If you’ve been to a live theatrical performance, chances are you’re familiar with the so-called “maid and butler” scene.
The curse of the maid and butler
“I hear that’s a dynamite new product!”
“Why, yes—it sure is!”
Before the act begins, two otherwise irrelevant characters (often a maid and a butler) appear on stage to talk about what’s happening in their world. This gives the audience context for the action to follow. It’s cute. It’s kitschy. It’s fine for musicals and old-timey theatrical productions.
But for contemporary novelists and screenwriters, the term “maid and butler” has earned a pejorative connotation. It means your dialogue doesn’t sound like a real conversation; it sounds like it’s written to inform the audience, not facilitate drama between the characters (which is expressly the point in stage plays).
In other words, it’s a conversation your characters wouldn’t actually have… if the audience didn’t need some tidbit of information about the story.
In that sense, writing dialogue is somewhat of a paradox. On one hand, it has an agenda: a story to advance, build and uphold. But, on the other hand, it has to capture a believable, convincing conversation between believable, convincing personalities—regardless of the story you’re telling. Otherwise, it takes your audience out of the moment. It pulls the rug out from under your attempt to capture a sense of dramatic realism.
In fact… it’s kind of like when you’ve got something to sell.
But you can’t sell it too hard.
Thus, dialogue—and fiction in general—is the ultimate soft sell. Cleverly constructed dialogue does, in fact, sell us on the story. But it does so indirectly. Organically. And thus, believably. For marketers, there’s something to learn here.
Marketing as fiction (in real life)
Great fiction—be it on the screen or the page—gets buy-in through authenticity and subtlety. Parlaying emotions and situations we can relate to, it lures our rational sensibilities past the point of skepticism; we suspend our disbelief that we’re being told a story. Just as great marketing—in the style of Apple, Nike and Budweiser—suspends our disbelief that we’re being sold to.
We want to be involved. No one has to tell us to get involved.
So, how can we apply the principles of transparent, effective fiction to help us create transparent, effective marketing?
Here’s one way to look at it:
- Imagine your products as characters.
- Imagine your brand as the story they’re acting out.
- Just as with a work of fiction, the story should come to life through them.
- Your consumers (i.e., your audience) should be able to understand the value, the purpose and the personality of each product intuitively—and how each works to support the broader narrative of your brand.
Narrative, is, after all, fundamental to the human condition. We’ve been telling stories since we hunted wooly mammoths and ran like hell from sabretooth tigers. People get it. People relate to it. People want it. Most importantly, people buy it.
If it’s done well.
And that means no hard sell. Don’t tell your audience how to think, feel and spend their money. It’s patronizing. Show them. Invite them. Entice them. Let them see for themselves. Give them enough to go on, but let them make their own connections. Because the real magic of storytelling doesn’t happen on the page… it happens in the minds, hearts and souls of your audience.
As a member of Seed’s copywriting team, Matt Donahue marries his love for creative writing with a keen interest in product innovation, technology and science. He’s a graduate of Seton Hill University’s “Popular Fiction” master’s program and writes whenever he can.