[Story Sells] Boring Story? Play This Silly Kid’s Game

Now Christmas is a distant memory, how sad does winter look without the pretty lights and decoration? 

At the height of the holidays, you barely notice the inclement weather. Now, without the festive cheer masking the reality, we yearn for the return of those ornaments that stir our excitement and lift our mood.

You crave that splash of color. That glint of frosted glass.

We crave the same kind of color from a good story; the stories that take root aren’t like the dull landscape of winter’s day. They shine color.

Some of that color stems from vivid characters and exciting plot twists.

But color also blossoms from the specific words we plant on the page.

What kind of words? Colorful verbs like “slash”, “burst”, and “blossom”; vivid concrete nouns like “oak”, “venom”, and “bone.” These words paint clear pictures in a reader’s mind.

Like in this snippet from Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, when Professor Quirrell spots a baddie on the Hogwarts grounds:

Harry was just helping himself to a baked potato when Professor Quirrell came sprinting into the hall, his turban askew and terror on his face. Everyone stared as he reached Professor Dumbledore’s chair, slumped against the table, and gasped, “Troll – in the dungeons – thought you ought to know.”

Did you spot the strong verbs like gasp, slump, and stare? And the concrete nouns like turban, baked potato, and dungeons?

I’m betting J.K. Rowling’s first draft didn’t look so polished. Because here’s the problem:

When most of us sit down to write, the only thing we spit onto the screen is a dribble of boring, lifeless verbiage.

Static verbs like “have”, “move”, “get” and “be/is/are/was.”

Abstract nouns like “event”, “levels”, and “systems.”

(To be fair: these words often fit best in a passage. We must use words like “is” all the time. But when these words saturate our writing and steal the show, they sink our prose like a boulder chained to a dolphin’s tail.)

Why do we write like that?

According to Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, we pour out such stale language because it closely resembles the “language of thought.” The Language of Thought is how our brains make sense of reality. With basic concepts like “change”, “movement”, and “possession.”

So when we write our first draft, the words that tumble out are the ones that match our abstract concepts. (Pinker dives into these notions in his book The Stuff of Thought, if you want to see more.)

So how do we solve the problem?

Relax and play a kid’s story game. You can goof your way to greater copy.

Did you play Mad Libs as a kid? That’s the game full of stories with words blanked out. Under each blank is a label for a part of speech. Like noun, verb, or adjective. Your job is to fill those blanks with words that have the same part of speech … but don’t necessarily fit the flow of the story.

That’s where the madness comes from.

So from “The _________ (noun) lapped up some cream from her bowl” you can generate “The car lapped up some cream from her bowl.”

That’s some crazy nonsense (until the robot cars take over and steal our dairy).

Well, we can play Mad Libs on our sales copy, too. But instead of spicing up our ads with silliness, we stir in strong verbs and nouns.

In fact, to have fun with this (and why not have fun when you write?), do this:

Print out a draft of your sales copy. Underline all the boring words. Label the part of speech. Then go nuts. Fill those new blanks with a word that’s more specific, more colorful, more concrete. The result is fresher, faster copy.

This style of writing, by the way, is called “Classic Style”, a label lifted by Steven Pinker in another one of his books, The Sense of Style.

(It’s a must-read for budding stylists. Think of it as the Strunk & White for the new millennium, written by a language scientist.)

The essence of Classic Style is to write “with a window onto the world.” You write like a tour guide, talking about abstract concepts as if they were creatures crawling outside your own window.

Pinker practices what he preaches, which is another reason to wolf down his books. His prose sparkles with color and movement.

Take the following passage from The Sense of Style. Here, Pinker offers another reason why our prose often stumbles out of the gate. It’s called “the curse of knowledge”: when we understand our subject at a high, abstract level, that’s how we communicate it to newbies. In this passage he critiques a neuroscientist for her clunky prose:

Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idiosyncratic terminology, together with abstractions, meta concepts, and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle us; that’s just the way they think. The mental movie of a mouse cowering in the corner of a cage that has another mouse in it gets chunked into “social avoidance.” You can’t blame the neuroscientist for thinking this way. She’s seen the movie thousands of times; she doesn’t need to hit the PLAY button in her visual memory and watch the critters quivering every time she talks about whether her experiment worked. But we do need to watch them, at least the first time, to appreciate what actually happened.

Got that? I plopped this passage down without much context, so it’s no surprise if you don’t.  I didn’t tell you what the mouse was doing. And you may not know what functional fixity, chunking, or metaconcept means.

But even with all those blinders thrown up in your path, I bet you still glimpsed a sense of what was going on. That’s because Pinker weaves in picture-verbs like “stir”, “bamboozle”, and “cowering.” He also relies on metaphor to wrap an abstract concept into a visual package. For example, he likens thinking to watching a movie in your head.

When you write like this, you anchor abstract notions onto solid ground.

In particular, Classic Style offers a big helping hand when we need to tackle anything science-y or technical in our sales copy. By helping us transform abstract notions into pictures, we can push our message across faster.

MORAL: Revise your sales copy and stories with ‘Classic Style’ Mad Libs: Write with a window to the world

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