How To Tell The Perfect Story

I think I’ve found the perfect story.

I’d like to share it with you… and maybe you’ll get the same nuggets of copywriting and writing wisdom from it as I did.

It’s a true story, just 500 words in length, called What Makes Me Feel Beautiful, by Anne Roiphe. I urge you to read it, and then come back here, so you can read the 4 elements I feel contributed to making it the perfect story:

(1) The perfect story leaves questions unanswered until the end.

For instance, her opening paragraph is one of the most compelling openings I’ve ever read:

“It was mid-December of 2005. I don’t know why he said it… I don’t know if it was just coincidence or intuition that prompted him… but about a week before my seemingly healthy 82-year-old husband suddenly died…”

This arouses our curiosity. Who said it? What did he say? What was coincience or intuition? What happened? Why did he suddenly die?

Notice she doesn’t ask those questions herself, but she gives us enough information that we naturally ask them in our minds. She doesn’t reveal WHY her husband suddenly died until the end of the story, compelling the curious reader to read until the end.

(2) The perfect story arouses the reader’s emotions.

As a guy, it’s not easy to admit I had a tear in my eye by the time I finished reading that story – but I did.

Of course, emotion doesn’t have to equate to sadness. It could be a sense of excitement, anger, passion, or nostalgia. In fact, I think it was the sense of nostalgia she evoked that, for me at least, gave the ending its emotional punch.

Another way in which she aroused the reader’s emotions – which is also very important for copywriters – is to write in a way that relates to the reader.

After all, not everyone is a supermodel – but most people can relate to the concept of inner beauty, and the feeling of beauty.  When we can relate to what is being said, we are much more likely to care about the story, and find it interesting.

(3) The perfect story is entertaining.

It’s difficult to say precisely what makes an entertaining story, but if I had to sum it up, I’d say that a story is entertaining if it doesn’t bore us, and if we care about the outcome.

In the case of Anne’s story, she doesn’t bore the reader with unneccesary details, but gives us just enough information to form a picture in our minds.

(4) The perfect story teaches without preaching.

Even though her husband’s death played an important part in the story, it wasn’t primarily about that. It was about beauty, and what made Anne feel beautiful.

The take home lesson of the story was that beauty isn’t simply about outer appearance, but also about inner qualities.

Now, she could quite easily have written her article as, “3 Ways To Feel Beautiful Inside” – but how compelling would that have been? And would we have paid as much attention to the take home lesson?

Copywriters (and good storytellers) use stories as a way of conveying important truths and lessons, in a manner that doesn’t come across as preaching.

So while I admit, I don’t really know if there is such a thing as “the perfect story”, I think this one comes pretty close to it.

What do you think?

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5 comments

  1. I believe you are right:

    That story came pretty close to the ‘perfect’ story — it had all the qualities a perfect story would have had.

    JC

    P.S. Awesome! You added the notify me box ;-)

  2. Hey Paul,

    I’ve studied most of your stuff, and I’ve been keeping up with this blog…

    You really have knack for talking about the subtle things that can make or break a sales letter…

    I just wanted to say keep it up, I’m paying close attention and I’ve learned a lot from you. I appreciate it.

    -Scott

  3. With what you have expounded above, it’s truly hard to compose a perfect story. I think only the gifted can come up with such qualities. :-)

  4. I’m curious how many people would have even clicked on the headline of her story to read it. If you are looking through hundreds of posts in your Google reader, sometimes, I hate to admit, the headline can make or break whether it’s read or not.

  5. @Carl, I agree. Presumably she’s a writer, not a copywriter. That’s really a good argument for why good writers should also know copywriting principles like crafting a headline that gets attention.

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