How to Set the Stage

story-intro-graphic-sm-c-2013-wordsontheflySometimes the story begins by itself:  a tidal wave, an explosion, a scream. Other times, it isn’t as easy. Likewise for copywriting. Sometimes there’s a strong premise: XYZ company is pleased to announce a new product. ABC company moves.

As writers, it’s our job to set the stage in a way that draws the reader in. It’s easy when the task is centered around something that is first, free, or new. But what if you’re struggling for that hook, that lead?

Here are a few tips when traditional approaches don’t work:

(1) Invite the reader to imagine… Imagine a world without traffic lights… imagine a child who can’t speak… imagine what the next ten years will bring in your industry of choice

(2) Use a person to set the stage. What better example than “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick)  Try your own scenario: “When I was a small child, we had no e-mail. No faxes. No smart phones. But we did something extraordinary – we talked. “ (And now you can transition to talk about anything.) Another variation: “My name is Mary, and I am one of 42 people who sleep at the local shelter … that is, when there’s a bed available.” (Great way to begin a fundraising pitch)

(3) Make a false statement, then refute it, or offer up a disruptive fact: “On December 21st the world will end” … then start the first paragraph with “…or so some believe.” Try another approach: “Never before have more disagreeable people agreed on anything.” Continue with the unexpected: “ We gathered up the most demanding, cantankerous, curmudgeonly consumers we could find, and invited them to test the Fritzelstick. Unlike past popsicle experiences, the Fritzelstick brought tears of joy to their eyes. Some remembered ice cream trucks rolling into their neighborhood. Others recalled county fairs.” You get the drift… use something unlikely, then flip it to make a case.

(4) Observe what is around you and use it as a launch pad. The phrase running over the photo illustration in this post is based on a true experience, yet the experience wasn’t nearly as ominous as the text implies. In fact, it was New Year’s Day in Oranjestad, Aruba…  a time when people line the streets to see fireworks. The air gets smoky in a loud, wonderful way, and the crowds move in unison to usher out the old year and welcome the new. Because this city is in development, streets a few rows back are under construction, and yes, appear very sparse compared to the colorful main drag. In circumventing the crowds, we took a back street to our destination, noticing just two men on a stoop and no one else: no cars, no birds, no dogs – the entire scene made eerie by the smoke drifting overhead. The stores were closed; buildings were deserted. There wasn’t even a note of music which usually punctuated the air.

Finally, the silence was broken by an elderly man using canes with hand-holds to propel his braced legs along the sidewalk. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Slow and painful. The sound seemed to echo in the stillness. I fully expected Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds) or Will Smith (Independence Day) to appear, to fight off aliens. As it turns out, the elderly man went one way, and we, another… but that image left an indelible mark in my brain. Surely there was a story waiting to be written. It was the perfect setting.

(5)  Step out of your comfort zone — your age, your time, your environment. Look at a map. Stare at an old photo. Observe the starry sky. Transport yourself to another dimension, and make it anything you want.  The nice thing about writing is that it provides the ultimate freedom, able to remove physical boundaries and take you places. Once you do that, you can bring your readers along for the ride.

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