The opening credits play over a long shot of a multi-story apartment complex, a series of rather drab buildings surrounding a courtyard. Set into these buildings we see window after window — some closed with curtains drawn, others giving us glimpses of the various rooms and their occupants.
We get an intriguing look at the odd but endearing collection of everyday folks living out their everyday lives in these buildings, until we finally pull back just enough to realize that we ourselves are gazing out from one of the windows — Jimmy Stewart’s window, to be exact. We then pan downward from Stewart’s face to see that he is in a wheelchair, his leg in a cast.
What is Alfred Hitchcock doing in the opening sequence of his 1954 suspense classic Rear Window? He’s hitting us with a series of revelations. He reveals our environment, then reveals our cast of characters, then reveals our star, then reveals our star’s dilemma. Stewart’s character, L.B. Jeffries, is stuck in his apartment until he heals up, with nothing better to do than observe his wacky neighbors through the window. But he gets more of a show than he’d bargained for when one neighbor’s bedridden wife vanishes from the premises overnight.
Ever seen the same technique used in marketing? You bet you have. It works for a sales letter or web page just as effectively as it does for a film. Hit your reader with a series of colorful, fascinating opening statements while keeping them just off-kilter enough to feel compelled to look further. Stewart’s character feels the same compulsion. Why is Thorwald, the neighbor, coming and going in the middle of the night carrying a suitcase? Wait, are those his wife’s jewels in the suitcase? Where did his wife go? Why is Thorwald washing the bathroom walls? Why is that dog digging so obsessively at the flower bed?…
I won’t reveal the ending, in case you’re one of the three people on the planet who haven’t seen this movie yet. But the way Hitchcock drips information at us one astonishing dollop at a time keeps us on the edge of our set — we have to know what comes next.
You want your marketing content to lead your readers by the hand in exactly the same manner. Dump the whole load of information on them right from the start and it will just land with a thud, like the movie trailer that reduces a two-hour drama to a series of sound bites and car crashes. You have to build your story from one point to the next, giving your reader time to absorb each one.
That’s how you build suspense — in the movies, and in marketing.
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