry.

The last time we had technology this disruptive was when the printing press was invented. Instead of waiting for a monk to copy a book by hand, you could gather a small group of investors, buy a printing press, and go into publishing yourself, and print whatever the hell you wanted.

That world grew and grew to the point where publishing was huge and unwieldy, and only very special writers could get books published. And then, like most everything else, the Internet broke that system.

Now, not only do the very special writers get books published, so can everyone else.

On most days, I embrace democratization of any elitist system. I’m all for tearing down walls and letting everyone be awesome and cool.

The Branding Yourself cover. Cover design is just one important facet of writing books.Want to write your own book? Awesome! Cool! There are ways you can get that published and you don’t have to be a part of that stuffy old elitist system! Power to the people!

Except I finally got to be special this time. I co-authored three books that were published by Real Publishers, and I won’t lie. That feels pretty good. (I co-authored a fourth book that was self-published, but I feel a little self-conscious about it.)

So I roll my eyes whenever someone holds up a 50 page stack of papers and says “I wrote a book!”

Because that’s not a book, that’s a pamphlet.

“I wrote it over a weekend,” they boast.

I want to shout. “That should be a warning, not a brag!”

“And you can too!”

“Like bloody hell you can,” I want to say, but I never do.

And so my protective instincts kick in and I want to stop people watering down what it means to be an author, or promoting this crazy notion that you can just spit out a book over a weekend.

Except I’m rethinking my whole attitude.

I have seen the light!

I was at a networking lunch recently where someone was talking about how “easy” it is to write your own book. It happened a day after I heard a podcast interview about the very same thing.

“Just take a talk you like to give, and record yourself talking about it. Or come up with 10 – 12 questions and record yourself answering them. Get that audio transcribed, edit it into something readable and coherent, and upload it to CreateSpace. Bada-bing, bada-boom, you’ve got a book!”

Look, a good book is not that easy. And something that easy will not be good.

All of my books have taken two people four or five months to write. The last edition of Branding Yourself took four months, and I worked on it for 10 – 15 hours a week. I was supposed to cut it down to 300 pages, and instead, it weighs in at 380 pages. But it’s good, and I’m very proud of it.

Because writing a book is hard work, it takes time, and you have to know your subject and you have to be able to write about it well.

And it has to be thick, right? Right?

Maybe not.

“These short books are a good personal branding tool, aren’t they?” asked my friend, Jim. We were sitting together at the networking lunch. “They show that you have some expertise about that topic and they give you some credibility.”

I stared at Jim, stopped in my tracks, mouth open a little. “Well. . . maybe,” I said begrudgingly

“They don’t all have to be big thick tomes, right? I mean, this is the kind of information you’d share with someone in an hour-long conversation over coffee.”

I stared a little more. “I guess,” I pouted.

I hate Jim.

It was in that moment, mouth open and staring, that Jim’s question was my epiphany. Books aren’t just meant to be read. They don’t exist independently of the author. They reinforce the author’s expertise and make them look like geniuses about their particular field. They support the writer’s personal brand better than a business card or even their social media accounts.

That’s when I realized books don’t have to be 380 page bludgeoning weapons. They really can be smaller, shorter, and less in-depth than my “proper” book that I toiled over for nearly half a year.

I really hate Jim.

One guy who spoke at the networking event had just published his own book. In fact, it was his third attempt, because his very first attempt was over 200 pages. Then he revised it and cut it down to 100. And then he dumped that version and wrote it in 75 pages.

Because — and this is important — his subject matter didn’t need 200 pages.

Pat used to own a high-end AV company that helped event, conference, and meeting planners put on big stage shows. And he knew how to grow other AV companies to become successful.

That kind of knowledge is really only useful to other AV company owners, and most of them already have a lot of the knowledge that Pat has. Which means he doesn’t have to explain the basics, and he can get right to the point without any fluff and extraneous bullshit.

And that only takes 75 pages.

It didn’t need to be any longer. Anything more would have just been wasted space and wasted effort and it wouldn’t have added anything of value.

Which means I have to rethink my attitudes about books and what a “real book” can and should be.

Stupid Jim!

But that doesn’t mean you can slack off! There are still certain rules and expectations we all have.

I mean, we’re not graphic designers, for God’s sake!

I actually came up with 8 Rules for Writing a (Short) Book. But this post ran on too long, so I decided to cut it here, and I’ll run those 8 rules in a day or two.

Do You Even Need a Style Guide? Not Necessarily

What’s the proper way to make an apple pie? Are they shredded, diced, or sliced apples? Do you make your own crust or buy pre-made crusts? Do you have a fancy lattice top or the Dutch apple crumble top?

And whose recipe do you follow? Is it the first one you Googled, or is it Memaw’s secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation?

Ask this question on Facebook, and you’ll have plenty of strong opinions from plenty of people, and about 12 back-and-forth arguments before someone is calling someone else a Nazi.

Style Guides Are Like Apple Pies

This is how people, especially writers, feel about their style guides.

Different style guide examples. It's hard to choose the right one.To them, their style guide is the One True Guide, their Bible about how issues and misunderstandings about language, punctuation, and even grammar are to be handled.

There are a few dozen style guides, including ones from the Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Turabian, Council of Science Editors, and even The Elements of Style.

And you’ll find outspoken proponents of every one of them.

Each person will insist that their style guide is the right one and will argue with those heathens who don’t agree to worship The One True Guide.

Except there’s no One True Guide.

No one is able to lay claim that their guide is the definitive way to punctuate sentences, abbreviate states, or denote time (a.m./p.m. versus AM/PM).

(But you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, stiff, and dead fingers, Associated Press!)

Each guide is assembled by learned editors who have heated discussions about each new entry and change in their guide.

They’ve discussed and debated new issues as they come up, they look at how language is being used and written in society, and they update the guides to reflect those changes when necessary.

In May 2012, the Associated Press said they would no longer object to using the word ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence, rather than making people say ‘I am hopeful’ or ‘It is hoped that.’

People went nuts. They howled in protest, they screamed and tore their garments, and the Internet burned for three days. People said they were going to die on this hill and they weren’t going to let any stupid Associated Press tell them how to use English when Mrs. Kugelschreiber had drummed this rule into them so many years ago. They were going to stick with the “right” way to do it, despite what these so-called experts said.

Ahh, innocent times.

Of course, the angry mob missed two important points:

  1. It was a made-up rule to begin, having been created in the 1960s. Before then, it was acceptable to start sentences with “hopefully.” Besides, there’s no rule about starting sentences with other floating sentence adverbs like “sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “surprisingly,” so this one was just something people latched onto without understanding why.
  2. The rule only applied to writers and editors who worked for the Associated Press. It had nothing to do with general language usage. People were free to start or not start sentences with “hopefully” to their heart’s content.

This is the important thing to remember about style guides: While these are prescriptive guides, they are by no means the official rules for The Way English Is Done. These guides are only for a particular job, field, or organization.

The Associated Press Stylebook tells writers about the rules they must follow when writing for the Associated Press, although many non-AP journalists use it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is only meant for writers and editors at the New York Times. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is written for academics in social sciences, like psychology, speech communication, linguistics, and sociology.

And if you’re not part of those organizations, you are not bound by those rules.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Bloggers and content marketers can argue about which style guide is the best, but there’s no right answer. I always recommend bloggers use the AP Stylebook, because it’s small, inexpensive, and addresses 95% of our issues.

I also like the AP Stylebook because many bloggers act as citizen journalists, which means we should follow the guide that most other journalists use.

However, there’s no real guide for bloggers to use. We’re free to pick and choose, but we do so voluntarily, not because there’s an official Way English Is Done.

Bottom line: As long as you spell words right and put them in the right order, the rest is up to you. The benefit of a style guide is that it helps you be consistent throughout your writing. It means you always know where to put punctuation, whether you’re going to follow the postal abbreviations for U.S. states, and how to capitalize headlines.

And whether you should use the Oxford Comma or if you’re a filthy, godless monster.

This means you can pick one you like the best and are most familiar with, or you can even create your own style guide. Just make sure you follow it consistently and apply it to all of your business writing — blog articles, web copy, brochures, emails, letters, and even internal communications.

Photo credit: FixedAndFrailing (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Don’t Ignore Written Content Marketing for the Sake of Video

Marketers everywhere have begun singing the praises of video so loudly, they sound like Oprah at Christmas.

“You need a video! And you need a video! Everyone needs a video!”

Sure, it’s the new and exciting way to share information. Everyone who’s got a mobile phone has the means for creating, distributing, and watching of all sorts of video content. I watch Netflix while I eat breakfast. My kids watch comedy videos throughout the day. And we’ve all used YouTube as a search engine to solve a problem — I changed out my air conditioning filter a few weeks ago, thanks to a South Korean video.

Except video is not, and should not, be the final word when it comes to content marketing.

The written word should still get most of our attention as content marketers. If you’re going to add video to your marketing efforts, then you need to increase your overall content marketing creation. Don’t replace written content with video content and hope for the same engagement rates.

For one thing, gathering information by video is time consuming. If people want to do a lot of research about a major purchase, videos will help, but your customers still want written specs, performance details, and product information. And they want to be able to look details up quickly, rather than watch 87 minutes of video to find one specific detail again.

(Think of it this way: if you want to know the horsepower of your car, are you going to Google it or watch a 10-minute product video and hope you catch it?)

For another, video viewing is not going to replace reading. We’re not going to stop reading books in favor of watching someone read them to us on video. If that were the case, the audiobook revolution would have been massive, and brought about a faster end to bookstores.

We’re also not going to stop reading news articles online in favor of videos of those same articles being read to us. And before you say “but TV news!” keep in mind that most individual news stories only get 20 – 30 seconds of airtime. And that there’s also a more thoroughly written version of each story on a news channel’s website.

In other words. . .

Video Will Never Replace the Written Word

A shoulder-mounted RCA VHS video camera. Not suitable for video content marketing, no matter what happens!

I used one of these in high school. We thought we were hot stuff then!

So before you outfit your entire company with GoPros and YouTube accounts and flood the world with your video masterpieces, consider these four problems with video.

1) Most of us do not do well speaking off the cuff in front of an audience. We stammer, stutter, and lose our train of thought when we’re having a normal conversation, let alone if we’re in front of an audience and are not 100 percent prepared. And there are a lot of videos where people just hit record and started talking.

Don’t believe me? Pick a topic — how the original Star Wars trilogy is an allegory for today’s American political system — and record yourself talking about it for five solid minutes.

“But that’s not how I’d do it!” you protest. “I’d prepare and practice and make sure I got everything down just right.”

I know you will. Which means it will take 4 – 6 hours to produce a five-minute video. Now squeeze that time into your normal workday of meetings, writing TPS reports, and doing your actual work.

Meanwhile, I wrote this blog post, including edits, in about 90 minutes. I could write four blog posts in 6 hours.

2) A visual element is not always helpful. A lot of video content is just talking head videos of someone straight staring at their camera, usually on their laptop, and talking to us for three to five to ten minutes at a time.

Why the hell are we watching this? What are you actually doing that’s so interesting that I need to stop everything I’m doing and stare at my phone to watch your mouth move?

Are there graphics? No. Special effects? No. Is their kid going to run in and do something awesome? No. It’s just that person’s head, talking, for several minutes without doing anything else.

This is an inefficient use of your viewers’ time. Your video can easily be replaced with an MP3 and nothing will change. There’s no actual visual value that requires the amount of focus we usually put into video viewing. This information could be shared in a podcast or a blog article instead, rather than us taking the time to watch you talk.

I started listening to the audio tracks of TED talks for this very reason. When I realized the talks are usually nothing more than someone standing on a stage with a few slides, I found I could listen to them in the car during my commute. Nothing changed, the information wasn’t any different, and my life wasn’t better or worse for having done it.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if we can listen to your video without missing anything important, you didn’t need to make it a video. Consider making a podcast instead.

Photo of F. W. Murnau, noted German film director.

Photo of F. W. Murnau, noted German film director.

3) A lot of videos have poor production values. Most mediocre video content is usually shot on a mobile phone, and it shows. The lighting is poor, or the lens is dirty, or the person forgets and holds the camera vertically, so we all have to turn our heads 90 degrees just to see what’s going on.

And the sound is all tinny, like the speaker is in a giant coffee can, or sitting in the bathroom 20 feet from the microphone.

If you want to make good — and I mean good videos, not just “barely acceptable” ones — you need to invest in a good DSLR camera, a decent lavaliere/lapel microphone, and a tripod. And you need to get very good at using them. That means hours of practice, learning how to use the equipment properly.

Sure, you can make an okay cell phone video, but if that’s your company’s video marketing strategy, just shut the business down now and send everyone home. Otherwise, you need to hire a dedicated staffer whose sole job is to make videos, or you need to outsource your video production work to professional video marketers who know how to do this kind of thing quickly and efficiently. (For one thing, they can produce your 5-minute video in an hour or two.)

4) Short videos are inefficient. This is the biggie: The average person speaks at 100 – 150 words per minute, but the average adult reading speed is 300 wpm. (It’s also 450 wpm for the average college student, and 575 for high level executives).

That means a 300 word video will take 2 – 3 minutes to watch, but your average customer can read that same 300 word article in 30 – 60 seconds. Meanwhile, your college student will read it in 45 seconds, and your executive will read it in nearly 30.

This article clocks in at roughly 1600 words, which should take approximately 5 – 6 minutes for the average person to read (3+ minutes for our average college student, slightly less than 3 for our executive). But if I read it to you in a video, you’ll have to watch it for 10 – 16 minutes.

Now, imagine reading 12 1000-word articles in your favorite business magazine versus watching 12 videos of the same word count. That’s 24 – 48 minutes of reading versus 120 minutes of viewing.

Videos are great if you can add strong visual elements to them, like Moz’s Whiteboard Friday videos. There, Moz president Rand Fishkin lays out the latest research and developments in search engine optimization, using a whiteboard to illustrate his point.

But without the whiteboard, he’s just another Wil-Wheaton-with-a-handlebar-mustache lookalike talking to a video camera, and the information is much less enjoyable to watch or easy to absorb.

Bottom line: I don’t want to watch someone talk to me for 5 minutes when I can read that same block of text in less than 2 minutes. Combine that with bad production values, poor sound, and lots of hemming and hawing, and you can understand why “Just flip on your phone’s camera and start talking” is bad advice.

By all means, use video in your content marketing. It’s important, it’s helpful, and it’s the wave of the future. But just for God’s sake, do it right! Get proper equipment, learn how to use it, and write scripts of your talk beforehand. Practice and prepare. And if you need to, join a Toastmaster’s club and improve your public speaking.

Just don’t half-ass your video content because someone told you it was as easy as putting your phone in selfie mode and talking into it.

When it’s done properly, video content is a beautiful sight to behold: explainer videos, demonstration videos like Will It Blend, or even entertainment videos, like JW Marriott’s amazing “The Two Bellmen” series. Even videos of you giving a talk at a conference are great uses of video.

But don’t expect video content marketing to replace written content marketing anytime soon. Don’t fire your copywriters and replace them with GoPros and Quentin Tarantino wannabes.

Video will expand over the coming years, and we’ll be able to make it look better more easily and for less money, but don’t stop focusing on improving your writing skills or your written content.

Photo credit: Darian Hildebrand (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)
Photo #2 credit: Subject: Friedrich William Murnau (Photographer unknown. This photograph is in the public domain in the United States and Russia.)

Understanding Freytag’s Pyramid for Content Marketing

Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

Among storytelling structures, Freytag’s Pyramid is one of the most common and easiest to understand. If you took any literature classes in school, you may have even heard of this one.

Based on the work of German playwright Gustav Freytag, Freytag’s Pyramid is applied to a typical 5-act play. (Sort of the Romans’ “new and improved” followup to Aristotle’s original 3-act story.)
Freytag's Pyramid
The idea, said Gustav, is the traditional 5-act structure can be broken down like this:

  • Exposition: Important background information is laid out: characters, setting, previous events. It can be conveyed through dialogue, flashbacks, and narrative exposition. In Macbeth, the titular protagonist and his friends are visited by the Three Witches, who prophesy that Macbeth shall be king, and Banquo shall father a line of kings.
  • Rising action: A series of events that build to the climax. This is where the instigating event happens, which drives the protagonist to pursue his or her course of action. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kill the king, frame the servants, murder the guards, and drive off King Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, all in their mad pursuit of power.
  • Climax: Not necessarily the final battle, but this is the point on which the play/story pivots. This is the turning point that changes the protagonist’s fate. If the play is a comedy, things were going badly for the protagonist, but now they turn around. If it’s a tragedy, then it’s the reverse. In Macbeth — a tragedy if there ever was one — things were going swimmingly for Macbeth: he and his wife were killing people willy-nilly, becoming the King and Queen of Scotland until, in Act III, Macbeth had Banquo murdered, and Banquo’s ghost showed up and went all Tell-Tale Heart on Macbeth. (You can see a great animated video of The Tell-Tale Heart here.)
  • Falling action: In a tragedy, the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist increases and this becomes the focus of the play. In a comedy, the protagonist wins, in a tragedy, they lose. In Macbeth, things start going downhill for our king. He feels uneasy and starts to think maybe he shouldn’t have been such a murdering bastard after all. But, in for a penny, in for a pound; after Macduff flees, Macbeth orders his castle seized and his household murdered, including Mrs. Macduff and Macduff Junior.
  • Dénouement: Pronounced DAY-noo-mohn (from the French dénouer, or “to untie”), this is the resolution of the story. Conflicts are resolved, there’s a release of tension, and everything goes back to normal/a new normal is established. In a comedy, the plan comes together, the hero gets the girl/guy, and everyone is happy. In the tragedy, the protagonist often dies, and everyone says “Whew! I’m glad that’s over!” But, there’s always some glimpse of the new order or a new hope. For Macbeth, things went increasingly poorly for him. His wife yelled at the dog (“Out, out, damn Spot!”) and committed suicide, and Macbeth was beheaded by Macduff. Malcolm, son of King Duncan, is crowned king, and he promises to be less killy than the last guy.
    1. See how it all fits together? Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays fit within this structure, although it’s important to note that stories will fit into more than one storytelling structure. There’s no right or wrong one.

      For example, The Hobbit is often considered a Hero’s Journey story, it can also be mapped out in a five act structure:

      1. Bilbo meets Gandalf and the dwarves.
      2. They have adventures on the way to the Lonely Mountain.
      3. They fight Smaug; Smaug dies. But this is not the end of the story!
      4. The Battle of the Five Armies, and the eagles save the day again.
      5. Relationships are mended, Thorin is buried, Bilbo returns home.

      (And if you start hollering about spoilers, the book is 80 years old. You should have read it by now.)

      It’s important to note that Freytag’s Pyamid is not ideally suited for modern stories, which can have 8 acts or even just a strung-together series of scenes. Can you imagine how terrible Avengers 2 would be if the Avengers defeated Ultron at the 1-hour mark? Then we’ve got 1:22 of the Avengers rebuilding stuff and talking about their feelings and shit. Plus, most modern stories have a few climactic scenes, like any Marvel movie. (That structure is called The Fichtean Curve, and I’ll cover it in a week or so.)

      However, Herr Freytag’s construct is a little more forgiving in a content marketing setting, because it doesn’t always have to focus on two characters, like the Hero’s Journey. There, you’re either the Hero or the Mentor.

      Freytag’s Pyramid still follows the exploits of a protagonist and an antagonist, but there are a couple of important differences. First of all, victory is not always guaranteed. Second, we can learn from these failures and use them as a cautionary tale. Third, we can learn about any follow-up and fallout from the climactic pivot point.

      In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can actually use Freytag’s Pyramid for content marketing.

      Photo credit: BrokenSegue (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

How to Use the Hero’s Journey in Content Marketing

Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

Years ago, one of my first clients was a small mystery shopping agency. There were only four people on staff (one was part-time), and they had roughly $750,000 in sales per year. They’d been around for a few years, but it was a hand-to-mouth existence, and they were an average size company for their industry.

They needed help with blogging and social media, so we set to work. Their top goal was to rank high on Google for a few key industry search terms.

We started blogging on a half-time basis, publishing four articles per month and hitting those keywords hard. Within six months, they were generating enough leads that they tripled their sales (and grew appropriately), so we began publishing eight posts per month.

We taught the president how to do social media, helped her become a thought leader in her industry, and she was even asked to join the board of directors of her national trade association. She was sought out because of her expertise, and she was landing large clients. While we may have helped her generate the leads, she was traveling around the country, landing large corporate clients.

We increased their search rank even further, generated more leads, and they tripled in sales again. Then they landed a 7-figure contract with a national brand. And then tripled their sales one more time, growing to a staff of 27 people, all in a matter of three years.

That story? That’s a basic, pared down example of the Hero’s Journey, a storytelling structure used primarily in novels and movies.

In the Hero’s Journey, a young person is plucked out of their ordinary existence, challenged by an evil force, is mentored by a wise figure, and learns to triumph over their foe. (That’s simplifying it a lot. If you want to learn more, read last week’s article on the subject.)

In this story, my client is the Hero, we are the wise mentor, and we helped her get the skills needed to overcome her foe, Stagnation.

Can the Hero’s Journey Work in Content Marketing?

The Hero's Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli's Monomyth mobile application.

The Hero’s Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli’s Monomyth mobile application.

You’ve heard over and over that content marketing is just storytelling. The Hero’s Journey is just that: a storytelling structure. And while there are many ways to use the Hero’s Journey in novel writing and movie making, there are only a limited number of ways to tell this particular story, and they all usually involve the business leader, or sometimes the mentor.

Luke is plucked off the moisture farm on Tatooine and defeats the Empire. Harry is plucked from under the stairs and defeats Voldemort. Diana is plucked from beautiful, sunny Themyscira, defeats Ares, and can never return home.

A company owner turns her small company of 3.5 people to 27 people. A cubicle jockey goes on a personal fitness quest with a trainer, loses 100 pounds in a year, and runs a marathon. A young woman moves away from home to go to college, learns new skills, finds inner strength, and graduates at the top of her class.

Of course, as popular as the Hero’s Journey is, there are only a couple ways we can use it in a business setting, and most of them involve the case study.

Think about your basic case study:

Company A had a problem. They were losing money because of [outdated processes/lack of innovation/low morale/pirates]. So Consultant X helped Company A identify their problem through [interviews/research/data analysis/necromancy]. She identified three problem areas, and recommended that Company A take action. Within the first 12 months, they [revamped their processes/held team building retreats/restructured the organization/killed the evil wizard], and their profitability increased by 60 percent.

Even in a business setting, it still fits the Hero’s Journey:

  1. Call to Adventure:: The business recognizes the problem and takes steps to fix it.
  2. Meeting the Mentor: The consultant arrives and identifies the problem.
  3. The Ordeal: The business uses what the mentor has taught, and fights for its life. The company faces its enemies: stagnation, low morale, stiff competition, and so on.
  4. Resurrection: Victory! Although it’s a short time in a case study, this can take months and years. But it means the company has repaired itself and is on its way to recovery and getting back to normal.

But using the Hero’s Journey in this way means you can only have two viewpoints, the Hero’s or the Mentor’s. The business executive’s or the consultant’s.

Part of the reason is because everyone is the hero of their own story. Imagine your life as a movie: is it about you or a complete stranger? Are you the protagonist, trying to do good in the world? Or are you the wise mentor, providing wisdom to others so they can do good in the world?

Even stories about inventions are often Hero’s Journey stories.

The Hero’s Journey Doesn’t Always Work in Content Marketing

As you probably figured out, the Hero’s Journey is actually not a great story structure for content marketing, because it’s limited in its viewpoints — the Hero or the Mentor. Think of how boring a story would be if it were told from the POV of the plucky young sidekick. And how boring would a case study be if it were told from the POV of, say, their accountant.

“For months, I wasn’t very busy. Then some guy came to the office, talked to them for a while, and my days got busier. The end.”

However, when you’re writing these case studies, using the Hero’s Journey framework can make your story exciting, interesting, and will keep people reading all the way to the end.

Photo credit: Michael Brizeli (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Understand the Hero’s Journey for Content Marketing

Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

Let me tell you a story about a young man who is forced to live with relatives, because his father is an evil bastard bent on conquest and villainy. The young man was spirited away as a baby, and raised in secret. When he comes of age, the young man meets a mentor who helps him grow, gain new skills, and ultimately cause the downfall of the father, who frankly, had it coming.

What story am I talking about?

Could be Star Wars. That description fits Luke Skywalker to a T.

Could be Harry Potter. Take out the father references, and we’re looking at the exact same scenario. Also, there’s no blue milk.

Could be Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, the French swashbuckling story in which a young man joins a theater troupe and learns the art of fencing.

It could be the plot of Fool, Christopher Moore’s humor novel, about Pocket the fool from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

It could even be the story of Dodgeball. Peter La Fleur leaves his world as a gym-owning slacker, and gets thrust into a new world of Dodgeball. He meets a mentor who helps him to defeat his greatest enemy, and wins $5 million and Ben Stiller’s wife.

Movie makers and fiction authors call this storytelling structure The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell first called it the Monomyth in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

The Hero's Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli's Monomyth mobile application.

The Hero’s Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli’s Monomyth mobile application.

The Hero’s Journey usually takes 12 stages, and entire books can be written about it. I’ll try to do it in less than 1,000 words.

(Also, I’m using the word “Hero” and not “Hero/Heroine” intentionally. In the real world, it now refers to both men and women, while “heroine” is normally used in works of fiction. We’ve stopped using actress, comedienne, and manageress, and I think heroine is going that way as well.)

  1. Ordinary World. This is the Hero’s life before the story begins. They live on a farm, they live in a Hobbit hole, they’re a computer analyst. This makes us realize the Hero is like us.
  2. Call to Adventure. This is where the Hero’s life changes and they’re needed elsewhere. The secret message from Princess Leia, Harry’s letter from Hogwarts, Mulan’s father being drafted to fight the Huns compels them to move on.
  3. Refusal of the Call. The Hero may be eager to accept the quest, but they have fears they need to overcome. Luke was reluctant to leave until the Empire murdered his aunt and uncle. Mulan worried that she couldn’t pass as a man. Harry said, “But, Hagrid, I—I’m not a wizard!”
  4. Meeting the Mentor. Luke met Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry met Dumbledore, Mulan met Li Shang. They trained, received advice, and got a boost to their self-confidence. The Mentor made the Hero feel like they could handle the task before them.
  5. Cross the Threshold. The adventure begins! The Hero goes willingly or is thrust into battle, but they leave the Ordinary World and cross into their new one. Diana Prince leaves the beautiful sunny shores of Themyscira. Harry literally runs through the 9 3/4 platform wall.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Our Hero is challenged in a number of different ways from a number of different sides. It’s not the final battle, but it shows him or her who’s trustworthy, reliable, and helpful, and who’s an enemy. This is where the Hero’s skills or powers are tested, and we learn how they’ll react when in a stressful situation. Diana Prince fighting the Germans in London or Mulan’s training montage.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. George Lucas may have been a little too on the nose with this in Empire Strikes Back. During his training, Luke had a vision and went into an actual cave to fight Darth Vader. This is often an inner conflict the Hero has yet to face, and some of the original doubts may resurface.
  8. Ordeal. This is the most dangerous test our Hero must survive, whether physical or internal. Everything the Hero has learned is put to the test. Mulan fires the rocket that destroys the Hun army. Luke and Han blast the TIE fighters after they escape the Death Star. Wonder Woman fights Ludendorff at the German base. But this could even be a sort of death (or near death) for the Hero, and they are reborn stronger and with more power. The mentor may die here too. Luke lost Obi Wan, Diana lost Steve Trevor, and Peter La Fleur lost Patches O’Houlihan to half a ton of Irony.
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword). After defeating the enemy and overcoming their greatest challenge, they receive a reward. Sometimes it comes in the form of an object, new knowledge, or even reconciliation with an ally. However the Hero has unfinished business to attend to before the story is actually over.
  10. The Road Back. The Hero is ready to go back home, back to the Ordinary World, only he or she is not quite finished. Luke and his friends escaped, but the Death Star is still out there. Mulan destroyed the Huns, but Shan Yu still lives. Diana Prince kills Ludendorff, but Ares was still alive.
  11. Resurrection. This is the final battle. The Boss Battle. The most dangerous, fiercest fight of all. And the Hero learns this isn’t their fight, they’re fighting for something bigger than themselves. Mulan has to save China, Luke has to save the Rebellion, and Peter has to save his crappy gym that smells kind of funny. In the end, they triumph, destroy the enemy, and are reborn. (Remember when Neo defeated the Agents at the end of The Matrix and got all better? Like that.)
  12. Return with the Elixir. This is often the Epilogue. The Hero returns to their Ordinary World (or some semblance of it). They have grown, learned many things, faced many dangers, and looks forward to getting back to the old life. Older, wiser, even a little sadder, but they’re happy to have done it. Like when Frodo and Sam returned to the Shire (read the book; the movie didn’t do this justice). Or when Mulan returned home. Or Dumbledore screwed Slytherin out of the House Cup and gave it to Gryffindor.

It’s important to remember that movies are not divided up into 12 equal segments that spend the same amount of time on each stage. Some stages are rushed through, others are simply skipped. For example, Harry’s statement to Hagrid, “But I’m not a wizard” was his one and only Refusal of the Call. He didn’t spend 15 minutes wrestling with the decision before continuing on. So if your content marketing stories don’t have all 12 steps, don’t worry about it.

In my next article, since this one broke 1,100 words, we’ll talk about how to use the Hero’s Journey in content marketing. It can serve as a structure to help guide customers to a buying decision.

Photo credit: Michael Brizeli (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)