Copywriting Secrets Learned From Playwrighting: Dramatic Tension

by Randy Murray on February 3, 2014

There are more than a few of the skills that I learned in training to be a playwright that have served me well copywriting for businesses. Playwrighting is one of the oldest forms of formal writing. Well-written plays from over 2,000 years ago still resonate with readers and audiences today.

I worked hard to gain those skills and I’m thankful every day that I did. A big part of marketing is very much like creating a play. The best marketing efforts do more than tell stories—they create memorable scenes and images in people’s minds and spark their imaginations.

One of the best ways to do this is to create dramatic tension.

One of the first things that anyone studying theater learns is that when you see someone on stage they always WANT something. Put two people on the stage and the things that each wants can come into conflict. That’s where we find interest and engagement. Everything that happens, everything that is said, comes from the desires of the characters.

If the play is a good one, the audience either empathizes with a character or reacts and is repulsed by them. Sometimes it’s a small effect, sometimes it’s a big one. The interaction of these things, being pulled in and pushed away, creates tension. The things that happen should never just be there to “move the plot forward.” That’s clumsy and ineffective.

Poorly written plays don’t connect with audiences. There’s either no tension or it’s all one direction—and that means no tension as well. Actors and directors look to the script and analyze it, to determine where those tensions build, mount, and which lead to a break or eventually come to a resolution.

Copywriters can use these same tools.

I’ve see far too many, “Here are the facts,” pieces that end up as so much unused paper. They’re boring. They don’t connect. Even a recitation of facts, features, technical specifications, and benefits must find some way to connect with the intended audience. Web site copy, email, even tweets, all need to connect or elicit a response.

And it’s more than simply tagging on a Call To Action (the ol’ CTA). If there’s no tension, no need created, why do you think they’d want to read more, to click that link?

Learning to create dramatic tension is a lesson that can’t be conveyed in a short article like this one. But it’s something that you can begin to look for, to seek out. When you read really good copy you should feel a change in yourself, note a reaction. If that reaction is a yawn the copy is poor. If you pause and say, “Hey, wait a minute,” you’re on to something.

Here’s the test. When you read new copy:

  • If you laugh, if you scratch your head and feel the pull of curiosity, if you shake your head and mutter, “ain’t that the truth,” then the copy is on the right trail.
  • If you say, “it’s OK,” then it’s not. Great copy is like a great play—it will make you focus, pay closer attention, and be ready for what comes next, to know what happens in the next act.

There’s more. So much more. The beat. The limits of words alone. The arc of the story. The promise of resolution.

All this and more in the acts to come.




Copywriting Secrets Learned From Playwrighting: Dramatic Tension by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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