On the surface, copywriting and fiction writing may seem like wildly different things, with completely unique tool sets. Copywriting is often practical, information-driven, and concise, while fiction can be verbose, emotional, and highly stylized.
However, there are many elements that fiction and copywriting have in common. They both need to be engaging, memorable, and attention-grabbing. They both need to know their audience, have a consistent message and voice, and stand out amongst other writings.
Whether you’re a professional copywriter, a fiction writer who writes copy as a day job, or a business owner or other professional who writes their own copy, fiction techniques can help teach you how to make your copywriting captivating, relatable, and highly effective—and can help you reach your target audience in the best way possible.
Far too often, copy is seen as an afterthought — something thrown together because you have to have it. But focusing on great writing techniques can put you leaps and bounds ahead of your competition.
When you apply fiction techniques to your copywriting, you can more effectively get across your strengths, your vision, and your goals — all of which will help attract your ideal customer base.
To help make your copywriting truly impactful, consider these six important techniques and lessons from fiction writing:
When a reader reads a work of fiction, they don’t just want to read a book. They’re seeking something more.
A fantasy reader may crave the feeling of escape or wish to reclaim a sense of wonder. A romance reader may crave a happy ending. A mystery reader may crave poetic justice or the feeling that any problem is solvable. A formulaic novel can bring a sense of comfort and order to someone who is feeling overwhelmed.
Acceptance, social change, empathy, freedom, hope — these are all reasons why we read fiction.
A fiction writer needs to know why their readers will want their book. They need to know what they are delivering beyond the story. You’re not just giving someone a novel, you’re giving them emotional wish fulfillment.
As a copywriter, you’ll want to be just as aware of your readers’ wants, wishes, and needs (even if they aren’t aware of those things themselves).
If someone is buying a new car, they don’t just want a car — they’re looking to buy safety, or reliability, or luxury. A house can mean stability, or family, or starting over. A need for a lawyer can be a need for justice, or understanding, or security. A restaurant doesn’t just offer food — they offer comfort, or adventure, or convenience.
Consider the difference between the copy for two cars on Volvo’s website:
For the S60: “The Volvo S60 Cross Country boasts a unique mixture of coupe-like style and tough capability to give you the confidence to push the limits — regardless of weather or destination. Black fender extensions and scuff plates showcase its all-road capability. And sculpted sports seats keep you firmly in place through all the twists and turns of the road.”
This copy sells adventure, confidence, and excitement to the potential buyer, with subtle hints towards Volvo’s safety record.
Compare it to the copy for their XC90, which is written to sell the idea of luxury, sophistication, and culture:
“This is what success looks like. At first glance, the XC90’s distinctively proud stance leaves you with a feeling of uncluttered and sophisticated luxury. A familiar theme ensues as you step inside the refined and relaxing interior. Every element works in harmony and is made from the finest materials — such as soft Nappa leather and flame birchwood, with unique handcrafted details like diamond-cut buttons. And a 19-speaker, cutting-edge Bowers & Wilkins sound system designed to transform the XC90 into a Gothenburg Concert Hall, a majestic stage or an epic recording studio.”
When writing academic or instructive copy, the same idea holds true. People aren’t just looking for programming advice — they may be looking for an intellectual challenge or job security. They’re not just looking for budgeting ideas — they’re looking for safety, or self-improvement, or peace of mind.
Once you identify what your reader truly wants, deep down, you’ll be able to more effectively give them what they need.
Theme is possibly the most important element of fiction writing. While plot, character, and style/voice are all essential elements, theme unites them all and makes them into something meaningful. The success of a story isn’t just in what is happening, or to whom, or how beautifully or innovatively it’s told — the success of a story is often in why it’s told.
Harry Potter isn’t about a boy wizard — it’s about love as the ultimate power. The Great Gatsby isn’t about pining after a lost love and throwing opulent parties — it’s about the futility of chasing the American dream.
Theme is the overall message that ties everything together. It’s the intended conclusion, lesson, or message that the author wishes to express. It’s what draws us to great fiction, and it’s why fiction can so deeply affect how we view our own lives and behaviors.
Staying true to your theme also has a practical advantage for a copywriter — it can keep your writing focused and tight. When you are sure all the elements of your work are, under the surface, expressing elements of the same message, your writing will feel complete, confident, and cohesive.
Theme is not at all exclusive to fiction writing; awareness of it can be an inestimable help to copywriters, as well. Whether you’re writing product descriptions, a lawyer’s bio, or the “About Us” for a grocery store website, having a focused, clear message can give any writing depth and purpose.
When you know why you are writing, it’s far easier for a reader to know why they should bother reading.
Finding a theme can also give a unified feel to all of your copy (and even improve your brand consistency). For example, if you are writing copy for an organic farmer’s market, the theme may be something like, “The importance of sustainable eating in the face of climate change,” or “The value of shopping locally to support your economy.” After settling on one of these themes, you have a starting point for how to write the market’s website copy, their social media posts, their ads, etc.
Perhaps more importantly, potential customers reading your copy will know why they should support this farmer’s market. They’ll understand the ethics, goals, and practices of the company — and why they should want to shop there.
Consider this copy from the Ithaca Farmers Market’s website:
“Come, relax, and take in the sites of one of the country’s best farmers markets. Our market and vendors are all about promoting “joyous commerce.” We make it fun to shop, and to connect to your community.
We operate from a belief that local goods are a linchpin of our economy.
The Ithaca Farmers Market is an owner-operated cooperative market with over 160 members, who grow or produce their wares within 30 miles of the pavilion. You’ll find a full spread at the market with something for everyone — hot prepared foods for those in need of a meal, a full spread of vegetables, fruit, pastured meat, bakeries, and exceptionally crafted artisanal gifts for your loved ones.
At the market, you know it’s fresh. You have the opportunity to buy right from the grower. Sometimes, they just picked it that very morning! And if one of our artisan’s work strikes your fancy, you know it was skillfully and creatively made by the person you’re buying it from. Spectacular breakfast and lunch offerings provide something for everyone’s taste… whether it’s local flavor or from a host of international cuisines.”
This focus on knowing the source of your purchased goods also continues on their Instagram account, where local farmers and farms are featured. Their whole brand has a solid mission, and potential customers know exactly why they should shop there.
Theme is one of the most certain ways to develop a solid mission and vision, and to then have potential customers or clients understand that vision.
In fiction, static or one-note characters are seldom successful. In real life, people are rarely flat and simple; a fictional character who is written that way will seem wildly unrealistic, to the point of being unrelatable and uninteresting.
A compelling character is complex, with unique traits, interests, and values. People connect far more with characters they can imagine to be real or who they can personally identify with.
Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a crime-solving genius; he plays violin, is arrogant, follows his morals strictly, and is cold to everyone but Watson. Gandalf isn’t only a wise mentor; he loves to smoke, has a quick temper, is fond of simple innocence (possibly to a fault), and has a great sense of humor.
When writing copy (either for yourself or a client), it’s important to think of whomever you are writing about (whether yourself or your clients) as characters. You want them to be as compelling as a strong fictional character, with a depth and realness that will make them relatable.
Even when writing copy for someone with professional authority (a doctor, lawyer, or politician, for example), it’s important to present them as full people. Focus not just on their professional skills, but also their relevant traits, such as warmth, honesty, loyalty, family devotion, etcetera.
For instance, if you are writing copy about a medical malpractice lawyer, you could highlight the parts of his personality that would appeal to his potential clients, such as his dedication, persistence, reliability, sense of justice, intellect, etcetera. You could even include personal stories from his life that prove that this is who he is, even outside of the courtroom.
Revealing more depth of character not only can make your client (and, by extension, your copy) more interesting, it can also make it more believable. We know that someone is never solely one thing, so if they try to present themselves as that, we can feel a sense of distrust — even if we can’t put our finger on why.
Characters that are excessively clichéd are also best avoided. A stereotypical, stock character lacks any unique details and is something readers are far too familiar with (the knight in shining armor, the all-knowing mentor, the mad scientist, etcetera).
This depth is also incredibly useful if you are writing copy for a client you have hard time connecting with. For example, a former client of mine was an auto shop — something I’m not particularly interested in or knowledgeable about. In their current copy, the mechanics were presented in a very stereotypical manner — overly masculine, gruff, and only interested in racing.
However, after talking with them and digging a bit more, they showed themselves to be anything but stereotypical. They were incredibly warm and caring, and consistently referred to putting their heart and passion into their work. They also all shared a strong interest in the environment and in using methods and tools that were sustainable, yet cost-effective.
After discovering all of these details, I was able to update their copy to better reflect their true personalities, instead of the stereotype they thought they should present themselves as. Now, their copy better reflects them as the unique, memorable, distinct mechanics they are — which helps them stand out from their competition.
Clichés don’t stand out; we don’t care about them. Even when the plot is great, the action is wonderful, and the dialogue snaps, if the characters aren’t people we connect with, we won’t remember them.
You want your copy to be remembered. You want your copy — and your client — to stand out.
Fiction can sometimes be as much about the language, style, and voice as the plot, characters, or theme. I’ve reread certain novels (usually by Douglas Adams or Ray Bradbury) countless times just to enjoy the way the author uses the language itself.
In copywriting, it can be all too easy to overlook the artistic elements of writing. The goal of copy is often to get across information in a clear, straightforward manner — any concerns regarding language beyond that can feel frivolous or unnecessary.
But the goal of copy isn’t just to share information, it’s to share it effectively. Just like in fiction, you have to grab a reader’s interest, and once you have their attention, you have to hold onto it. Writing with a natural flow, rhythm, and musicality is a fantastic way to do that.
Fortunately, creating copy with flow, style, and even beauty, doesn’t have to be overly complicated; a simple yet powerful way to create this is by paying attention to and varying your sentence lengths.
If your sentences are all the same length, a reader can easily zone out or have a hard time digesting what they’re reading. For example:
Short sentences seem simple. They can have impact. They are often clear. But they get monotonous. They can sound robotic. It feels very forced. It can sound awkward. There is no flow. People can tune out.
Overly long sentences, or runon sentences, can become overwhelming very quickly because they provide a lot of information at once with no pause to take it in or digest what you are reading and so the reader can become very overstimulated or confused and will stop paying attention. It’s even worse when you pile a lot of long sentences together because they never get a break and no information stands out as important because you present it all equally and so there’s no focus and everything gets muddled together and so nothing important is retained.
It’s best to vary your sentence length. It gives your reader a break and allows them to process information, while also keeping you from sounding stiff or rambling. It doesn’t have to be overly literary or verbose, but a little style can go a long way. Sometimes, beauty is practical.
When you pay attention to the rhythm of your writing, you’ll add a natural, easy musicality that will make your copy a pleasure to read.
Fiction often follows a standard story structure. Most of us are familiar with set-up, conflict, climax, and resolution. Even if we don’t know the terms, we’ve seen this played out so often — in everything from fairy tales, to comic books, to Hollywood blockbusters — that we are deeply aware of it.
There’s a good reason so many fiction writers, for millennia, have used this narrative structure: we’re wired for it.
Our brains are set up to respond to story; for thousands of years, we’ve used stories as a means of survival and education. Our ancestors would sit around the campfires and tell stories of dangerous hunts, poisonous berries, or extreme weather. We’d learn from their conflicts and apply the information to our own lives.
Today, our brains still work the same way. We crave urgency and we crave knowledge. We have to know what happens next, and why, and how, and we need to see resolution, good or bad.
Stories teach us how to deal with grief, how to recognize villains, and how to win over our true love. And they almost always follow a similar pattern: setup, conflict, climax, and resolution.
As a copywriter, you can take advantage of our story-centric wiring. While it may not be instinctive to think of story structure while writing a blog post, website copy, or a company newsletter, applying story structure can make your copy incredibly engaging.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced when writing copy is making people want to read; copy is rarely read for enjoyment or out of desire. It can be viewed as a chore, or as drudgery. And if your copy is written in a way that doesn’t engage the reader, that’s exactly what it will be.
If you follow a classic story structure, however, you’ll grab the reader’s attention. They’ll feel like they have to keep reading, and when they do, they’ll find it enjoyable, stimulating, and rewarding. They’ll take in more of the information you present, and they’ll find it far more memorable.
Keep in mind that a narrative structure doesn’t have to be intensely dramatic. A simple, subtle setup, conflict, and resolution can work wonderfully. All you need to do is present a problem your reader may face and then present your solution for that problem.
For instance, if you’re writing copy for a plumbing company’s landing page, you can begin by presenting a simple setup: having guests over for a holiday weekend. A conflict: A guest toilet has clogged and is threatening to overflow. A climax: It’s the weekend, and the reader is certain they’ll find no help and their guests’ trip will be ruined. And a resolution: Your plumbing company provides 24/7 emergency service and can have your problem solved in less than three hours.
Not only will you have engaged the reader and given them something they are instinctively wired to finish reading, you’ll also be highlighting the plumbing company’s abilities and best qualities in a way that feels natural and unforced — and that’s always a good thing.
Don’t be afraid to use a strong narrative structure to hook them in and keep them reading.
Speaking of hooking them in…
The first line of a work of fiction is incredibly important. It sets the tone for the work. It clues you in, quickly, to the writer’s ability to engage you. It has to grab your interest, pique your curiosity, and give you a clue as to what lies ahead.
In copywriting, your first line is just as important — if not more so.
When someone picks up a book, or settles in with a short story, they’re in the mood to be entertained. They’re looking to be engaged. Often, when someone comes across copy, you’re having to fight for their attention.
People are usually not reading copy for the sake of entertainment or relaxation. They’re coming to you for information, and they’re likely searching multiple places for that information (or may have even come across your copy unintentionally, especially if it’s ad copy).
You’re competing with multiple elements: distractions, other sources, their emotional/mental state, etcetera. You have to craft an opening that stands out and demands their attention.
Whether it’s a social media ad that shows up in their Instagram feed, a sales flyer that’s mixed in with someone’s mail, or the blurb that pops up next to your website in search results, you need to craft a perfect first line that will grip them when they aren’t expecting it.
If you’re writing copy for a service, it’s also likely that people may be frustrated, overwhelmed, or stressed when they come across your copy. If their roof is leaking and they’re trying to find someone to repair their home, you need to craft a first line that is authoritative, reassuring, and interesting enough to get their attention despite the fact they’re distracted by their situation.
You can even take an awkward or uncomfortable subject and use your first line(s) to make it compelling and fun, such as the opening lines on Squatty Potty’s website (who won a Webby Award for Best Copywriting in 2016):
“The Squatty Potty will make your bad poops good and your good poops great.”
After a line like that, your client is likely to be smiling and at ease — and happy to read more.
If you’ve applied other tips from great fiction writing (theme, good characterization, knowing your readers’ wants, etcetera), it will make writing a captivating first line far easier. When you know exactly what your reader wants, exactly what your message is, and the “characters” you are writing about, you’ll have a far better idea what the “hook” of your copy should be.
You need to reach out and grab the reader right from the beginning, especially in copywriting.
In copywriting, as in fiction, you want to stand out. You want to have a clear vision, a strong message, rich characters, musicality, and an engaging arc. You want to grab the reader immediately and make them feel as if they have to keep reading.
Even if you aren’t a fiction writer, you can apply elements of fiction writing and novels to your copy, making sure you rise above the copious amounts of copy that your target reader sees every day.
If you focus on theme, character development, rhythm, story structure, and hooking your reader immediately, your writing will be strong, focused, clear, and captivating — and will help develop brand identity and customer trust.
Great copy is great writing; treat it as such, and people will be eager to read it.
Amanda Kaye Stein graduated from the Academy of Art University with an A.A. in Fashion Design (focus on Fashion Illustration and Creative Writing). She’s worked as a freelance writer, editor, social media manager, graphic designer, artist, and comedy improv performer. She’s an aspiring novelist, YouTube creator, and ukulele rock star.