4 Classic Short Story Rules You Need to Apply to Web Pages

Old book

A couple of weeks ago I subscribed to a genius thing called Highbrow, a collection of courses that you get through bitesized email content, on everything from ancient cities to mind-bending puzzles.

My first course was classic short stories. It finished today and, despite historically LOATHING short stories, I enjoyed every single one.


Listen – I’m a commercial writer, right? Namby-pamby poetic stuff isn’t part of my daily grind; I peddle my craft with the science of language. But I realised something: these majestic short stories can teach us a whole lot about how to make a good web page.

1. You need a beginning, a middle and an end

It’s short, that’s kind of the point of a short story. But short doesn’t mean incomplete.

Every single story has to have a clear structure that satisfies the reader’s curiosity. Problem > Solution > Action is probably the most common in marketing because it answers a potential customer’s needs: ah man I can’t do this thing > oh, here is a way to get round it > and here’s what I need to do next – brilliant.

I never found short stories satisfying because I felt I needed more – I was left wanting by modern authors. But I now know that the old classics don’t do that at all. They’re a complete world in a few pages. Your website is the same.

Remember I wrote about how you can use storytelling archetypes to write great brand copy?

2. Your semantic field is what fuels love or hate

A bizarre phenomenon I noticed while I was reading these short stories is that I wasn’t actually reading every single word. I think because they’re short, I was smashing through them at a quicker pace. BUT I was still building amazing pictures in my head! Rather than reading each word one-by-one, the descriptive words were sort of rising up together to form a cloud of imagery.

That’s all a load of nonsense of course. But this isn’t: your semantic field (word cloud) is what makes the tone of the page.


  • Golden – Warmth – Rich – Vivid – Goodness – Brilliance
  • Bold – Strength – Future – Build – Strive – Foundation
  • Pain – Alone – Need – Suffer – Abandoned – Cold – Cry

How do those make you feel? Whatever industry you’re in, don’t think descriptive ‘feeling’ words don’t come into it. It’s always worth using imagery to transfix and transport your audience.

3. Develop a character your audience identifies with

In a short story, writers have very little time in which to get their reader hooked on what’s going to happen to the main character. A web page is a tiny snapshot of your brand but you have to sell your whole ethos through it. And you typically have under a minute of your audience’s attention.

A big part of selling yourself (stop that tittering at the back, Roberts) is the glorious word cloud I talked about above because it almost tricks your visitor into feeling emotional towards the content.

Another part is how you welcome the reader in as a confidant, an equal and a collaborator. You’re sharing your knowledge with them, supporting their journey and generally inviting them to be part of the us, we and you team.

4. It’s not about how long it SHOULD be

A story is as long as a piece of string. Your web page should be as long as it needs to be to be finished.

Don’t pad your pages out because you think they should be longer (one man whose short stories I dislike is Dickens – he was paid per word and his stories are as over-descriptive as a loquaciously verbose wordsmith set stumbling loose in a word factory of dark and demeaning squalor) because then you’re putting content your audience doesn’t need on your site, which you pay for and want to make money from.

You think of a house in cost per square foot. Think of the valuable real estate of your website in the same terms: every word should be worth the pixels it’s using up.

But equally, don’t rush to the point where you think the copy looks OK on the page and then go play tennis. If we’re really going to have the ‘how long is long enough?’ conversation: Google’s latest vibes would suggest longer copy (if it’s good) will always win because it’s probably going to answer the searcher’s question in more depth.

If you missed it, go read my article about using traditional storylines to build a brand story people love to read.