Some of you but not all of you will have heard of Chekhov’s gun. Some of you but not all of you may not even know who Anton Chekhov was. Well, let me regale you with the minor details if you don’t, to bring you up to speed. Chekhov was a Russian playwright. He had a rule, a rule he believed would lead to a better, improved script and that any play should apply this rule if it were to be successful.
And he should know because he was a successful playwright and short story writer in his day.
Even now, many of his plays are as potent today as they were in the 19th century and some of his most successful include Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and my personal favourite, Three Sisters. He was also a practising doctor and was once quoted as saying “Medicine is my lawful wife", and literature is my mistress." which says all that’s needed to for us to see where his true love lay in terms of writing and medicine.
Chekhov’s rule was known as “Chekhov’s gun” because he believed that if you introduced a gun into the first act of a play, you must use it by the third, or at least by the end, or even at all. Because otherwise, what was the point of having it there if you didn’t?
This rule is often applied to screenwriting and a comparison is often made between that and copywriting. They are not dissimilar in that they both require good storytelling, they both need to reel a viewer or reader in, and keep their attention until the very end, and refer to it every now and again, teasing the reader enough so they keep watching/reading.
I only came across Chekhov’s gun the other day and I’ve been struggling to think of where it applies in copywriting. The most obvious would be email sequencing (where you can really stretch out the tease), and long-form sales pages, but that requires more skill in many ways because it’s all on the same page and the tease requires perfect craftsmanship.
At the end of the day, it’s all about telling stories and converting passive readers into active buyers. No lists, no boring bullet list of facts or densely packed paragraphs of tedium. We want to tease out the offer (gun) and make sure we bring it out at the beginning, tease it out in the middle and bring it back for the end for a great, big, fat finale of an ending.
It’s all about how you can look at the issues the customer has (1), Identify the problem, talk about how we can resolve it (2), and (3) what you can give them in order for it to solve the problem - whether that be an offer or a freebie (that will eventually lead to an offer.).
Don’t draw attention to something delicious in the form of a value-added freebie or a buy-in offer unless you’re going to address it and refer to it again and then add it at the end. If you have a gun, use it (but don’t overuse it), or it could be a bomb, or a stick of dynamite….use your imagination, you get the picture. Let it explode in technicolour splendour at the end.
Something at the beginning (here’s the gun), then go and talk about something else for a bit, (then come back to it, a little teaser), then finally, bing, bang bosh, refer to it again at the end. Bang! All the while weaving your storytelling around it like a boss.
What is your gun? Do you know when to draw it out, when to leave it alone and then bring it back in again?
Best used in - email sequences, long-form sales pages. One-off sales letters.
When your back’s to the wall
“When your back is against the wall, there is only one thing to do, and that is turn around and fight.”
Someone said on social media last week, or the week before that, (who knows, all weeks blend into one another when you’re in and out of lockdown) said they were only good when their back was to the wall, or perhaps not in so many words, just that when they were under pressure they performed at their best.
And I had to agree.
Sometimes it has to take something major and quite stressful to kick your butt into action, to get your cognitive ass off the floor and start thinking on your feet.
Not all of us instinctively jump out of bed and run to the desk coming up with ideas, offers and fresh courses or new brand identities.
But I guess you’re going to ask -
“Well, really, who does?”
But what I’m really trying to say is that some people are always “on it,” and that’s okay, even when there’s no crisis looming over the horizon or recession just over the brow of the hill.
And then there’s those of us who need to be on the cusp of bricking it and thinking “Jesus, I need to act...and fast!”
Which way is the right way? or perhaps a better way of asking might be
“Which way gets the best results?”
Does “always on it” lead to burn out, or does “Holy shit I need to get my act together” lead to burned out and finished quicker?
Or can the two be just down to who we are, inherent in our genetic makeup, our environment and the way we’re made? What works for one person might not work for another.
At the beginning of lockdown back in March, I thought we could make it, it wasn’t that bad, was it?
Now, I’m scared.
And in that fear, I must find a way forward because it’s better than giving in to the fear, anything is better than than that. My cognitive ass is now in level 5, whatever that is…
If you’re feeling the stress, and the anxiety and the agony of carrying on as normal when you don’t even know what normal is anymore, I feel you.
The only comfort we can take is that we are all in this together, and together we’ll get through to the other side.
There’s one book I’ve always wanted to read and that’s Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It sits beautifully in its orange hardback cover, the swirls of electric blue travelling down the page, tempting me to open the pages within. I need to read and I will. I strongly advise that you do too because it doesn’t have to about copywriting to inspire your lazy brain cells into action.
I still haven’t finished reading Sophy Roberts’ The Lost Pianos of Siberia, I so regret this and fully intend getting back into it asap.
Finally, talking about finishing books, I still need to finish Gary Halbert’s The Boron Letters. If really do want a copywriting book to read, read this. I shall leave you with his salutary words -
“Everyone wants to climb the mountain, but the big difference between those at the top and those still on the bottom is simply a matter of showing up tomorrow to give it just one more shot.”
Gary Halbert, The Boron Letters
If you’re struggling, remember this, all we need to do is simply show up and try. That’s all any of us can do.