Starstruck: five tricks from Hollywood you can use to write engaging content

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Imagine the Oscars. Imagine Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton, Julianne Moore and the rest of the Hollywood crowd steadily strolling down the red carpet. Picture the scene.

They've got the eyes, cameras, and international newspapers of the world all looking eagerly on and wondering what is going to happen next. No one quite knows. But everyone eagerly expects each moment to be incredible.

These stars have something that we want. You know the answer.

They have attention. And they get this attention with a mixture of things including personal beauty, wealth, and something else that I'll get to in a moment.

For now imagine your typical SEO office.

In the world of Google rankings, the closest thing we have to Matt Damon is Matt Cutts.

And he's gone now.

We don’t have the glitz and glamour, and frankly, I don't imagine the average SEO making the front page of VOGUE anytime soon. So here's the problem. Is there anything Hollywood uses to get attention that we can also use to get attention? Yes.

Think about it. With great scripts, we begin to love actors through the characters, the dialogue, and the stories they give us. The writing is the foundation of our obsessions. This glitz and glam come later. It should be the same with your content — especially if you're aiming for quality.

Because more and more, the term 'quality content' means content that people actually want to read and share.

So like the best Hollywood writing, we should be as ambitious and engaging as possible.

And there are plenty of ways you can do this.

1) Write it for the reader

"The reason that you dance and sing is to make the audience feel like they're dancing and singing. As long as you're having fun with it and giving it 100 percent, they're gonna feel that." - Heath Ledger

Way too many sales pages and blog posts give 0% thought to the audience. They start to talk about themselves and never stop.

Both of the above examples express the same thought. We're saying what we do is great and it can help you. And I'm certain that both companies can. But one has the audience in mind, and that's the one people will pay attention to.

2) Add lots of action!

Action! is perhaps the most engaging thing about a story.

In one particular story, Die Hard, Bruce Willis as John McClane unwittingly becomes involved in a hostage situation after terrorists take control over his wife's office during the Christmas party. McClane slips away from the hostages, and soon becomes the main agent in a plan to try and regain control of the tower and to recover the captured hostages.

In another particular story, Not Die Hard, Bruce Willis as John McLame unwittingly becomes involved in a hostage situation and he is put in a cell until he is rescued by experienced professionals.

What's the secret to the better story?

More action! You make it happen.

In your own writing, you can add to the amount of action! in a number of ways and one of the most effective is to use the active voice over the passive.

In general the passive voice helps us to describe objects by putting them at the start of the sentence, however too much description can get pretty tiring.

So don't stop the action!

Make things happen. Use the active voice.

3) Use figures of speech

One of the things we all like most about the movies are the lines that we get to quote as a result.

You're probably familiar with some of the figures of speech out there. Most people always recognise a lot of alliteration. But there are a whole bunch of figures which are much more subtle but pop up everywhere.

Here's one from the Gladiator:

"They call for you: the general who became a slave; the slave who became a gladiator; the gladiator who defied an emperor." – Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix)

This figure of speech is called anadiplosis, where the last word at the end of a sentence or phrase is repeated at the beginning of the next. It's great for creating a sense of climax and has a very sturdy, logical feel to it.

It's just one of hundreds of figures of speech out there. Start to look into these to become familiar with them. But a word of caution – don't overdo them. They can become annoying and distract from your message if they are there without good reason.

Always think about what's right for your brand.

4) Say something different  

Which films do you most remember?

Fight Club, American Beauty and Inherent Vice are the first that came to my mind. Each of these films is challenging in its own way – whether because of the style, subject matter, or something more.

These films were not afraid to try something different. They certainly weren't safe. And yet they've all been very successful – people talk about them a lot.

So what about our own writing? Are we being too safe?

For some brands this might mean using a new tone of voice. For others it might mean you attempt to open the doors to something a bit more daring.  Could you make content with the same attitude as Dove's 'real beauty' campaign?

Because when you're tired of the current conversation, you have to find a way to change it.

5) Use short sentences

When we watch films, the writing is carefully considered so that it can be understood on the first listen. In the Oscar winning Theory of Everything, there are many exchanges between Stephen and Jane Hawking. Here's just one:

Jane Hawking: What about you? What are you?...

Stephen Hawking: Cosmologist, I'm a Cosmologist.

Jane Hawking: What is that?

Stephen Hawking: It is a kind of religion for intelligent atheists.

Aside from the clever writing, do you notice how small the sentences are? A general rule of thumb is that the average spoken sentence length is about 20 words or less, so screenwriters often try to stick to this too.

But writers on the net avoid it pretty often. That leads to some sentences that are fairly hard work for no good reason. You've seen them. You've tried to read them. And I promise you they can always be rephrased and made simpler.

It's more human and more engaging.

To the awards?

Imagine you, and your buddies, and your buddies' buddies and the rest of the Hollywood crowd steadily strolling down the red carpet.

Imagine how great and amazing that would be. I'll be honest, using these rules probably won't get you on the red carpet. But you'll be a damn sight closer than if you don't.

Because you'll write content for the reader. You'll write with action and figures. You'll change dull conversations, and use pithy little sentences. And you'll be one or two techniques closer to the brilliant, awesome and engaging work that everyone wants.

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