Writing can suck. And regularly churning out content with high expectations can suck even more. This never-ending process can easily create an environment where it’s easy to establish patterns — both good and bad.
The best approach to looking at such patterns is to analyze the kind of stories you’re publishing, as well as its shape. Every story has a shape — a map that outlines the journey the reader is going to be a part of — and this can be applied to writing even technical pieces.
In this article, I want to briefly talk about the shape of a story and then offer four templates that have worked for our digital team at Elephate.
A STORY SHAPE
There are a lot of approaches to story shapes, but at its most basic, it’s like the first part of a roller coaster where it leaves the docking area and begins to ascend towards its first drop (see below).
In terms of a traditional story, the flat area before it begins to incline is where you provide all of the information the readers need to understand the story (exposition), and then there is the precipitating incident which essentially introduces the story’s conflict. Now the story is in full swing and we have lots of action where the stakes get higher and higher (rising action) until we reach the climax, which is when the conflict of the story is resolved, leading into the falling action. Then it’s time to wrap it all up in the denouement.
Readers are inherently trained to accept this kind of shape, but that doesn’t mean that writers can’t twist and reshape a story.
This brings me to the first template we stumbled upon…
1. SEO IN HOLE
American writer Kurt Vonnegut once plotted out some universal story shapes, with “Man in Hole” being one of the primary shapes. You know the story already: hero’s life is going well until a conflict is introduced, hero’s life is turned upside down, hero confronts the conflict and resolves it, and hero’s life is now better than it was at the beginning.
You’ve seen this variation countless times.
Here’s how Vonnegut maps out that shape.
Utilizing Vonnegut’s “Man in Hole” story shape, we were able to create a variation we call “SEO in Hole.” Basically, it works like this: you take a recognizable brand/website, isolate a serious SEO issue (like a significant drop in visibility), and offer solutions to resolve it.
Our most popular example is “Giphy’s Visibility Drops: Conspiracy or Consequence?” where we looked at not only Giphy’s loss in visibility, but its unfortunate timing after Giphy’s CEO bragged about their success.
And by framing the story with the possibility of the loss being a conspiracy (spoilers: no) or a consequence of poor SEO (spoilers: most likely), the article had the added benefit of having a great hook that got people talking online whether they read it or just saw the headline.
Readers love a story where someone is having a bad day, but with “SEO in Hole” we offer readers and clients possible solutions so that they can avoid having a bad day themselves.
2. PASSION PROJECT
This one is one of my favorites.
When I started out at Elephate, I spent a day having individual meetings with all of the writers at the agency. This process provided me with a lot of information, including some of the obstacles that were hindering the writers from reaching their full potential (a topic I hope to write about one day). But most importantly, I had the opportunity to discover who they were and what they were passionate about.
SEO is an interesting industry because it’s a magnet that attracts people from all walks of life, and the writers in our agency were no exception.
One of our writers, Artur Bowsza, earned his degree in archaeology and I asked him if he felt there were any similarities between that and what he did in SEO. A few weeks later, he gave me “Internet Archaeology with the Wayback Machine” about using the Wayback machine to rediscover the internet’s past for SEO purposes.
Another writer, Marcin Gorczyca, had a serious interest in astrophysics and astronomy which led to a one-two punch of articles published in less than a month: “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe and Why Your Website Crashes” and “Like the Stars Above: Plotting a Website’s Structure with Gephi”.
There are countless SEO articles out there all circling the same subjects. But no one has your own specific point of view, and there’s no better way to tap into it than through what you’re passionate about.
Tell me about what you love, and chances are, as a reader, I’m going to love reading your story.
3. TECHNICAL LAUGHS
One of the biggest problems with technical SEO articles is that they can come across as being dry and, often times, boring.
Another thing I learned when I sat down with all of our writers was how intelligent and funny they were. And while their knowledge always shines through in their articles and work, they rarely get the chance to show off their wit.
Since most SEO articles are preaching to the choir anyway, we thought it would be fun to look at SEO and Content Marketing from a humorous perspective.
Using humor in an article is a tricky thing because it’s subjective, and there’s always the risk of losing half an audience if you choose a joke that targets something specific. But there’s little risk and a lot of potential value when you make fun of yourself.
A great example of this is “How to Tell Your Family That You Do SEO”, which was written by Anna Rozwadowska, one of our SEO specialists. SEO can be difficult to explain to the layman, but Anna decided to take a funny look at the ways you could explain it to your family.
And a more recent example, Piotr Mikulski’s “Nudge, Nudge, Link, Link”. Piotr is our is Senior Content Marketing Specialist and he found a humorous way to compare different types of links with different kinds of relationships.
There are a lot of articles out there defining SEO and link building, but because we were able to address these topics with a bit of humor, I can confidently say that nobody has written about it the way we did.
4. SHOCK AND AWE
This is the big one. And it’s also the hardest one to pull off.
The “Shock and Awe” template is basically taking a specific subject and writing the most comprehensive and detailed article about it.
When it comes to the success of this template, I must confess that we have a secret weapon at Elephate, and he is our Research and Development guy: Tomek Rudzki.
When he runs with a topic, he really runs with a topic.
The key to the article’s success was the amount of prep Tomek put in before he even started writing. He had an extensive outline mapping out every area he was supposed to hit. He had tons of research and sources that backed up his work. And he had an editor to keep him focused and on-target.
He followed up this article with “The Ultimate Guide to SEO Crawlers” and we’re now waiting for him to finish his trilogy.
Whether you have a team of writers or you’re working solo, sometimes it’s best to take a step back and look at your portfolio and see what’s been working. You might discover a pattern in your writing, or a recurring theme (Raymond Carver called such themes “obsessions”). Once you recognize the patterns, then you need to figure out whether you’re circling dollar signs or a drain.
These are four of the templates we have stumbled upon with our work. Feel free to use them, and by all means, please share your own template ideas with us.
Christian A. Dumais is the Creative Director at the award-winning Elephate, one of Europe’s premier SEO and Content Marketing agencies. He has decades of experience in journalism, publishing and writing.
Feel free to yell at him on Twitter: @PuffChrissy.