Applying First Principles of Novel Writing to Content Writing

Writing techniques, Content Strategy

My focus here at HPC is to help clients build relationship with their customers through marketing content. To do this, we must connect human to human — in other words, create human connection.

I’m often asked how I do this. How do I make an article or a white paper feel like it’s speaking directly to the person reading it?

It comes down to several core elements:

  • Understanding the target audience as intimately as possible
  • Knowing the goal of the content
  • Doing enough research on the topic to be able to sort the important threads from the unimportant ones
  • Keeping the company, brand and product messaging in mind but NOT letting them drive the narrative

I wish I could give you a simple step-by-step on how to do this, but much of it has come from experience, experimentation, practice with various mediums and written structures, and studying the topics of psychology, sociology and brain science. None of which is simple to boil down.

At least, that’s how it felt for the longest time … until I started writing novels.

As I learned and practiced the art of writing fiction, I began to see a correlation between novels and engaging marketing content.

I realized this could be a simple way for almost anyone to get their head around how engaging content works.

Novels — especially series — engage their readers and build a long-term relationship. Done well, content writing does the same thing.

Let’s take a closer look at the foundational elements of novel writing and how they apply to effective marketing content …

First Principles in Novel Writing — and How they Apply to Your Content

In January, Dave Perrell wrote in his newsletter:

Elon Musk was once asked: “How do you learn so fast?”

He replied: “I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying. It’s important to view knowledge as a semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

This sentiment reminds me of a quote from John Reed in a book called Succeeding. He says: “When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.”

Read that last sentence again.

“The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.”

Core principles, fundamental principles, first principles, they’re all talking about the same thing.

The dictionary defines first principles as the fundamental concepts or assumptions on which a theory, system, or method is based.

First principles boil a process down to what’s foundational.

So, let’s take a look at the first principles of novel writing and how they map onto content writing.

There are four core components to every novel: point of view, character, plot, and conflict.

I’m going to take you through each one and look at where these first principles apply to your content creation.

Point of View

From the moment you begin to read a novel, you’re immersed in a point of view. The point of view determines whose eyes you see the story through. A story told from a first-person point of view — “I looked up and saw Mary standing at a distance” — feels very different from a third-person point of view — “Jim looked up and saw Mary standing at a distance.” First person feels intimate because you are inside the protagonist’s head. Third person feels more distant but gives the reader information about what’s happening that the protagonist can’t see.

Applied to your content, the point of view covers aspects like tone and style, but most importantly it gives your reader a certain feel when they’re reading it. Whose name goes on the content? Who is the author? This applies to how you interweave your brand and messaging as well. How can you weave in your brand in a way that’s seamless and not salesy? What will create the best connection with the people you’re trying to reach?

Character

Every story is made up of characters: There are major characters, minor characters and everything in between. The most important character, though, is the hero of the story.

I bet you can guess where this principle lines up with content writing.

The hero of your story is the target audience.

Ask yourself: Who is the target reader for this piece of content? Now, people at different stages of the buyer’s journey might be reading the content, but who is the specific audience you are writing for with this email, this white paper, this blog post?

Don’t write the content for a minor character when it’s meant for the hero.

What would the Harry Potter series be if the focus were on Hannah Abbot? If you’re asking Who’s she?, that’s the point.

Spend enough time here to get to know your audience and understand them. Go beyond avatars and figure out who they are as human beings.

Plot

Every novel contains a plot. Plot is what happens in the story. There are many different approaches to plotting novels, but the key component is that every plot involves a journey — either a literal journey or a metaphorical one, depending on the story.

An author needs to know where the plot begins and ends. Without these two bookends in place, a novel meanders and loses focus.

Content writing is the same way: It needs a set journey with a beginning and an ending point.

When you sit down to write your content, you need to ask yourself, what is the journey you want to take the reader on? Where do they start? Where should they end up if they read all the way to the end?

If you don’t think about these things ahead of time, your content may end up like that book you couldn’t finish: at the Goodwill, or unread and buried on a Kindle.

Conflict

A successful novel doesn’t move forward without some type of conflict. Discomfort or disagreement move the hero on to the next step. Often novels have both internal conflict and external conflict.

Internal conflict refers to a character’s inner struggle. For example, a character’s inability to trust others or a fear of intimacy might prevent them from taking certain actions.

External conflict involves forces outside of the character. A storm. An enemy or villain.

Conflict moves your plot along.

So, what might conflict look like when it comes to content writing?

Conflict in your content is what’s keeping the target audience up at night.

Ask what your audience is struggling with. What are the external forces causing them trouble? What are the internal struggles that keep them from what they need?

Once you know their conflict, you can take them on the journey through your content to resolve it.

How does the content you’re writing help them in their day-to-day life? What change does it make possible? How does it resolve their conflict, or at least speak to it? How does it lead them to find a solution in your product or service?

Integrating It All for Content That Connects

Answering the conflict questions, integrating them into the journey you’ve plotted out, writing for your hero (audience) and using branding, voice, and messaging ensures you’ve woven a piece that your readers can’t put down.

And that’s priceless in this age of content overwhelm.

 

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