Sell with suspense: a Stephen King master class


I know what you're thinking. What the fuck has Stephen King got to do with copywriting?

You'd be surprised, my friend.

This may seem like a thinly veiled attempt to shoehorn my favourite author into a blog post (and it is), but we're talking about a man who's made millions writing the fiction equivalent of crack cocaine. If you could learn to bring an element of that addictive suspense into your marketing, imagine what you could achieve.

How to steal Stephen King's method

Let's take chapter 25 (Inside 217) of The Shining as an example:

Little Danny has been warned to avoid room 217 but he can't resist it. He steals the passkey and goes in. Disaster ensues.

Let's look at how King hooks his readers and how you can bastardise the technique for your own purposes...

1. He's told you about room 217 before

Before you even arrive at the door of room 217, you already know about it. It's notorious. In chapter 11, Dick Halloran (the cook at the Overlook Hotel) worries about Danny going in. From the very begining you know that something dodgy is in that room and you're just as curious to sneak a look inside as the kid is.

How to use it

Seed an idea of the ultimate outcome at the beginning of your copy. From the very first line, something that hints at the benefit but doesn't give it away, for example:

"Tripling your Facebook likes is easy."

You know it isn't easy. You want this to happen to you. This person clearly knows how to make it happen. If you read the rest of the copy, you'll find out.

2. He hints at a pay-off

In chapter 19, Danny goes back to stand outside room 217. By this point, we know that he's been warned away and has promised not to go in. We know that he's overheard someone saying that they saw something in there.

King teases us with a description of the door, then begins to create an emotion of horror and indecision around passing through it or simply opening it. You want to know what's in there. Danny wants to know what's in there. At the same time, you don't want to know. It's agonising.

How to use it

After your initial hook, outline some resultant benefits but don't give any juicy details just yet. This is all about suggestion. Throw in some bullet points that tell the reader everything they'll get out of the content if they keep reading. Like this:

"By the end of this post, you'll be able to increase customer engagement and page dwell time by creating suspense in your marketing copy."


3. He hits you with the motherload

When the pay-off finally comes, you're well and truly gagging for it (so to speak). King unveils all the bathwater-sodden, gory horror of room 217. Because you've been waiting for so long, you feel immensely rewarded when it finally arrives.

And oh my days.

How to use it

There are a number of ways to deliver the benefit to the reader. In my opinion, this works best when used in one of two ways:

a) Using step 2 to drive traffic to a landing page that contains the pay-off or so they can download a case study/document or eBook.

b) To deliver the goods piece by piece as the 'meat' of your blog post or product page, with the conclusion at the end.

And there you have it! Not just a brilliant late night read, Stephen King is also boss at helping you with marketing collateral, landing pages and email marketing. Bet you thought you'd never see the day!

Emma Cownley