The Bloody Roman Secret for Gluing Eyeballs to the Screen

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Here’s a story for you:

“This morning I woke up and hopped in the shower. In the middle of the tub lay my green washcloth.”

Wanna hear more?

Nope — not unless you need help falling asleep.

A story isn’t just a string of events, one after the other.

No — for a story to demand our attention, something needs to happen — but what?

In Improv class, my instructor called this event “The Tilt.” (Also goes by the name “inciting event” in screenwriting 101.)

Before the Tilt, events are plugging along like normal in the story … but then the ground gives way underneath.

It’s the moment when you let the lions escape into the arena.

(You can bet that kept the masses in their seats, eyes hooked on the unholy gore-fest about to flow.)

The Tilt disrupts the “ordinary life” of the hero of our story …

… and makes us want to read more, find out what happened.

So if instead I tell you:

“This morning I woke up and hopped in the shower. In the middle of the tub crawled a rat the size of a Chihuahua.”

Now we’ve got a story … because something disruptive has happened.

In his book Story Trumps Structure, novelist Steven James calls this the “Ceiling Fan” principle.

(A story of two kids jumping on the bed is boring. But when one of them jumps up and hits the Ceiling fan …)

In The Lord Of The Rings (novel, not movie for gawd’s sake), the Tilt happens when Frodo learns that his piece of shiny gold bling belongs to the badass gangster from Mordor — who wants it back.

This event (a discovery) occurs early on the book — the second chapter — and it kicks off the entire adventure.

It’s the part of the story where things go wrong.

Makes us perk up our ears.

Take story selling titan John Carlton, who uses the Tilt in his famous “JKD Combat” sales letter.

The product?

Self defense techniques from fighter Chris Cluggston.

The story?

One night, Chris finds himself in a nightclub filled with fight-happy skinheads.

(This fact is established in the Setup of the story.)

There’s a hint of danger already. Brewing suspense as Chris buys a beer and looks for a table.

But the Tilt doesn’t happen until Chris walks by a skinhead and does something that changes the story and sets it in motion.

Here’s how Carlton tells it:

“…as [Chris] passed a table of [the skinheads], he reached out and good-naturedly rubbed one of them on the scalp.

“Nice haircut, fella,” he said.”

Carlton has already established that the skinheads are mean — “These Sick Jerks Actually Enjoy Hurting And Humiliating People!” — so when Chris gooses one of the skinheads on the noggin, we catch our breath for the beating that’s about to come.

Now you’ve got a story on your hands.

Keep in mind, the Tilt doesn’t have to be all blood and guts — it often involves your hero’s first brush with danger, but it could be a discovery instead.

Both discoveries and danger can throw our lives for a loop.

Bud Weckesser used a “discovery Tilt” in a weight loss offer with the killer story headline:

“When my skinny doctor laughed at me, I threw my dress in his face …” (See the ad at the goldmine Swipe site)

First, the story sets up the life of the hero – the first person narrator is overweight and suffering from it.

And she’s tried all the diets. 14 of ’em and counting.

But then comes the Tilt — her doctor introduces her to something new that disturbs her ordinary life.

From the fifth paragraph of the ad:

“My doctor listened carefully and recommended an entirely different program. This wasn’t a diet. It was a unique new weight-loss program researched by a team of bariatric physicians — specialists who treat the severely obese. The program itself was developed by James Cooper, M.D., of Atlanta, Georgia.”

This Tilt is then paid off quickly (“during the three weeks that followed, my weight began to drop. Rapidly.”)

Again, just like in Carlton’s combat tale, the setup to the story is critical — the hero has tried everything before. She feels defeated. So the personal advice of the physician is like a ray of sunshine.

This is a “positive” tilt — but just like a “danger” tilt, it creates curiosity because it throws something new into the life of the character.

And that’s when we grab our popcorn close and wait to see how the hero survives.


Right after the setup of your story, sustain your reader’s interest with a “Tilt” in the ordinary life of your hero

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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at
Showing 6 comments
  • Reply

    Great article Scott, as always.

    But actually I’m fascinated by your green wash cloth!

    Why green?
    How does it dry in the middle the bath tub, instead of hanging up?
    Why did you tell us about it? That makes me think it is the launch in to your night of passion and debortury and woke up, like the movie/s with a half shaved head and a lion eating your breakfast.
    WHAT or WHO moved it perhaps? You have a poltergeist? The ghost of someone who wronged? A lover probably, am I right?

    You see green washcloths are pretty exciting really !

    Sure a RAT!
    In your bath tub!
    Heck we all have those…

    No green washcloth here…

    • Reply

      lol Peter —

      I’ll never look at my washcloth the same way again. Thanks a lot;)

      But yeah, you’re right — an innocuous object like a washcloth could be the start of a tilt.

  • Aaron

    An interesting and timely post being I’m in the middle of writing a lead gen-letter you were kind enough to comment on in the feedback section of Copy Chief.

    Thanks for both writing his post, and your commentary on my letter.

    Now I’m rethinking several things.


  • Reply

    Have you ever drowned a chicken in a pail of milk?

    More about that in a moment. First, THANKS for this great article! You just bridged something that I already know well and use frequently with something that I needed to learn and practice.

    You see, I studied, then taught, mnemonics or memory methods. We use association to attach or link something that we are remembering to the image of something that we have already remembered–usually an image from an ordered list, i.e. “ice, hat, hen, ham, oar, law, shoe, key, ivy, bee for zero through nine.” But to think “milk links to hen as the #2 item in my list” will rarely. if ever work.

    What DOES work is making the linkimg image completely outrageous, obscene, disgusting, violent, etc. Drowning a hen in a bucket of milk will likely do the trick, but the memory may come out “bucket” so something totally outrageous like force-pouring a gallon of milk through a hen–in the mouth and out the other end–then mopping it up, putting it back in the bottle and taking it home to the refrigerator will be something that everyone reading this will likely still remember on their death beds.

    Obviously, getting that extreme with copy will likely stop the reading relationship with most people. Opting for the dramatic, yet less extreme example is something that I will now begin to incorporate into my headlines. For example, if I were to market my mnemonics class, the headline “Have you ever drowned a chicken in a pail of milk?” might just pull the attention of enough people who would then read on to “I have–but, ONLY IN MY MIND as I permanently, unerringly and INSTANTLY remembered a 50-item grocery list — just like you can learn to do by …”

    So, from now on, rather than thinking that I am preparing to write some copy, I will remind myself of this by thinking that I am off to drown some chickens in milk. Now, where did I put that pail …?

    • Reply

      Jeesh — first green washcloths, now chickens and milk — you guys are spoiling my relationship with the stuff in my cupboards. Remind me not to re-watch American Pie …

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